Monday, June 6, 2016

Don't Diss the Fans!

Art and politics are, and have always been, uneasy neighbors. After all, artists are no different from the rest of us. They have opinions, whether on politics or religion or life in general, and they face a choice as to how to express them. Whether we read a novel or watch a movie, listen to a song or admire a painting in a gallery, we usually get at least glimpse of the creator's worldview, and, as they say in certain circles, it's a feature, not a bug.

Sometimes, this worldview is expressed so strongly, and contradicts our own so entirely, that we as consumers have choices of our own.

1. We can question or change our own assumptions and beliefs (unlikely).

2. We can ignore the parts of the creator's expressed message that we dislike, but still enjoy the art on the whole. Those of us who are not of the Left are forced to perform this exercise on an almost daily basis as we consume the products of the entertainment industry fueled by values and desires often very different from ours.

3. We can decide to stay away from this particular creator's work altogether and find art more in line with our values and beliefs. While this approach is practiced in some communities, and occasionally gets publicity, it is rare among garden-variety consumers. After all, it is easier to endure an occasional offense than entirely give up on something one generally enjoys. But it does happen, and usually for one simple reason.

Brace yourself for the Big Reveal of THE most reliable way for an artist to lose the fans, quite possibly forever.

Ready?

You lose your fans by not giving them the respect they deserve.

When you signal that fans are unimportant to you, suddenly you become unimportant to them.

The best example, at least to those with a memory longer than a few months? Dixie Chicks. In fact, a couple of days ago, a friend used "Dixie Chicked" as a verb.

To those in need of a reminder, Dixie Chicks were at the height of their popularity at the start of this century, lauded as the most successful female country band in history and beloved even by most non-county fans for their spirited style and all around talent. Then, they decided to express a political opinion--their opposition to the war in the Middle East--which happened to be at odds with the majority of the country music community. Not a big deal, in itself. Willie Nelson has been a well known hippie, and not just for his attachment to weed, but his fans love him all the more for it. Sure, in the process the Chicks decided to pick a fight with a fellow country singer, but hey, entertainers get into fights, right? Some people's eyebrows were raised, but it mostly blew over.

Until, of course, they famously disavowed both the war and the American President while performing on foreign soil. The fans took it personally, and the reaction was immediate and devastating, culminating in an unprecedented public destruction of Dixie Chicks CD's by former fans. And still I believe the band would have survived the controversy, but they decided to cross yet another line. They declared, unequivocally, that country music as a genre was unworthy, that the fans were ignorant, and from now on, they intended to move into rock.

Leaving aside that fact that their talents were not particularly suited to rock music, they had committed an unforgivable error. They had dismissed the legions of fans who were an integral part of their success, saying essentially, "Oh, you're upset? Ha! We don't need you. We'll move on to a better class of fan and leave you in the dust."

The result, for those who forgot or lost track, has been predictable. Dixie Chicks were praised and defended by the Left, showered with Grammy Awards for their new album, and shortly after just... disappeared. Country music fans have moved on, and rock lovers have never fully embraced their crossover after the initial excitement. I hear the Chicks are back now, taking potshots at Donald Trump at their latest tour. I can't bring myself to care. I, too, have moved on.

Good ol' Willie, though? Still a hippie, still beloved, even with all the legal troubles. Fans are forgiving that way. Unless you diss them.

Not everyone has learned from the Chicks' example, not by a long shot. Recently, we have been hit with two spectacular fan-dissing examples, and the full ramifications are yet to be seen.

First, Bruce Springsteen cancelled his concert in North Carolina to protest the transgender bathroom law. Mind you, Springsteen is a rocker whose music has wide appeal, but he has always especially connected to blue collar audiences. His best, most popular songs speak to the common man. And yes, he is an unabashed liberal who has done fundraisers for Democrats. That is news to no one. Springsteen's conservative fans have accepted that his politics was not theirs and dutifully spent the  big bucks they could not very well afford on his concerts and merchandise.

Then why the outrage now? Because for the first time, Bruce and his band have made a decision to specifically hurt the fans who wanted to see the concert in a place Bruce no longer finds acceptable. It is one thing to boycott a state (foolish and hypocritical for a band who performs overseas in countries with truly oppressive laws, but that's beside the point). It's even OK to cancel a scheduled concert--it happens for a variety of reasons, and fans are used to that. However, to cancel two days in advance, when fans have already booked hotels and non-refundable airline reservations, when some of them were already in town, anticipating what for many would have been one of the most memorable events of the year? To then double down and speak of how everyone involved deserved to be hurt financially while you're sitting on a figurative pile of gold provided by the fans?

THAT is dissing the fans. THAT is telling them you don't care and you don't want "their kind" enjoying your art. The state, the town, the concert venue will recover. The venue, in fact, is likely to have insurance. The fans, the ones for whom Springsteen music has been a soundtrack to their lives? They've been hit where it hurts, and I don't mean the pocketbook. If I had to call it right now, I think there will be a non-trivial percentage of fans who will never set foot at at Springsteen concert, even as they are unable to entirely give up on his old albums.

The next example is more obscure to those not inside the loosely defined geek culture, but is actually more shocking to the outsiders once the facts become better known. Apparently, Captain America, the straight-as-an-arrow superhero originally conceived by two Jewish writers as the ultimate American Nazi fighter, has been... wait for it... a Nazi agent all along. That's right, the brain trust behind Marvel comics, no doubt inspired by near universal embrace of their iconic character by the mainstream thanks to the movie franchise, has decided to spit in the face of life-long fans for the sake of what today passes for originality.

Nerd rage level at the announcement was predictably high. In response, the genius in charge cackled like a villain in a Bond movie and more or less declared the fans had to suck it up. It's too early to say what the damage will be to the Marvel comics brand. Anecdotal evidence points to massive abandonment of subscriptions by once dedicated fans, but only time will tell if those who went away would stay away permanently. In any case, aside from the writers' strange and questionable motivations, in a purely business sense it was a monumentally stupid decision. I only hope Marvel Studios has enough sane players in charge to keep this mess from spilling into the movie franchise.

All of this is a very long way to express a very simple message that creators of any stripe forget at their peril: no matter how big you are, your fans are the ones who made you. Show them respect, or be prepared for the consequences.