March 23, 2022

The Role of the Fan in Catapulting the Underdog Artist

How niche, highly engaged, fan-bases can propel an artist to commercial success.

Denisha Kuhlor

Happy Tuesday! Thanks for opening the twelfth edition of the Stan newsletter. A newsletter exploring fans and their bidirectional relationships with the artists that they love. As always suggestions and feedback are always appreciated. You can shoot me an email at

Time and time again an underdogs highly engaged fan base reveals its true power during the opening week of an album release. My first article for this newsletter explored DJ Khaled and Tyler the Creator's opening weeks in which DJ Khaled struggled to comprehend how an underdog, from a commercial standpoint, such as Tyler the Creator could outperform him. DJ Khaled employed a host of celebrity guest features, bundle deals, and incessant promotion to all but guarantee a number one album and it still proved no match for Tyler the Creators highly dedicated fanbase. The battle for a number one album on opening week has brought some pretty epic showdowns over the years. Lets take a stroll down memory lane:

“I'mma drop the album the same day as Kanye just to show the boys the man now like Wanyá and I don't mean no disrespect, I praise legends but this what next the boy sick, can't disinfect .” - J. Cole on Forbidden Fruit

Album Showdowns

*Coles Born Sinner later went on to outsell Kanye's Yeezus in its third week.

Defining the Underdog

The artist as an "underdog" is incredibly dynamic. It is forever changing and completely dependent on the situation. Broadly speaking an artist is perceived as an underdog to their fans when placed in hierarchical situations (i.e - award shows, position on the charts, selling tickets to a tour) in which conventional wisdom would deem that they are most likely to lose. This makes an artist who has enjoyed a significant amount of success in one situation became an underdog in another. This is most frequently seen with international artists breaking into the United States. This leads to many international artists signing with labels in the United States simply to break in the US market even though they are stars in their original market.

The Statement of an Accolade

Many artists have attempted to downplay their desire for external (beyond their fan-base) accolades since the beginning of their career. Most times this strengthens the relationship between an artist and their fans as fans feel an increased sense of gratitude by the artist. It signals to the fan that the artist is most appreciative of being embraced by them (the fans) versus a commercial construct (the music industry). ****However,the desire to be embraced commercially by the music industry and their fans evolve into sentiments much more complex and interconnected than a zero sum situation. Artists talk about this often in their music:

"This year I'll probably go to the awards dappered down watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile. I'm just playing but all good jokes contain true shit. Same rope you climb up on they hang you with" - J. Cole on Fire Squad

"Tell the Grammy's f** that oh for eight s***. Have you ever seen a crowd going apesht? - Jay-Z on Apesh*t.

Eventually, a juxtaposition develops where fans desire for their artist to be embraced commercially (i.e charts, awards,press) and will actively play a role in helping an artist accomplish this. This is because highly engaged fans view an artists commercial success as way bigger than an accolade, but instead a testament of support to a movement or ethos they deeply believe in. They have connected with parts of an artists life ethos, certain viewpoints, style, etc. So for a fan who has connected with an artist, in a deeper way than just liking their music, the artist being embraced commercially and critically is in some ways the world embracing something deeply personal to the fans. The world is embracing a part of themselves. In many ways it mirrors a political candidate as the candidate is an embodiment of ideals and values that extend way beyond their self.

Once an artist acknowledges this dynamic they can embrace the pursuit of commercial success in a way that is authentic and encouraged by their their fan-base while preserving the level of intimacy their fans perceived when they were smaller and less commercial.

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In Practice: Burna Boy and Nipsey Hussle

Burna Boy and Nipsey Hussle's relationship with their fanbases capture the acknowledgement of this dynamic perfectly.

Burna Boy: The African Giant

A global underdog

Image result for burna boy concert

2019 was a blockbuster year for Burna Boy. He performed a sold out world tour, was the most streamed African artist on Spotify, and released an album "African Giant" that led to a Grammy nomination for Best World Album. While Burna Boy has been making music for a long time and enjoyed prominence amongst his fans in Africa his increased commercial success globally has become a major source of pride for Africans everywhere. Even helping inspire his latest album title “African Giant”. Burna Boy proudly embraces the significance of his accomplishments to all his fans of the African diaspora and as a result they proudly tout his accomplishments. So much so that after winning the Grammy for Best World Album Angelique Kidjo stated “This is for Burna Boy. Burna Boy is among the young artists that come from Africa that is changing the way our continent is perceived and the way African music has been the bedrock of every music.”

Nipsey Hussle

An industry underdog.

Image result for nipsey hussle the marathon

Unfortunately the world was not able to truly grasp the impact of Nipsey Hussle’s “The Marathon Continues” ethos until post his death. The independent rapper who stressed owning your work, appreciating the journey, and creating generational wealth developed a peer like relationship with many of his fans by being transparent about his journey as an artist. Explaining the strategy behind decisions such as not signing to a label, valuing his album at a $100, sharing the books he was reading and diversifying his streams of income provided important context for his fans while also helping them navigate their own life decisions.

Commercial Success and It’s Impact on the Fan Relationship

Being authentic from the beginning is a great way for an artist to build a highly engaged fan-base. While it might take longer for an artist to grow their fan base ultimately these fans will have a stronger relationship with the artist yielding in a more mutually beneficial relationship for both parties. The more authentic an artist is the more highly engaged fans view their commercial success a reflection on themselves. By maintaining authenticity throughout their artist journey it qualifies the fans who are most aligned from a music and ethos perspective, consequently the fans who have the largest probability to stay a fan through the long haul. It also provides a great kick off point for artist to provide additional experiences for their fans centered around their artist likeness but not necessarily their music so they don't over saturate with content.


Proactive Advocacy

One of the outcomes of a highly engaged fan-base is when fans (either individually or by assembling) come together to influence the commercial outcomes of their respective artist. While this concept is not new, fans are getting more sophisticated and willing to even spend their own money to ensure the visibility and success of their favorite artists. In the last year alone we have seen BTS fans purchase billboards for them, Tinashe's fans create flyers for her performances, and Rico Nasty fans sharing why they think it was a misstep to not include her on the album for DC's upcoming Birds of Prey.

A highly engaged fan-base can extend an artists marketing reach and help them get discovered more broadly while also preserving the authenticity of the artists brand.

My Headphones

Djada (because who does not love Afro-French pop music?!?! ).


D (@denishakuhlor)

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