Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Thoughts on Groupies

In my last blog post, "Involving Music Fans at Many Levels," I made a list of ways fans can get involved with an artist/band and the music. I invited people to add to the list if I had forgotten anything.

Someone suggested "groupies" so I added it to the list. I think he was using the term as it is commonly associated in music: women who sleep with rock stars as their own claim to fame. But people also use the term "groupie" to describe fans who slavishly seek out attention from their favorite celebrities.

I had forgotten about groupies, but when he suggested it, I remembered when I personally started to use it as a pejorative term. That was when I was spending hours each day at what was then the top figure skating rink in the world. A number of Olympic-level athletes trained there. The rink community was made up of skaters, their parents (I was one of those), coaches, and the staffers who worked there. Anyone else who showed up on a regular basis was viewed with some suspicion. It was a public building so anyone could walk in, but the idea that people would spend their free time there when they didn't need to be there struck us as weird. Didn't they have lives they should be tending to? So in our minds either you had a purpose to be around skating that much or you were a groupie. And being a groupie wasn't good.

The term has also been used in skating to describe certain event-going fans. Here's a quote from a 1996 newspaper article.
Ask Tom Collins, owner of the Tour of World Figure Skating Champions, one of the best-known tours on the skating circuit.

No matter what city his cast of about 30 prominent, award-winning skaters perform in, there will be a core group of regulars filling rink-side seats reserved months in advance.

"Almost like a rock star having a following, we have these skating groupies ... (who) see anywhere from six to 20 shows per year," Collins said.
A couple of more quotes:
  • Skating groupies, a hitherto little known subspecies, followed [Christopher Bowman] wherever he went. "Half athlete, half artist and all showman, national," Sports Illustrated, 2/12/90.
  • Until about ten years ago, figure skating was a relatively genteel sport, free of the fanaticism that has led to injuries and deaths in soccer melees and similar incidents in other sports. Most people who followed the sport or came to competitions were true fans of the sport, rather than groupies. "Fans or Fanatics: How a Few Bad Apples are Ruining Figure Skating," Golden Skate, 3/25/02.
  • All professional sports have their share of groupies. For example:
    When hockey players first start off in the NHL they're pulled in many different directions since they're making all this money and have no idea that the kind of friends they're dealing with are people that are not the kind of people you want around. This goes into the kind of women who end up trapping a lot of hockey players and many of them are addressed as "Puck Bunnies" these are what you call hockey's term for groupies. Many pro athletes are the prime target of these kinds of females who are more interested in them for the financial and sexual aspect. Many of the athletes who are married or dating are with women who started off as groupies. Most of them are young girls 18-25 and most of them are not really educated because women who are educated would not settle for the role of a side dish. "Hockey Players And The Groupies Who Chase Them," Article Click, 4/1/06.
    Within sports there is also a male version of a groupie (albeit, without the sex involved) called a "jock sniffer."
    For a sportswriter, being called a jock sniffer is the worst thing that can happen, worse even than finding out you have to pay for the press box buffet. Being a jock sniffer means you're hanging around the athletes just for the thrill of being in their company, and that you'd never write anything negative, even if it was warranted. No one, not even reporters who ignore "no cheering in the press box" warnings, would call him- or herself a jock sniffer. Sportswriters, in fact, rarely use the term on their colleagues anymore, but that's because they've broken down jock sniffing into categories. The reporter with a slavish devotion to the team on his beat is a "homer." The reporter with a slavish devotion to a particular player would be that player's "bobo," "caddie" or "boy." "Kick Out the Sports!" Flak Magazine, 6/16/03.
    Although no one wants to be labeled a jock sniffer or the equivalent, some people come to their defense and say these guys are just responding to appropriate status cues:
    So instead of admitting -- outside of their fantasy life -- to their desire/dream of meeting with and getting connected to a Bon Jovi, Tiger Woods, or Brad Pitt, they approach the object of their adulation through, for example, the rite of the autograph request (always for someone else, of course) or engineer the desired association through non-fawning conventional means: practical doctor-dentist-financial advisor, career consultant relationships. "Guitars, Gonads, and Groupies Are Wild," Arts & Opinion, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2003.
    Rock music is where groupies are most commonly associated, and some have become minor celebrities for the practice.
  • "A fan is very content to stay home and listen to the music, but the groupie wants to meet them," said Pamela Des Barres, the ultimate groupie who partied with everyone from the Doors to the Who to the Rolling Stones, and whose 1987 autobiography is called "I'm With the Band." "'Almost Famous' to 'Rock of Love': Groupies Then and Now," ABC News, 8/14/09.
  • Modern groupies want their 15-minute share of fame, asserting themselves through tawdry memoirs and talk show gigs. They're passing along trivia about penis size, championing songs written in their honor, and demanding a place in show-biz history. "Groupies," SF Weekly, 7/25/07.
  • [On becoming plaster casters.] Initially it was to get laid because we were shy. And then when we finally got around to learning how to do it, it kind of backfired for me in the sex department, because I wound up being the mold mixer, and I hardly got laid as a result! First it was a shtick to get laid, and then as it progressed, I got this collector's impulse to collect more and more. And then people told me it was art, and it is art in the school of Andy Warhol, art repetition. "Cynthia Plaster Caster: Art with staying power," Salon, 7/12/00.
  • A subset of groupies had a degree of status.
    Such crass approaches are unnecessary for the grandes dames of groupie society, the Super Groupies. Beautiful, usually intelligent, often well-heeled, they are welcome—in fact, sought-after—company. "Manners And Morals: The Groupies," Time, 2/28/69.
    But most did not.
    Which we actually used to look upon as, uh, gas stations.... "Uh, we're in Cincinnati, so...we need to fill 'er up a little." And the other thing about groupies, it wasn't just boinky-boinky. They used to take care of you. They used to rub Vicks on your chest if you had a cold. Sometimes you'd never do anything. Sometimes they were just...nasty. [laughs] Get my drift? [laughs]...I don't miss them. "Keith Richards On Groupies, Mick Jagger And Curing Himself Of Hep C," Huffington Post, 3/28/08.
    This sums it up:
    We mock and deride them, dismiss them as tramps and tarts, in order to disassociate ourselves from the ethos that compels them to give themselves away to total strangers. Groupies, as they are eponymously known, are chicks that follow, fawn over and offer themselves to musicians performing in mostly rock and pop groups. "Guitars, Gonads, and Groupies Are Wild," Arts & Opinion, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2003.
    So, in review, there are two definitions of groupies.

