Working 'mothers' are the biggest spenders of fan economy in China

The fan economy is a huge business in China, driven mostly by young women in their 20s. But while these fans are willing to spend money on their idols, some chalk up mountains of debt to feed their passion. Given that the idols are endlessly trotted out on a conveyor belt and few escape the cookie cutter, how long can the fan economy last?
The male contestants in the third season of Youth With You (青春有你). (Internet)
The male contestants in the third season of Youth With You (青春有你). (Internet)

“Please vote for my son today!”

Over the past two weeks, I have woken up not to the sound of my alarm clock, but to punctual vote-canvassing texts from my friend, A. I reflexively click on the links she sends, go into an event page, and click the “vote” button beside the name of a certain participant, completing this daily mission that feels like punching in to work.

The “son” in question is not really A’s child, but a young singer whom A has been obsessed with from seeing him on a talent show. Since this young man started on the show, A has been following his schedule and events, trying to get his new songs on the charts and boost sales, and sharing information about his performances. Recently, he signed up for some large-scale event where getting to perform depends on popularity, and to help get her “son” on stage, A has been getting friends and relatives to vote for him.

Fans like A — "mothers" with steady incomes — are the main drivers of such spending. 

Voting may sound simple, but doing it is not easy. Signing into the event page gives you one chance to vote; inviting friends to join gives you another vote; sharing event information on social media earns another vote; while buying products from sponsored brands gets an additional vote. Friends joke that A seems to have joined an MLM organisation. She said helplessly, “We fans have no choice but to follow the rules of capitalism, to get the kid in front of the camera a little more, so that more people can see him.”

A promotional poster for The Coming One (明日之子). (Internet)

Fan economy and the ‘SHEconomy’ work hand in hand

In my first few weeks in Shanghai, I felt the total reach of the fan economy in its full force. At intervals, the billboards in shopping malls and subway stations showed large posters with birthday wishes or messages of support for some personality by their fan club, even if the face and name on the poster was often unknown. Walking around in the financial district, prominent wishes for someone to win some competition scrolled across the screen on the wall of the building across the street. My friend said some fans even splashed out hundreds of thousands of renminbi to arrange a drone performance at The Bund, specially for their celebrity.

Fans like A — "mothers" with steady incomes — are the main drivers of such spending. Besides raising money for publicity, they buy a lot of products endorsed by the celebrity, and give the brand confidence in his selling power. On the other hand, students who have more time but less cash help with publicity on social media and ramp up engagement data, or even control negative comments. From A-listers to the smallest personalities, behind them are groups of tightly organised fans with well-defined roles.

Fan economy is mostly driven by young women in first-tier cities.

The fan economy started long ago in Japan and Korea, with their many idol groups. In 2005, the phenomenal Super Girl (超级女声) brought this commercial model to China, while after Korean-style idol selection programmes like Idol Producer (偶像练习生) and Produce 101 (创造101) were brought into China two years ago to great success, this emerging market grew exponentially. All sorts of talent shows started to come up — every few months, a new batch of “rookies” enters the market. Even without any representative works to their name, they already have a group of fans who have seen them make their start in whatever competition, and who are willing to spend money to support them.

People dance during a concert by the art rock band Macondo at a livehouse following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, 18 July 2020. (Thomas Peter/REUTERS)

Fan economy is mostly driven by young women in first-tier cities. Early this year, a report on the idol industry and the fan economy released by entertainment portal Owhat showed that of the fans who were willing to spend money on idols, nearly 90% were women born between 1995 and 2001 who were mostly from more economically developed areas such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, followed by Beijing and Guangzhou.

Studies show that 36% of “idol-chasers” are willing to spend between 100 RMB (about S$20) and 500 RMB each month on their idols, in a market worth 90 billion RMB a year.

These young women in their 20s are not a large part of the general population, but China’s large population numbers naturally give scale to this niche market. Studies show that 36% of “idol-chasers” are willing to spend between 100 RMB (about S$20) and 500 RMB each month on their idols, in a market worth 90 billion RMB a year.

Some views have it that the fan economy is part of the “SHEconomy”, reflecting the rise of the female economy in recent years. Pressure from work and society has made idol-chasing a way for urban women to get away from it all and express themselves — they project the feelings meant for a relationship they lack in real life onto a celebrity and imagine themselves as their girlfriend or mother, and get a sense of achievement from driving their idol’s career forward and sticking with them through their ups and downs. My friend A said frankly that to some extent, fandom eases her anxiety about being single. After all, “real-life men cannot compare to my idol”.

Bubble economy that can go poof at any moment

This business model combines the internet, big data, and a MLM-like concept to package “instant” idols as products on an assembly line and turn the love of fans into traffic and sales. Such a model looks extremely profitable, but the fraudulent figures that come with it also reflect the bubble surrounding the industry. Some underage persons end up in debt due to fandom, leading to calls for disallowing primary and secondary school students from joining fan groups.

Winners of the latest season of Produce 101, Bonbon Girls (硬糖少女 303). (Twitter/@YTSN_303)

Compared to celebrities in Europe, the US, Japan, and Korea, China’s so-called “traffic stars” (流量明星) have a long way to go in terms of their works and capabilities, which poses a challenge to the sustainability of the fan economy. With an unending series of “new waves” of stars coming in, how will the “old waves” continue to attract new fans and strengthen their old fan base? When fans get tired of the commercialism behind fandom, will they stop wanting to “act for love”?

I asked A how long her enthusiasm for her “son” will last. She thought for a while and said, “I don’t know. Maybe many years, or maybe it could stop suddenly. I’ll think of it as a dream that I might wake up from any time. But at least I would have been happy in it.”

Related: Rich and wealthy ‘little sisters’ are the new driving force of Chinese consumerism | Online lending is feeding the insatiable purchasing desire of Chinese youths | Weibo punished: Should public opinion be controlled by money or the state?