In 2007, I watched an artist stop to speak with a young girl who wanted to play guitar. John O’Callaghan, a new musician himself at the time, was thrilled to be the opening band on a major tour. He spoke with enthusiasm about his music and encouraged the aspiring guitarist to ‘keep playing’ no matter what. As his band, The Maine, grew in popularity it would have been easy for O’Callaghan to hide behind his success and limit interaction with fans. Today, he is still the soft-spoken, unpretentious singer who expresses his life experiences through his lyrics. His music continues to evolve while he remains sensitive to the close bond with his fans. Gone are the days of chatting outside the venue (he would be mobbed by autograph-seeking fans), but O’Callaghan has never forgotten where he started. He consistently reaches out with confidence, remembering past conversations, every time he sees the young girl (who is now an accomplished guitarist) who he met so many years ago. John O’Callaghan is a rockstar.
Fame is a state of mind. Local shows are the perfect setting to network – letting people know where and how to get your music or the dates of upcoming shows. After all, even Metallica started at the neighborhood bar. The artists on the bill join the audience after their show and usually make a point of interacting with prospective fans. Last week I attended a show featuring the best of local punk bands. The crowd was small, less than 50 people, but was motivated to party with the hometown boys. Three of the bands I met impressed me with their enthusiasm and commitment to making good music. I bought their CDs and two t-shirts. However, the singer from the ‘headlining’ band brought my festive mood to a screeching halt. I approached him before his set, introduced myself, and told him I was excited to see their part of the show. He responded by looking over my head and saying, “Yeah, whatever,” before walking away. A girl standing next to me explained that he was always like that, because he was an awesome singer. (Really?) I have been fortunate enough to meet some of the top vocalists in the music industry and not one of them takes fans for granted. This man is not a rockstar.
A rockstar is first and foremost a real person. Johnny Plague is a humble, unassuming man whose stage performance has more velocity than a gale force wind. Not one to rest on past success, Plague is quick to point out that there is always room for improvement. He demonstrated this determination on an episode of MTV’s Made, where he explained his technique to a high school girl who wanted to learn to scream. It was Plague who stopped to talk with two girls sitting outside the venue of a large metal tour in Cleveland, listening intently to their tale of woe. The college girls had driven for over an hour to get there, arriving without enough money for tickets due to unforeseen costs along the way. Plague spoke with them about his band, Winds of Plague, even autographing the flyers they clutched firmly in their hands. After ascertaining that they had sufficient funds to get home, Plague left these two fans thrilled that they had met the singer of their favorite band. Johnny Plague is a rockstar.
Fans are not disposable. In a market that is flooded with music, a fan base is critical to survival. Yet some artists forget the loyal fans who have followed them since the beginning of their careers. I have known a particular band since they were the opening act, four years ago. Fortunately, the band hit it big by changing the genre of music and developing an entirely different fan base. Too bad their newfound success also altered their sense of commitment to their fans. Last year, I ran into the band’s frontman at Warped Tour where he looked at me like he had never seen me before. I greeted him with a smile and without a word, he promptly turned his back and walked away. At subsequent events I have witnessed him treat fans (who had paid for the chance to meet him) with disdain, responding in monotones while checking his phone messages. I am not sure how he became such an anti-social bundle of fun, but I have noticed that his record sales are falling. He may be well known, but he is not a rockstar.
Music is a link between artist and fan that should not be taken lightly. Treating fans nonchalantly will never be acceptable or profitable, and artists who remain firmly rooted in reality are more able to connect to their fans. Famous or not, a real rockstar is the one who knows that fans are rockstars too.