On the morning of January 6, 2018, Robby Hecht1 was alone with his guitar on a park bench in El Paso, Texas. It was 55º, with a strong wind blowing over the canyon from Chihuahua. The flight in from Nashville had been easy. The ride in the rental car, similarly paid for by the stranger “Daisy Buchanan,”2 was easy. The gift bag of snacks and a burned CD with El Paso-themed songs was a nice touch. But after ten minutes of waiting alone, with the rental car parked at a Subway a ten minute walk through the woods away, Robby was growing a little apprehensive about this stranger who had sent him $1,600 via Western Union to play a four song concert for her and a special friend on a bench in front of the Rio Grande. But then, from the left, Daisy appeared through the cluster of trees.
Daisy gave a small wave and a slight smile, but speech initially seemed beyond her. They waited together in silence for another five minutes. Robby tried to act natural, but he could do little besides looking at Daisy and following her gaze to a cluster of trees opposite from the one she arrived through. Finally, the special friend arrived on a bike, peering over his shoulder. The couple sat down together, and Daisy burst into tears. Robby got out his guitar and started playing “Last Last Night.”
Last Last Night | Source: © Robby Hecht – Topic/YouTube
This private concert in El Paso happened because Robby sang the soundtrack of the relationship for these two Texans, such as it was. Their relationship existed beyond of the prying eyes of larger society, and was likely known about by less than a handful of close confidants. These two arrived separately from opposite directions; they departed in the same way, to separate lives that were being pulled away from each other, seemingly forever. Robby, a folk singer well outside of pop culture celebrity, was a musical parallel to their relationship.
Fame is in the eye of the beholder. Put slightly differently, the beholder of a celebrity matters as much as the number of eyes and beholders focused on that celebrity. There are myriad mainstream celebrities. Your mileage will vary on each based on your own interests, beliefs, nationality, and a whole host of other factors.
Mass media creates celebrities as they are popularly conceived. And celebrities use mass media to establish and further their fame. Gone is the monoculture, the concept of everybody in the United States focusing on the same mass media. The increasingly fragmented Nielsen ratings reflect this change, and now people mix and match mainstream celebrities from amongst the horde instead of all focusing on the same few. This growing number of relatively less famous and less beloved celebrities means that one’s demographic data plays an inordinate role in determining one’s favored celebrities. Embracing this or that celebrity is increasingly a signal towards other, deeper beliefs a person holds.
Nike releases full ad featuring Colin Kaepernick | Source: © Guardian Sport/YouTube
Colin Kaepernick starred in a Nike advertising campaign centered around his beliefs. That campaign — based off Kaepernick’s flashpoint celebrity — embraced the former football player’s image as a person who willingly became an NFL pariah because of his need to kneel down for social justice. Nike only furthered a sports-generated debate that had already risen to a staged Vice Presidential walkout that was itself about growing personal fame and signaling beliefs. Kaepernick starred in that ad because Nike believed that by embracing the outlawed former quarterback, the company would attract the business of everyone who wants to signal with their running shoes that they hate Donald Trump. The running-shoe-buying demographic seems to have supported that assessment. In this case, the celebrity endorsement was not about a person but rather an idea.
Embracing this or that celebrity is increasingly a signal towards other, deeper beliefs a person holds.
Given the fragmented global media landscape, huge pockets and blind spots of celebrity exist. In the United States, the home of so much mass media, our blind spots that exist can be especially vast. Imran Khan, so far as he is known in the United States, is famous for being the current Pakistani Prime Minister. But Khan actually achieved that position by leveraging his celebrity as captain of the Pakistani cricket team; a politician’s celebrity pales when compared to leading your country to victory over India and defeating England in London. Approximately 1/7 of the world watched a cricket match between India and Pakistan in 2015 — over ten times the people who watched this year’s Super Bowl — so Khan’s athlete-turned-politician celebrity appeal is unrivaled by anything ever seen in the United States. However, a whole nation and sport that Americans don’t care about does not a niche make.