    1. Women who sleep with musicians/athletes as their claim to fame.

    2. Fans whose primary leisure-time activity is following a specific musician/athlete to as many events as possible. In most cases these are harmless people who just enjoy watching performances rather than obsessed fans who qualify as stalkers.

    What ties the two categories together is that (1) they are fans and (2) they are viewed with some distain.

    Based on some conversations I have had, athletes/musicians/celebrities tend to have an ambivalent view of those they think of as groupies. On the plus side, they view having groupies as an indication that someone admires them; on the minus side, they would prefer to hang out with their peers (which the groupies, by definition, are not). Groupies are people whose claim to fame is that they hang out with celebrities, not that they have done anything noteworthy themselves. Therefore they aren't perceived by celebrities as being very interesting. Groupies aren't doing enough in their own lives to need to be anywhere but hanging out with the celebrities. They don't have any important meetings to go to. Or any important parties to be at. The only people who admire groupies are those who are doing even less with their lives.

    Groupies aren't even part of the entourage, which is made up of people who, while not necessarily famous themselves, have at least earned their access legitimately, either because they work for the celebrity, are long-time friends, or are relatives.

    Celebrities also can feel uncomfortable with groupies because some have had bad encounters with obsessed fans.
  • Stars have to try to balance the notion of staying relevant and getting press with releasing too much personal information, [fame psychology expert James] Houran said.

    "The more a celebrity discloses about themselves, the more they make a fan think they know them in a way that they really don't," Houran said. "Could you become a celebrity stalker?" CNN, 11/05/09.
  • Celebrities are always trying to build walls around themselves, literally and figuratively, and those walls cost money.

