As a debate rages over whether musicians should charge fans for meet and greets, music writer Amy Raphael delves into the arguments for and against.
Over the last few years, The 1975 have produced the kind of music that’s made even the most hardened cynic acknowledge that they are “one of the most important bands in the world”. The group’s frontman Matt Healy has consistently spoken his mind, whether discussing his addiction to heroin or announcing that misogyny no longer exists in rock and roll while still being rife in hip hop (which he later apologised for).
Most recently, Healy has made waves by calling out musicians who charge fans for meet and greets. In late March, the singer posted an angry message on Twitter: “Who came up with paid meet and greets? Did they think ‘Surely there must be something else we can monetise… OH! Human connection!! They’ll eat that up!’ MEET YOUR FANS OR DON’T. DON’T ONLY MEET THEM IF YOU’RE GETTING PAID, HONESTLY WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
Healy is hugely popular, the kind of open, emotional pop star who connects with his fans on an authentic level. All of his tweets get lots of responses: he’s a rock star, after all. But this one seems to have struck more of a chord than most. At the time of writing, the tweet had been retweeted nearly 25,000 times and elicited 2,500 heated replies. Because Healy has a point: why are record companies charging fans to spend a few minutes in the same room as their musical heroes?
The simple answer is because they can. If fans are happy to pay, record companies are happy to exploit them. As the music industry implodes – with the emphasis shifting from record sales to streaming and bands increasingly relying on tours for revenue – meet and greets have become big business.
Take 17-year-old pop prodigy Billie Eilish. She is the new Nirvana. She is emo personified. She has a global fanbase of teenagers. Tickets for her summer concerts in the US in July cost as much as $450. The meet and greet packages, which include early entry into the venue and “Meet & Greet and Photo w/Billie”, are sold out. How many teenagers can afford hundreds of dollars to briefly meet their favourite singer?
Some teens (or their parents) will doubtless go into debt to meet Eilish, convinced she understands the hell of adolescence. But the fact is that they are not buying her friendship. They are not sitting around having a supersized fizzy drink with her. They are most likely standing in a queue, shaking her hand and getting a limited number of items signed.
Eilish is not alone. When Kylie Minogue toured the UK last year, she made headlines for allegedly charging £950 for a meet and greet. That’s nearly a grand for having your photo taken with Kylie so that you can show off about it on social media.
Andy Prevezer, an independent PR consultant and the former vice president of publicity for Warner Music, says that “the enhanced fan experience has become the norm. It’s the grim reality of the music business now. A-list stars certainly shouldn’t be doing it; their whole career is predicated on the dedication of their fans and to monetise that loyalty is in appallingly bad taste. It’s fundamentally unethical.”
I ask a pop star I know about the ethics of charging to meet fans. Her stance is unequivocal: “I have been around since the Eighties and I have never charged a fan to meet me. Sometimes I will organise a free meet and greet for loyal supporters who I have connected with online. But selling yourself is crass. It seems wrong to me to only give yourself to the people that can afford it.”
Healy made a similar point on Twitter about paid meet and greets. “It’s about making music exclusive. ‘Rich kids, you line up on the left. Poor kids, just fuck off.’”
He’s right. In my opinion, paid meet and greets stink of elitism. The pop stars who willingly engage with them push themselves even further away from their fanbase. Musicians with social media accounts may appear to be more accessible, but many A-listers feel more remote than ever. American artists are increasingly interviewed by their mates (see Solange in a recent issue of i-D) or ‘writing’ their own pieces – thus retaining almost complete control over their public profiles. And, of course, their Twitter/Instagram accounts are meticulously curated.
Prevezer suggests that some pop stars might not be aware of how much their record labels are charging for meet and greets, but some pop stars are smarter than others. Taylor Swift, for example, chooses a number of fans from her audience every night to meet her backstage after the show for free. It makes her appear accessible and it encourages fans to go to the gigs in case they are picked. Swift can afford to do this; it’s the artists who are on their way up or down who really need the cash, but who probably aren’t in a position to charge their fans £100 for a personal photo, never mind £1,000.
I’m not sure if I’d pay to meet anyone, but then it’s been my job for the past 30 years to interview the likes of Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Björk. Like almost every other music fan, I’d be curious to meet Beyoncé, but at a dinner party, not in a back room at a gig for 30 seconds. I’d only consider paying if the price was right and all the money went to charity. Call me old school, but I’d be happier to buy a vinyl record for £20 after a gig and wait in a queue for the band to sign it.
Charging for autographs and photos is a very American thing to do; baseball stars have done it for decades and actors at Comic Con charge as much as $400 for a photo. It’s heartening, then, to discover that when American band The Maine go on tour, they drape a banner over their merch stall that reads: ‘WHY WOULD YOU PAY MONEY TO MEET A HUMAN BEING? MEET HUMAN BEINGS CALLED THE MAINE. FOR FREE.’
Their logic is simple: their fans carry them from one album to the next. And guess what? Fans love the band for acknowledging that without fans, there would be no music.
A Seat at the Table: Interviews with Women on the Frontline of Music by Amy Raphael will be published on 6 June (Virago, £14.99).