How Pakistan’s cricket superstar became prime minister | Source: © Vox/YouTube
We conceive fame through the lens of mass media celebrity, and yet countless “niche celebrities” exist outside of the scope of that lens. Niche celebrities — people who are extremely famous or well-regarded in a certain fairly obscure community or subset of people but anonymous in larger society — are all around. Yet if you are not “in” on that community or subset, you would never know of them.
Niche celebrities are not famous by volume by rather by the degree and dedication of their fandom. Their fanbase in disproportionately dedicated. Niche celebrities can usually eat unassumingly at restaurants, blend into the wall at a spouse’s holiday party, and have conversations with strangers and acquaintances that don’t included those people asking about unshared biographical details. If you’re not a fan of the particular niche, you would never know this celebrity exists. Even a spouse is often unlikely to know the specifics of a partner’s niche, merely knowing tangentially about it through its importance in that partner’s life.
A niche celebrity does not always stay niche. Take, for example, Jordan Peterson. Before The New York Times called him a “Custodian of the Patriarchy” and his bestselling book was outed for its pseudoscientific lobster analysis (among other fictions masquerading as facts), Peterson was just a Canadian professor with a cult-like following. His ideas did not spread through the mainstream media that eventually started identifying all the bullshit in his theories around early 2018; instead, word of mouth and niche websites introduced Peterson to his plethora of dedicated twenty- and thirty-something men before the mainstream had an idea of who he was. His ideas were grappled with person to person and Reddit thread to Reddit thread, all the time solely among credulous fans. I personally heard his fandom invoked as an example of deep friendship during a best man speech, and missed engaging with his ideas myself by neglecting a recommendation. The personal nature of this introduction created a depth of devotion in Peterson fans that a mainstream celebrity doesn’t have.
Finding out that you share a popular common interest with someone is, well, commonplace. Finding a common interest that very few people share naturally feels more important and connects more closely.
The distinction between mainstream and niche fame, like celebrity itself, is to a certain degree in the eyes of the beholder. Peterson moved out of the niche when his ideas became highlighted (and lampooned) in mainstream publications. That change coincided with an increase in non-acolyte fans, though pinpointing the causal order there is difficult. Niche fandom can exist inside of mainstream interests as well. For example, Star Wars is mainstream, and lightsaber dueling is niche (though, like Peterson before it, increasingly less so). Niche fame must be considered on a case by case basis, but it should be recognized by its depth and apartness: niche celebrities have extremely dedicated fans who exercise their fandom beyond the sight of non-fans.
Robby Hecht, Niche Celebrity
Robby Hecht currently has a little over 40,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. That is enough that Spotify sends you a check sometimes, but at a fraction of a cent per stream, the check isn’t very large. He tours, generally with another folk musician friend with whom he plays joint concerts (and sometimes creates joint albums). These concerts are primarily at smaller, folk-specific venues and house concerts. In December 2009, Robby Hecht’s fame was lesser and less quantifiable. He was working on his second album that would become The Last of the Long Days when he received the following email from an account that was created specifically to talk to him.
I am a huge fan and have a brief question before I ask more questions. Are you available to play an extremely small, venue on January 6th by chance?
More to follow, and thanks for your time and your music.
It turns out that by extremely small venue, Daisy meant a private show for two at a secluded meeting spot. Daisy wanted to hire Robby to perform, but she only spoke in euphemism and suggestion in case the concert fell through. Her subsequent email communicated in part:
There really is no special occasion, per se, only a wish to surprise a special friend with something beautiful, in light of his surprising me often with his friendship and generosity. Your music has come to mean something to us collectively, and I know this would bowl him over. I would enjoy the opportunity to hear you play so much as well… Thanks so much for even entertaining the idea. To think it might happen is quite something for me to hold — that we might share it as a memory would be more than I could ask for. Thanks again, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Robby Hecht would be “something beautiful.” But, really, Daisy highlights the true beauty of niche celebrity here. A niche celebrity is accessible in a way that a mainstream celebrity can never be (assuming you don’t have $250k to lure Drake to your Bar Mitzvah party). Fans share a niche celebrity as a secret amongst themselves, and a niche celebrity in turn can engage fans on a personal level.