    This week, rapper 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, admitted that he spends $20,000 a week on security at his Farmington, Connecticut, mansion.

    "My home is surrounded by cameras. I need surveillance not only to look out for me but also to protect me. You get all these crazy lawsuits, and I need cameras to check on things," the 33-year-old told the entertainment news service WEN. "Celebs shell out big bucks for security," CNN, 11/06/09.
  • But for the most part, groupies aren't viewed as dangerous, and depending on the whim of the celebrity, are sometimes encouraged to hang around, and sometimes not. That's the dilemma. Groupies are kind of appreciated, but not really.

    What made me think they are worth writing about is that musicians are currently being told to actively court fans, in ways far more involved than in the past. Internet interactivity is allowing musicians to connect more directly with fans. Many social media advocates feel this is good (e.g., Tribes, 1,000 True Fans).

    Taking it a step further, they are saying that musicians and other celebrities should consider selling access as part of a tiered direct-to-fan offering.
    ... being able to talk to them, or be with them, or have events that they're involved in. Say you really like a band and you sign up for a subscription. From that you get early access to tickets to concerts, you can get the best seat, you can get backstage passes. Interview: Mike Masnick, Techdirt's Founder," The Guardian, 1/11/07.
    But others are starting to write about the tradeoffs.
    In the age of the super-fan, the musician is charged with conveying the idea that his or her music is worth $100 a year of various and sundry purchases, some or even most of which may not involve actual music. I am not saying that this can't be done, I'm only pointing out that this is first of all a less modest goal than musicians of the past were charged with and second of all requires a different approach to a music-making life.

    Some 21st-century musicians appear to be well-suited to this new mode of being. It requires an unmitigated willingness and ability to be a public person in a much different way than is involved when simply singing songs on a stage. Artists for whom such conduct feels natural may not find it any particular kind of burden. "Farewell to the casual music fan," Fingertips, 11/9/09.
    Amanda Palmer is someone who doesn't have a problem with it.
    a few months ago i was traveling around impulsively after a long tour, taking off-time and visiting friends and family in various cities and discovering the then-newfound magical powers of twitter.
    i used these magical powers to put together flash-mob-style donation-shows on beaches and in parks, to find last-minute practice pianos, to find cafe/yoga/wireless recommendations, to find crash spaces for me & my assistant, even to twitter for rides to and from the airport from random fans (twitchhiking!). why the hell not?. call me crazy. but i like these people and trust them enough to do that....

    since the birth of the dresden dolls in 2000, i have pretty much been on tour and i have, with very few exceptions due to sickness or mad schedules, signed and hung out with my fans after almost every single show.
    if i had to guess how people i have signed for, hugged or connected with…..it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands of people. (literally).
    some nights brian (the dolls’ drummer) and i would sign for over a thousand people, for 3-4 hours.
    we would take a lot of time to really meet people, talk to them, hear their stories, connect with them. in a lot of cases, stay in touch with them.
    and now i know my fans. ...

    please understand: i don’t preach this from a high horse, i say this so you (especially who don’t KNOW me) understand that the people i am reaching out to…these people KNOW ME.
    a lot of them have MET me. a lot of them have FED me, HOUSED me, helped me carry heavy amps and gear up stairs, promoted my shows in their towns.
    to this day, i rely on them for TONS of help. and this is a huge part of why i feel confident that i won’t look like too much of an asshole when i reach out to my fanbase for money.
    even those who haven’t helped me directly follow the story, they see how my life functions and they offer what they can.
    they’re part of this ride, part of my struggle to live this weird life with it’s many travels and ups and downs.
    for the most part, they trust me. and i trust them. time and attention has made that possible. "Virtual Crowdsurfing," Amanda Palmer blog, 10/13/09.
    A few, like Palmer, have the personality to give back to their fans and not to mock them for being fans. But not everyone can do it.
    Music fans have set different expectations for artists and insist that they are met. While not everyone has interest in messaging their favorite artist, those that do, anticipate a reply back. "The Elsewhere Musician: Making Connections in a Fragmented World," hypebot, 11/12/09.
    The HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords has captured the essence of the hardcore music fan very well with the character Mel. Music needs her, but doesn't quite know what to do with her.
  • Mel's Flight of the Conchords Fan Blog: January 2009
  • Mel's Flight of the Conchords Fan Blog: December 2008

  • Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE 5/23/10
    One person's experience having paid for a $1100 VIP ticket for a Bon Jovi concert.
    So I fly in, get to the arena for my VIP treatment and for the next few hours, was treated like shit by everyone from arena staff to band staff to Jon Bon Jovi’s brother. Someone (a heavier girl) wanted a picture with Matt BJ…and he rolled his eyes in a manner that was disgusting. A friend overheard one of the crew guys referring to the fan club as the “fat club”…out loud, in front of people! It was like scheduling a meeting with Michael Corleone and getting Fredo instead.

    ... I take my seat and the guy next 2 me asks what I paid, I tell him and he begins to laugh out loud. He goes on to tell me that he paid nothing, was given free tickets by the management team and that people like me pay for his tickets. He had been drinking but I couldn’t stop listening. He went on and on and told me that the band makes all their money from people like me who are dumb and foolish enough to spend the money (which was confirmed by the NYT article). "E-Mail Of The Day," Lefsetz Letter, 5/23/10.
    UPDATE 7/13/10
    About the site RentAFriend:
    While some of the suggested uses for the site do seem pretty practical (having someone show you around town or teach you a skill), many of them seem a bit like a crutch. Has social networking changed real-life interaction to the point where we need to pay someone to be a real-time friend? "Stuff We Didn’t Know About Until Today: You Can Rent A Friend," TIME NewsFeed, 7/6/10.
    Read the comments. Some of them express the same distain that people feel for groupies.

    UPDATE 10/20/10
    Here's a column written by a singer/songwriter, John Roderick, acknowledging how important superfans are in launching bands and how they inevitably get pushed aside when the musicians become more popular and hence busier.
    So this letter from the superfan girl affected me. She felt that her love, to say nothing of all the hard work she did promoting the band, was going unappreciated. Suddenly the backstage was crammed with newcomers, and the band was too young even to look at her with knowing, apologetic eyes. But I feel for the band too: They're swamped, barely keeping their heads above water. They're at the start of their journey, and already the people who loved them first are pining for a simpler time. "Superfans: They Love You First. They Book You Shows. It Gets Complicated," Seattle Weekly, 10/19/10.
    UPDATE 11/11/10
    Part of an interview with Paige X. Cho, Administration and Promotions Manager for digital distributor Valleyarm and author of the Melbourne music blog Paper-Deer.
    The term "superfan" reminds me of Mel from Flight of the Conchords - sometimes a little creepy, borderline stalker behavior but all done with good intentions. Like John Roderick writes, these are the obsessive fans that have a lot invested in bands and feel that their over-the-top and unsolicited help means that they should be friends with the band and get thanked on stage or first dibs on anything. I've even known a superfan who weirdly knew the shampoo her favorite singer used!

    The problem with these fans is they aren't happy with just getting newsletters or buying autographed merch. They feel they deserve more, and the problem is that these fans get offended very easily. If you walk by them outside a venue without hearing them go "hi" or you don't personally reply to their emails, they seem to get upset and could possibly "turn" against you.

    I suppose one solution that might appease some (but not all) is to set up a street team and make your biggest superfan the director of the street team. Not only are they likely to do a damn fine job for free, it's a good way to turn their obsession into something manageable. "Bands As A Business: Invest Money In Marketing," hypebot, 11/11/10.


    1. Fantastic post! I never could quite put my finger on that ambivalence towards 'groupies' or 'superfans' or whatever one calls them. I think it's the fear of that disdain that keeps a lot of us from ever trying to communicate directly with an artist, for better or for worse. Unless one's ego has completely taken over, I can't imagine it ever feels completely comfortable to be fawned over by a total stranger.

    2. Thanks Neil. I just saw your post (wasn't able to get comment updates i the past).

      This is a problem that needs to be discussed more, particularly as music marketing people focus on charging the best fans the most money.


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