Fan Chengcheng is the younger brother of Fan Bingbing, one of the biggest stars in China today, and a celebrity in his own right with around 3 million followers on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. He recently participated in Idol Producer, an entertainment reality show popular among young girls. On April 26, Fan Chengcheng published a “pay-to-view” photo on Weibo that stirred up the biggest controversy overnight on social media.
A screenshot making its way around the Internet shows that more than 80,000 people have paid to see Fan’s photo. Written on the screenshot is “60 yuan ($9.42) to see the original photo and 80,000 people paid for it in one night. Overnight income of 4.8 million yuan ($753,000) with mindless fans driving China’s economy.”
On the evening of May 4, however, Fan Chengcheng’s agency Yuehua Entertainment issued a statement on Weibo, clarifying that the 60-yuan payment isn’t for a single image, but for a half-year membership to Weibo’s V+ celebrity service. This membership will allow fans to join exclusive groups and access specially curated photos, videos and other content of that celebrity. The company also states that the online information regarding this incident are all false rumors.
Therefore, we may categorize the “Fan Chengcheng pay-to-view photo” incident as a service for the fans, just what they do in Japanese and South Korean fan clubs.
In Japan and South Korea, fans join the fanclub of their idol in order to gain many privileges, such as access to buying limited concert tickets, participate in ticket giveaways and other lotteries related to the idol. This is a kind of “support activity” that connects fans and their idols.
In countries such as Japan and South Korea, these fan support activities have become part of the main stream pop culture. The specifics include support colors, slogans, dining carts and so much more. As the Korean idol culture enters China, the support culture is also been adopted by Chinese fans.
Evolution of fan support: from targets to masses
The original Chinese fan support culture was just a sea of lights. When fans went to their idol’s concerts, they would hold up signs with lights in the shape of the idol’s name or other slogans to express their love and to attract idol’s attention.
The voting system enacted by the singing competition Super Girl in 2005 is considered to have give birth to China’s fan support culture. Chris Lee who won the competition with 3.52 million votes sent by text messages was considered “the text queen”. In the night of the finals, the top three contestants received a total of more than 8 million votes sent by text messages. In 2005, voting was regarded as a new way to support the idols.
In 2012, EXO-M, the mandarin division of the popular Korean boyband EXO, debuted in China. This group brought the Korean idol culture and fan support culture to China. More and more Chinese fans began to know what support colors, objects and activities are. They then began to perform these activities for their Chinese idols.
When members of TFBOYS, one of the most popular Chinese boybands, celebrated their birthdays, their fans bought billboards in the United States, the U.K., South Korea and other countries, booked deluxe suite on cruise ships as gifts, and even jointly promoted public welfare projects with the Chinese State Council’s poverty alleviation programs in the name of their idol. They raised more than 200,000 yuan ($31,367), and collected more than 25,000 pieces of donations for the project.
The powerful self-initiated fan support has also spawned a number of support platforms. For example, an app called Idol or 爱豆, which literally means “love peas” in Chinese but is a homonym for the english word “idol”, collects information of idols and provides a list of services include idol ranking and voting competitions. Yinyuetai, a major Chinese music video sharing site, allows fans to vote for their idols’ music to appear on its top music chart with the music videos promoted every week. QQ Music, Tencent’s music platform, also has a popularity list that ranks the popularity of idols through real time voting.
Voting and climbing the music charts are good ways for fans to help their idols and their music quickly gain public exposure, and thus increase theeir popularity.
We can see that the support activities have gradually transitioned from targeting certain groups to targeting the masses. In other words, the Chinese fans have now begun to promote their idols to the entire world.
Evolution of support spending: from individuals to crowdfunding
These support activities, whether it is making the songs a hit or the exclusive customization of products, all cost money. As the income in China rises, so does people’s standard of living and spending. On top of the influences by Japanese and South Korean support culture, Chinese fans now have more diverse, trendy, but also more expensive ways to support their idols.
On the 17th birthday of Wang Junkai or Karry Wang, one of three members of TFBOYS, his fans placed an ad on an entire line of light-rail trains in Chongqing, Wang’s hometown, which cost about 10 million yuan ($1.57 million). On his 18th birthday, his fans spent more than $200 million to have a satellite circling around the earth for one round with Wang’s photo at 100,000 feet above the surface.