Podcasts: A Growing Realm of Growing Niches
There seems to be a joke among established podcasters that everybody has a podcast. The joke likely stems from the barrier of entry to start one, which is basically nonexistent, as much as it does the volume of podcasts. However, so many podcasts exist because of their ability to appeal to anyone and everyone. It helps that you can listen on demand while you do the dishes, but the medium’s ability to appeal to any particular niche is its real strength. Consider the genre of history podcasts. This whole genre seems to be a niche category; it is not popular enough to join one of the 16 podcast categories on iTunes, and one would not immediately know that history belongs in the “society & culture” category. Among the non-history members of the same category are extremely popular longform comedic time sucks3 such as The Joe Rogan Experience and The Bachelor rundowns from former contestants such as Nick Viall’s The Viall Files. Yet even within the history podcast niche, recreational history consumers have options of varying degrees of mainstream.
History is a broad category, and some episodes of it have more modern appeal than others. If interested in a relatively mainstream topic such as World War I, a person has lots of choices. These range from the very popular — e.g. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History’s six episode, approximately 23 hour “Blueprint for Armageddon” series — to the nuanced and specific — e.g. When Diplomacy Fails’ 38 episodes (and counting) dive into the Versailles negotiations — to the sprawling and unedited — e.g. The History of the Great War, which is also currently on Versailles after 180 episodes of buildup and conflict. If World War I is too mainstream, a person could, for example, dive into the Italian Unification through Talking History’s 50 episodes, or sample interesting historical figures through The Almost Forgotten’s episodic dives into people such as Mithridates the Great, Eugene of Savoy, or Chandragupta Maurya. There is a history podcast for every interest.
Joe Rogan Experience #1041- Dan Carlin | Source: © Powerful JRE/YouTube
Of course, there was not always a history podcast for every interest. Today in this niche community, podcaster Mike Duncan is a giant celebrity. Duncan launched his The History of Rome podcast in 2007 after stumbling across podcasts, looking for one on Roman history, and realizing it didn’t yet exist. He has subsequently established a dedicated following that he has leveraged into a second successful history podcast, Revolutions, as well as a New York Times bestselling book about Roman history. Of course history podcast listeners aren’t exactly mainstream people, so Duncan’s fame exists in the fringes of audio. But for those people who are fans, he is extremely accessible. Duncan has held several podcast-themed tours of American and European cities with podcast fans who want to see the sites discussed by the podcaster with the podcaster. These fans have responded by filling every single tour to capacity. The depth of niche celebrity fandom is disproportionate to the breadth.
Niche fame must be considered on a case by case basis, but it should be recognized by its depth and apartness: niche celebrities have extremely dedicated fans who exercise their fandom beyond the sight of non-fans.
Podcasts need not be niche, though. Serial first achieved wider societal notoriety with its true crime investigation into the events surrounding the murder of Hae Min Lee and simultaneously introduced its medium. Today, there are mainstream podcasts — and celebrity hosts — for a number of mainstream interests. For a news roundup to start your day, there’s The New York Times’ The Daily or NPR’s Up First. For irreverent sports talk with the patina of sexism, there’s Pardon My Take. For light yet deep learning about any topic under the sun, there’s Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark with Stuff You Should Know; Clark and Bryant, like many other podcast hosts, take their show on the road, traveling and performing live if not quite providing live tours of the podcast topics.
