The Artist-Fan Relationship: Patience, Trust & Promises

How do artists keep fans engaged while not raising their expectations so high it will break their trust?
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On some level, we’re all looking for someone or something to believe in. Be it our partners, our families, or our favorite artists; we come from a lineage of cultures placing importance on people and phenomena seemingly larger than ourselves. It feels good to sit back and look outward; it feels good to rely on someone else, and when that someone comes through, it feels good to have our expectations met. We build our relationships on patience, trust, and the existence and subsequent fulfillment of promises. Relationships are urging, and when we apply them to music, their benevolence comes into question.

What I mean is, the artist-fan relationship is as wrought as any other relationship in our lives. This relationship is a symbiotic minefield wherein two—or more—people have to navigate endless expectations, dehumanization, and disappointment. Both the artist and the fan must have more than a fraction of patience and trust for the other; both parties are continually making and breaking promises. Everything about the artist-fan relationship feels like a jagged, two-way street.

Consider the way patience works in the release cycle. An artist like Berhana, 27, regularly practices patience by releasing at his own pace—regardless of current release trends and fan expectations. “It gives me my time to grow,” the Atlanta-born, LA-based R&B singer-songwriter told us earlier this year. “It allows my taste to change and allows me to learn things, live life.”

Of course, an artist is entitled to that time. Living life—and feeling like you’re ready to drop—is crucial to releasing quality music. The more experience you have in the real world, the more chance your music stands to impress listeners with its content.

“You do have to remember there are other people who want to listen to your songs and they have an idea of what they want from you.”—Berhana, “Berhana Is Comfortable Practicing Patience: Interview

Fans practice patience by waiting alongside their favorite artists without losing hope. Some handle this waiting better than others. In an era where artists and record labels bombard us with music, it can feel almost offensive to make fans wait for new music. This is where the trust comes in. Fans who are patient with their favorite acts implicitly trust them to release quality music; their quality is the light at the end of the long road to release day. Conversely, while working for extended periods, artists have to trust their fans will be with them after a handful of years spent waiting.

With music as accessible as it is, fans can afford to be more fickle than ever. If you waste a fan’s time and trust with an inferior product, they can easily look elsewhere for their cathartic relief.

For a prime example, look no further than the four-year gap between Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE and Blonde. Die-hard fans enamored by Ocean’s GRAMMY-winning 2012 work likely went through an emotional ride in the years between his two albums, not to mention the dramatics of Endless. Nonetheless, fans who trusted in Ocean were rewarded with a richer listening experience than casual fans who pressed play out of curiosity. As the proclaimed best album of the decade, pressing play on Blonde after years of conscious waiting posed an immense payout. Expectations were met and exceeded. Promises leftover from the quality of channel ORANGE were kept. Ocean rewarded his fans’ patience.

Yet, three years removed from the success of Blonde, Frank Ocean fans find themselves in familiar waters. Can Frank pull off a Blonde-level album and make the wait-time worth it again? Considering the quality of Blonde, trust for Frank Ocean must be at an all-time high. But will it remain that way? Only time will tell—the most infuriating element of the artist-fan relationship.

Social media complicates the relationship even further—especially in the realm of promises kept. A tweeted release date is a promise to be broken, as is a snippet of a single never released, or an interview citing a forthcoming album or collaboration lost to the ether. Even a photo in the studio or with another artist can signal to fans a promise made. There are incredible stakes for artists who put themselves on display. Excitement can often get the better of artists who want to share their creative process with their fans. Likely, artists don’t think of their teasing new music and their works-in-progress as promises. But each new snippet is a new expectation to be met by fans. If this all feels a little insidious, it’s because it is.

At this point, the conversation of dehumanization must come into play. As fans, in our quest to find something to believe in, we’ve forgotten the essential element making our favorite acts so special to us: They are simply people. “I try to keep in mind that artists are still just human,” writes one Twitter user. Talent does not necessarily mean an artist is a messiah. Entertainment is a profession, not a ticket to prophet-status. It might help fans’ patience and strengthen their trust to remember an artist’s promise is not always made knowingly. Just as people in interpersonal relationships unwittingly hurt each other, so too can artists and fans. People are people, nothing more. Perhaps it is best to adjust expectations accordingly.

Thankfully, this measured approach to the artist-fan relationship does not fall on deaf ears. A quick survey on Twitter tells us fans fall into two distinct categories: They either feel they are owed nothing from their favorite artists, or they feel like they’re engaged in a constant trust-fall with their favorite acts. Neither position is inherently better than the other. It is fascinating, however, to see fans admit they expect very little from artists, despite putting their faith in them.

“I trust my faves until they give me a reason not to,” writes another Twitter user. “Once the trust is broken, I don’t get as excited for releases, nor do I subscribe to the hype around guessing when their work is gonna drop, I just consume it upon release.” Of all the commentary on Twitter, this was the most reasonable response, one that showcased the various pulleys of the artist-fan relationship in action.

First, we have the patience and trust moving in unison, assuming the quality of the artist’s music is up to snuff. Then, there’s the implication of a promise made and broken—likely the quality of the newer music going down substantially. Now we have a fan’s broken trust, which leads to a lack of patience, which leads to the kiss of death: apathy. The worst outcome for an artist is an apathetic fan base. You want your listeners to ride for you and with you along your creative journey. If once-fans see you as another release to listen to on album day, and nothing more, cracks in your career will start to form.

The symbiotic acts of dropping and consuming music are not so clear cut. The artist-fan relationship cultivates in the space between albums. How do artists keep fans engaged while not raising their expectations so high it will break their trust? How do fans keep their expectations in check while remaining in love with their favorite artists? How do we keep our collective humanity at the forefront of our minds? These are the difficult questions subconsciously bubbling up between releases.

Patience feels antithetical to hip-hop now, but when exercised by both artists and fans, it can be rewarded. Or it can be a dud. Ultimately, there are no guarantees in music.

Perhaps Twitter user and writer Yami puts it best: “It’s their creative expression. If I no longer fuck with it... it is what it is.” 

So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.

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