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Idol Hands: How China’s Super Fan Groups Make and Break Stars Via the Multi-Million Dollar “Fan Economy”

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It can spark searing social media wars, send idol imagery into space, and even upset Arianna Grande by disrupting the US iTunes charts — not to mention generate millions of dollars in revenue. But what really is the so-called “Fan Economy” and why is understanding how it works so crucial to the world of contemporary Chinese celebrity?

Even though I covered the “Fan Economy” back in July, when I reported on Chinese authorities vowing to protect teens from internet reality shows, I must confess that I underestimated both the youth and power of this influential bloc of online fandom. While at first glance appearing to be a phenomenon limited to teenage fans and their limited pocket money, China’s Fan Economy has in fact grown into a standalone business — even an industry — that is built on fans’ fickle love of their favorite idols, as well as a complex network connecting talent, agents, social media channels, and major online video platforms.

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Take, for example, the sudden emergence of pop boy group Nine Percent, a product of iQIYI reality program Idol Producer, and Rocket Girls from Tencent Video’s similar hit show Produce 101. Fans generated over 20 and 40 million RMB, respectively, for each show, proving their economic power and surprising the market.

These numbers can be attributed to highly efficient online fan clubs, which have company-like structures usually consisting of formal departments such as Core Management, Art Design, Copywriting, Data, Comment Control, Public Relations, Finance, and Frontline — the last of which deals with direct, offline engagement. Hundreds of fans in these clubs concertedly coordinate online and offline efforts to support their idol of choice, and to make him or her appear more attractive and influential to viewers and brands.

Group members in the Frontline department frequently go to the airport to welcome or see off their idols, usually in large crowds. Some fans in these groups become photographers, taking close-up photos wherever their idol shows up. These scenes at Pudong Airport as Korean singer Junsu walks out give you an idea:

Writing in the Chinese version of GQ, one fan who was an idol photographer and ran a website and social media account with updates on her favorite idols’ latest news and photos, states there are thousands of people like her out there, referred to collectively as “Site Sisters”. According to the author in GQ‘s article, quite a few Site Sisters are girls like her: raised in a rich family, and a graduate from one of China’s top universities.

She goes on to write that between summer 2016 and summer 2018, she took over 20,000 photos of 15 artists, and posted 1,500 elaborately Photoshopped versions of them on social media. Other fans, and even some of the the idols, loved them — successful Site Sisters can make up to 15,000RMB (over 2,000USD) in a week by selling exclusive photos to fans. Another popular way to monetize this area of the Fan Economy is to create physical photo books.

“Frontline” fans and “Site Sisters” snap photos at iQIYI’s Screaming Night 2019 (photo by the author)

The next time you arrive in a Chinese airport and see a huge crowd of screaming fans, you’ll know that you were lucky enough to land at the same time as a superstar. Some Frontline fans go so far as to buy the cheapest available flight tickets to get through security and customs so that they can get closer photos of the idol. Even if the idol gets a VIP pass through the airport they might not escape the attentions of the highly-organized fan groups — fans with the financial means sometimes buy a ticket on the same flight, as passengers on a flight from Hong Kong to Seoul recently found:Back on the internet, the most important standards when measuring an idol’s popularity are numbers reposts, related posts, likes and comments on Sina Weibo, China’s most saturated microblogging platform.

This is the realm of the “Data” department. With this sub-group’s ceaseless efforts, it’s common these days to see an idol’s Weibo post get reposted millions of times. For example, recent posts by South Korea-based singer Meng Meiqi and TF Boys leader Karry Wang garnered 6.3 and 10.5 million reposts, respectively. Cai Xukun, the leading member of iQIYI-produced boy band Nine Percent, got 10.3 million reposts and almost 13 million likes after posting a music video on his 20th birthday:

To boost the numbers, online fan groups organize voting blocs. But of course these fan groups often only reflect a fraction of China’s population, so bot and fake accounts are also needed, and fan groups have even been involved in hacking servers.

When it comes to rankings on Weibo that decide whether an idol remains in the platform’s “New Star Ranking List” or whether they are moved into the even more influential “Star Power Ranking List” (trending lists that keep an idol relevant in the social media discourse), fans take it as seriously as a war. And the spoils for the hottest idol of the moment are considerable. A recent Vivo ad starring Nine Percent’s Cai Xukun gathered nearly 30 million reposts on Weibo, demonstrating an online fanbase the mobile phone maker is no doubt motivated to tap.

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All supporting expenses for such activities are covered by a fan group’s membership fees, advertisements, sponsorships, and direct funding. There are even dedicated apps to help with fundraising for such groups. Open an app for fan funding such as Owhat, and you can see how convenient it is for fans to make micro-donations for an idol’s birthday party or upcoming album.

An Owhat crowdfunding campaign for Fan Chengcheng, Fan Bingbing’s brother

Fan groups also round up donations for grandiose advertisements in prominent places, from the sides of buses in Chinese cities to Times Square and overseas newspapers.

According to research done by entertainment-focused WeChat account Youhaoxifilm, millions of RMB is raised by each top fan club every year, and only people who have money, management ability, and industry connections can effectively lead these groups. In other words, these for-profit entities are run by professionals, not teenagers.

The account tells the story of Qiong Jiu, one of the top leaders in a young singer’s 100-fan club. Qiong decided to organize a series of supporting activities for the idol’s concert in her hometown and under her management the group’s PR department connected with the idol’s agent and the event sponsor to confirm the space, size and staff numbers at the concert. The Art department designed posters and notification posts; the Copywriting department came up with concert-related promotional text; the Comment Control department regulated the most-liked comments under promotional Weibo posts to guide the trend; and the Data department boosted the numbers of reposts, search trends, and online interactions with fans.

Offline, the Frontline department took photos at the concert, while the Support department came ready with banners, stickers, light-up boards, and glow sticks, along with gifts for media and staff who were at the concert, and materials to build a “flower wall” to greet the idol at the venue’s entrance. At the end of the concert, the Finance department managed reimbursement of all costs from the fan group’s pooled funding.

Essentially, fan groups are companies that operate under an honor system, and whose employees might never meet, only communicating online. The foundation for these groups’ strictly disciplined organization is simply trust and passion.

However, this leaves the groups highly vulnerable, and there is a dark side to such fandom culture. This informal industry has already been accused of fraudulent accounting and overpriced products, while there have been numerous cases where leaders have run off with fans’ funds to buy themselves new cars or houses.

In the age of Fan Economy, fans are indeed spending a lot more money and time on their idols, but they are also becoming more powerful in the industry themselves. To a great extent, it’s the fans — not the agents — who create the idol, and who then kneel down to the idol and worship for as long as possible, until the next god is made.

Yet the mania of fandom and idol worship can ultimately be a let down. Group leader Qiong Jiu ultimately felt a bit lost, telling Youhaoxifilm: “Love expires as well. Actually, in the end, everything is just empty thrills.”

The “Site Sister” from GQ also asks herself “Is it worth it?” after realizing that “all of this is just some virtual, floating numbers on Weibo.” She eventually ran away from fan groups for good, beaten down by “the sense of overwhelming emptiness.”

With iQIYI still revelling in a highly successful 2018, in part thanks to their fostering of idols, and other major streaming platforms Youku and Tencent pouring resources into competing line-ups of idol shows for 2019, it seems there are numerous interested parties who are keen to keep the idol production line going for the moment. Yet as the government eyes the industry suspiciously, and some Site Sisters tire of their roles, it’ll be interesting to see just how sustainable the Fan Economy really is.

Cover image: Members of “idol group” SNH48 at their 2017 annual election event in Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena (by Jake Newby).

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van

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