The introduction of the swag culture, which are products and accessories with idol branding, has also led to the development of the fan economy. Fans frantically buy products related to the idols and the products idols endorse, to support their idols. Lu Han’s concert swag sold for 397 yuan ($62.37). Jackson Yee from TFBOYS endorsed Adidas Neo, and as soon as the news was announced, fans began to purchase products with the Adidas Neo logo, which resulted in the crash of the official website.
It costs money to support idols, but the power of one is always limited. In order to not be beat by fans groups, fans have began to crowdfund. Cai Xukun, or August Cai, the participant with the highest number of final votes in the Idol Producer show, tried to end his contract early with his former agency, the company demanded a large sum of compensation for the contract breach. His fans declared that “Cai Xukun, we will help you pay the 300 million yuan!”, which is more than 47 million USD. Other than fan organitions known as “fan stations” in China, crowdfunding platforms sometimes are involved as well. In 2016, Modian, a Chinese crowdfunding service platform, launched a project to fund Chinese idol group SNH48 member Huang Tingting’s participation in the third general election of SNH48, raising 377,135.27 yuan ($59,241.16). In 2017, Yinyuetai raised 182,465 yuan ($28,664) for the birthday of Wu Jiacheng, a member of the Chinese idol group XNINE.
As time passes and fan culture develops, fans will have more diverse ways to support their idols, and the cost of supporting them will also shifting from individualized spending to group fundraising.
Will the membership system be another breakthrough for the fan economy?
As previously mentioned, the membership payment system is a version of fanclub that is popular in Japan and South Korea. Every month, the ranking of official fanclubs by the number of members is issued, but it is not practised in China. Most membership payment systems in China are created by the companies that the idols work with. For instance, Time Fengjun Entertainment set up a TFBOYS Fanclub in 2015. Premium memberships are 178 yuan ($28) for six months, 298 yuan ($47) for a year, and 498 yuan ($78) for two years. Membership benefits include exclusive seats to TFBOYS offline events, the exclusive TFBOYS Weibo template and so on.
But, there are no membership payment systems on large social platforms in South Korea. Weibo, a large social platform, is partnering up with Yuehua Entertainment (Fan Chengcheng’s agency) to try out this membership system. The pay-to-view photo incident of Fan Chengcheng shows that fans are not insusceptible to this kind of payment model. Does this mean we can optimistically see support membership system as another breakthrough in the fan economy? We believe that yes, opportunities exist in the paid membership model, but so does barriers.
Rumor goes that 80,000 people paid to see Fan Chengcheng’s photo, but Fan has 3.24 million followers on Weibo. This means most Chinese fans still have not gotten into the habit of spending money on idols. Of course, this does not hinder agencies and payment platforms from making money, as China has a large fan base and eighty thousand people can also bring in a lot of profits. The payment membership market is huge, so if the system continues to run, then their profits will increase with time as more and more Chinese fans form the habit of spending money on their idols.
The most important reason behind why fanclubs are popular and are the symbols of success in Japan and South Korea is that they attach great importance to copyright protection. In South Korea, users need to pay to listen to music, and all paid products are not shared online for free. Most Koreans understand and support copyright protection. In China, people don’t pay much attention to copyright issues. If awareness of copyright protection cannot be strengthened, then even if paid memberships are implemented, exclusive resources will inevitably be shared on the Internet for free. This sharing may not malicious as some fans just want their idols to be liked by more people, and will post videos and pictures they bought online to attract passers-by. But this kind of unintentional sharing may become a severe obstacle to the payment membership system.
Loyalty is the most important quality of a fan, and the under-aged young idols who are so popular have the perfect way to strengthen fan loyalty. The large number of “mom fans” and “sister fans”, fans who see themselves in the roles of a mother or an older sister, want to accompany the idols as they grow up. When idols and fans establish such close relationship, fans will have a higher degree of loyalty. This is only human nature. This results in fans more willing to spend money on their idols. If agencies can foster such fan loyalty, then the membership payment system may have some potential.