Chuck Bryant & Josh Clark: “Stuff You Should Know” | Talks at Google | Source: © Talks at Google/YouTube
The Savage Lovecast has achieved mainstream success despite its focus on verboten-in-the-mainstream sexual topics, because when you repurpose close-minded voices into really useful phrases like ‘Santorum’ and ‘saddlebacking,’ the people will listen. Host Dan Savage has also taken the podcast tour a step further than most with his nation-touring amateur porn festival, Hump. The kind of dedication that leads to fans filming themselves engaging in various degrees of sex act for strangers in 37 different North American cities highlights the power of niche celebrity. Kim Kardashian, definite mainstream celebrity, had a sex tape “leak” to the public, yet it remains her own one-off display of her burgeoning celebrity; Dan Savage and his audio-celebration of love and kink allows fans to choose to become porn stars for a night for the benefit of the whole niche community. Either because of or as a result of fans’ disproportionate dedication, niche celebrities are fan-facing. Their fame channels back into their adoring community.
Podcasts, then, don’t just inspire niche fandom because they can and do appeal to many different communities. This medium allows fans to feel a personal connection, and so the dedication of those fans manifests disproportionately to their number. This personal touch, this playing on demand upon request, has striking parallels with the folk musician’s house concert. These concerts, inside someone’s house, allow the musician to perform for a fan and all of her friends. This is the type of show, albeit not the exact type of venue, that Daisy Buchanan ultimately requested from Robby.
Niche Fandom Eclipses Boundaries
Daisy’s desire to bring Robby into her heretofore secret relationship certainly reflected a depth of fandom beyond his celebrity by any traditional standard. In Daisy’s words:
I know this sounds highly unconventional across the board, but I suppose it goes in keeping with the unconventional friendship I share with my friend. I appreciate so much your willingness to take a leap and make something very cool happen for folks you don’t even know.
They knew him. Robby’s niche fame channeled back into his adoring community, and so Robby was in El Paso to perform.
The Ends and the Means | Source: © Robby Hecht – Topic/YouTube
During the concert, Daisy wept. She wept for the entirety of Robby’s short, secluded set. Her unnamed partner — we’ll call him “Jay” — sat next to her, uncomfortably consoling her. His arm reached around her, only skimming the surface of her shoulders. He didn’t speak a word. When the show was over, they hugged briefly. Then Jay got back on his bike and pedaled the other way through the trees.
Daisy walked Robby back to the subway. On this walk she finally spoke. Jay was moving away, to the East Coast, and she didn’t know if they’d see each other again. She was thinking of moving to Chicago too for a change of scenery. El Paso was a place they shared together, and Daisy wanted none of it alone. Robby got in his car, pulled a granola bar out of the gift bag, and drove back to the airport. His fame in El Paso, like the city itself, appeared inseparable from the relationship.
Connections that Last
Fandom forges a bond between members of the fanbase. That’s why strangers high five and hug during sporting events, Lady Gaga fans collaborate to negatively review a movie they haven’t seen, and meetup.com exists. When it comes to fans of niche celebrity, the bond forms even more tightly. Finding out that you share a popular common interest with someone is, well, commonplace. Finding a common interest that very few people share naturally feels more important and connects more closely. In our fragmented and digital world, it is increasingly likely that a niche celebrity interest is one that a person does not experience with IRL friends. Desire to share niche fandom in person is why I heard Jordan Peterson mentioned by a best man, and it’s why I own two Revolutions T-shirts that I always hope will be commented upon. Sharing a deep love of something with only one person you know is special, even intimate.
Either because of or as a result of fans’ disproportionate dedication, niche celebrities are fan-facing. Their fame channels back into their adoring community.
Through Robby’s niche of fame, the “special friends” Daisy and Jay had such a connection. It was one such intimate connection they shared, and it was one of several that they shared in secret. But they did not, as it turned out, have to share it alone forever. In 2014, Robby was in Austin, TX getting ready to play a show. While he was getting set up, Daisy and Jay came up to him. They were together, they were holding hands, and they were surrounded by fans of Robby Hecht. Daisy and Jay were ready to share their loves, for Robby and for each other, with the world. Or at the very least with a venue full of similar niche-dwellers.