The Internet is buzzing with pictures of an awkward meet & greet experience: Avril Lavigne & her Brazilian fans. Reportedly, the fans paid 215 pounds to ‘meet’ Avril. Greeting her was out of question. As most pictures reveal, standing next to her or embracing her were not an option. Now, I’m all for treating the celebrity not as a pet or commodity of the fans, but isn’t this also a matter of mutual ‘love’? Or is it really about, as Michael Hann from the Guardian states, putting a price on (that) love?
In the Backstreet Boys fandom ‘buying’ your meet & greet is happening for a few years already. I’ll spill some research beans here…
In his article, Hann argues that the meet & greet of Avril is an example of modern life. He further explains that these packages to meet your artist are due to
a) the growth of gigs as destinations for corporate hospitality, and
b) the decrease in income from recorded music (we don’t buy music anymore)
This latter reason is explained as artists providing the most loyal fans with new levels of access. I do agree with that artists offer a new level of access to their fans, but isn’t this also about an experience? About dreams coming true? About finally seeing or feeling that these artists are real people too?
I must say, that I was quite surprised the first time I heard about the ‘VIP-packages’ on offer for Backstreet Boys fans. When I started with my interviews, there were just rumors of a tour about to happen in Europe. There were no dates announced or prices for the shows. But, the fans I interviewed back then already told me (in the first interview) about this system of VIP tickets (upgrades to your normal entrance ticket), a cruise in the Bahamas with the boys, and Skype calls with one of the guys (for which the fan has to pay and the money is being donated to a foundation). And when I heard what they paid for this I just had to include a new question on my topic list: Do you save money for BSB-related practices (the concert(s) – the cruise – anything else)? I was eager to learn more about their motivations for doing this… Now, because my research is still full on in development I can’t spill much ‘research beans’, but the statement Hann makes in his article is too short-sided:
He writes the following about fans & the VIP packages:
“VIP packages and meet-and-greets don’t reward the most loyal fans; they reward those with the deepest pockets. Or worse, they reward those whose desire to have some point of contact with their favourite artist overrides their sense of financial probity.
The most loyal fans are the ones queuing overnight to be sure of a place in the front row. They’re the ones who track down the live recordings and the radio session version, and who read every word about their chosen artist. They’re the ones who already spend a fortune buying all the music and gig tickets and travelling to the shows. The last thing they need is to have a little bit more gouged out of them.”
Drawing on my data, the people I talked to all belonged to the group Hann labels the ‘most loyal fans’. Ok, except the queuing bit, because they need to be there super early for the meet & greet, but don’t have to queue up further because the upgrade allows them to get in earlier, so for this bit, yes, I need to admit that they ‘buy’ their way in. But, this comes with the ‘price’ that they nevertheless need to wait just as long as the others before the gig starts, before they’ll see the boys perform, so in essence this process of waiting is still quite alike. What disturbs me here is that Hann draws a strong distinction between ‘the ones with the deepest pockets’ aka ‘the VIP packages buyers’ and the ‘most loyals fans who queue up’…
Why can’t the most loyal fans buy VIP packages too? Do they only buy this VIP package as a momentum to show of their economic capital (instead of their fan capital)? They also track down live recordings, radio versions, and still read every word (or follow every Twitter/ Facebook/ Instragram account of the Backstreet Boys and their wives!). They indeed already spend a fortune buying the albums, tickets to (most of the time not one but at least three) shows, and travelling there (which is for many of the fans I interviewed often besides two concerts in the Netherlands, also to a gig in Belgium, Germany and/or the UK, heck, some even went at some point to the States to see a gig).
Does this mean that these fans are ‘gouged out’ by the industry? Maybe. I’ll try to offer several perspectives here – no judgment intended, no super interesting results yet revealed:
1) VIP packages for the Backstreet Boys aren’t cheap either. Fans can buy upgrades ranging from 99 to 599 dollars (and to be honest: most of these fans are working / have some savings, so 99 dollar for a soundcheck is not immediately gouging them out). Why would they buy these? Because they ‘love’ (see Duffet’s chapter in his book on Popular music fandom about how complex this conception is) the boys and now they have the opportunity to meet them, give them a hug and / or talk to them in person. This in person bit matters most… It’s about the experience and about the ability that people are – in their current moment in life – able to buy these tickets. Back in the ’90s these packages weren’t available yet.
2) Some of the fans don’t want to ‘stalk’ or ‘invade’ the boys in a public area / in their ‘leisure time’. Some fans don’t like other fans who wait at their hotels and grab them in the streets. These fans see the VIP ticket as an opportunity to meet them (for most of them it’s a dream come true, and something they’ll only do once).
3) Yet, some prefer to wait for the boys till they come out of their hotels and only ‘want’ to see them in their ‘natural behavioural mode’. These fans would probably never buy a VIP ticket, but they would buy an upgrade to the ‘fan pit’ or ‘golden circle’ area, the areas where you stand closest to the stage. These fans also would buy a ticket to an afterparty of a show, where they can see the boys in a different setting than on stage.
4) Some fans indeed travel to different countries, go ‘on tour’ with the boys or book a Backstreet Boys cruise. But often this is not just about their love for the boys or their music, it’s also about friendship & travelling (will dive deeper into this in my paper).
5) And yes, they do save money to be able to do these things.
Now, I do not want to provide a list of counter-arguments or to argue over who is the ‘best’ fan, I just want to point out that we should see these VIP packages not just as a commercial item. It’s much more in the eyes of the fans. If it enables them to ‘do’ certain things that they feel they need to do as fan, than it’s also a tool of empowerment. It allows them to take certain steps, to commit certain practices. And yes, this is highly commercial, but it’s also just one dimension or aspect of what a fan has to/can deal with. They can opt to participate in this. Being a fan – in my eyes – is about showing various levels of investment. Whether one does that by listening to the music, watching clips on YouTube or visiting five concerts in three different countries… Ultimately, being a fan, is about much more than this commercial dimension.