There are two phenomena right now on the Interweb. One: access to self-distribution (for artists and small labels) means artmakers can explore new models for the business that supports their work. Two: an open market for ideas (the blogosphere, namely) means if you can come up with some pithy something or other, you can achieve overnight fame. Of course, the former is considerably tougher than the latter. And don’t make that idea too complicated or nuanced, because you’ll lose the link-happy bloggers impatient for you to help topple the conventional Record Industry.

Latest case in point: Kevin Kelly posits the notion of 1,000 True Fans as the magic number you need to support yourself as an artist:

…defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

Can you put a dollar figure on this kind of fan? Sure you can: in this case that average number is US$100. It’s all made up, of course, but for someone it’s doable.

Chris Randall at Analogue Industries brings this all back to reality by suggesting you might want to not suck, not be a jerk to your fans, and not experiment with your style so much that you alienate your fans. (I’ll add: if you happy to be the Next Bob Dylan, maybe you can get away with that last one. Or even the second of those.)

It is an interesting idea, but I’d simply say, hit that spreadsheet a little harder. In the new music world, a handful of voices has tried to encourage classically-trained composers to bring back the commission. It hasn’t caught on, necessarily, but it’s still a great idea. Now, in this case, you might not want — or be able to get — 1,000 fans spending $100 as described here. But there might be one person willing to write a $5,000 commission, in exchange for seeing their name associated with a single, special piece of music. And you might get 200 starving musicians to see the concert for free. There are lots of different combinations here, and all that really matters is that the numbers add up for you. The 1,000 number isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, just because “you could count to 1,000” or you could add one fan each day. (Remember, that’s true fan each day, which isn’t feasible for a lot of great artists.) Then again, maybe the most important thing is picking a plan and pursuing it.

The real reason I mention this, though, is after suggesting some ridiculous incentives Trent Reznor could use to increase his scale from Free to $300 to Free to $300,000, someone has done basically what I was going to suggest.

Canadian artist Jill Sobule, cited as an example in the 1,000 true fans story, says to fans for $10,000 “you get to come and sing on my CD. Don’t worry if you can’t sing – we can fix that on our end.” For $5,000, she’ll come perform a concert at your house. Wired News covers all the options.

Now, you could say, this is more marketing than business — and you’d be right. But as I chuckle at the “Gold Doubloons Level,” I’m reminded that marketing is the point of the whole thing. After all, it’s just music. So, gimmicky as the blogosphere hooks could be, maybe the artists are onto something. It’s just going to take a lot of follow-through, artistically and building your fan base.

And you definitely can’t afford to be a jerk.

  • Nice to see finally somebody reporting on what has actually been happening for a few years now. There are labels out there existing on the margins without distribution (who they have turned their backs on), without iTunes, MySpace, Facebook and any other rich media providers. Labels working on their own terms and with a hardcore of people supporting values which have never been compromised.

    I run such a label and it feels good to be in the word totally independent of everyone and everything, it's the ultimate freedom.

    I give over 25GB of audio away at my website and just about get enough back to pay all the bills.

    The ability to create without compromise and interference is the future but sadly too many chumps out there don't see this and still try to work the sinking industry via outdated business models and distribution networks.

    It is the best of all times and the worst of all times.

  • Great, I already have 1 true fan (although my wife doesn't pay for anything I do)

  • Spinner

    I'm sorry but the "1000 true fan" scenario is probably one of the dumbest thing I've read in a long while. In the DIY record business there seems to be a illusion going round: Yes I can make money on records without spending any money or having any market or business experience….

    Anyone who's ever had a gig and tried to convince they're buddies to turn up knows how hard it is to make people support your band and your suggesting I should try and do something similar with a 1000 random strangers………….? This is a bullshit number you could as easily say you only need 1 true fan – just make sure he's the Sultan of Brunei and you're sorted.

  • Ha! Well said, Spinner.

    I will say, though, the *basic* model possible here — kill the overhead, and get a consistent, dedicated base of people spending a chunk of money — could be a good one for a smaller label. But yeah, there's not mcuh to the specific argument other than an oversimplification of things. "True fans" spending money — that's a good idea. "1000"? Probably not realistic for the blogger in question or the people passing this thing around.

  • i only have one thing to say about this…

  • Peter,

    In the second to last sentence, did you mean the artists are "on something" or "on to something"?

  • Ah, I like that, proem. Looks very sensible. The other stuff seems to be tending toward overcomplicating the issue…

  • @kempton:

    I meant "onto", but the former may have been a better choice. 😉

  • Keep in mind, "fan" is short for "fanatic", or stalker. So while we try to make a living out of music, we're essentially trying to accumulate a following of crazed stalkers. We'll suddenly feel responsible for them all, and meanwhile they'll all insist we somehow owe them something (reunion concerts, play the hit single, lead us into battle against the Romans, etc.) — then, maybe one day down the road, we'll get shot and killed by one of them.

    But hey, that's part of the job… like they say, if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. 😉

  • Eric C.

    One question: The 1000-True-Fans article, and this article, focus on musicians. And the premise is that if you can get 1000 "true fans" to spend $100 per year, every year, you can make a decent income. None of the musicians that I know put out enough product to make $100 per person per year.

    Let's say you put out one album a year. $15 bucks. And let's say every fan buys an extra copy for a non-fan. $30. Two new t-shirts a year. $10×2+$30=$50. Two shows a month. 25% of $5 doorx24+$50=$70.

    So busting your ass, putting out a new album and two t-shirts every year, plus a show every-other week, you get $70. You could play more shows, but you'll quickly saturate your audience. Even true fans won't see the same show every week. (Maybe 1000 true stalkers, but that's another article.) You'd have to start touring.

    None of this considers costs. You can shrink the cost of CDs by releasing online, but you can't cut t-shirt or touring costs.

    I like the idea that musicians don't have to be superstars to be able to do it full time. I just think the 1000 true fans idea is a bit unrealistic.

  • The funny thing is with all you doing equations and bagging on how this cannot work is that i am personally making it work with much less than a 1000 people hardcore supporting my work.

    If i had 1000 people buying everything i made i would be very well off these days. Don't even think as well for one minute what i make is substandard. For instance in 2006 i made a 6CD box set which i sold for £15 including postage anywhere in the world and this set won an award of distinction at the ARS Technica awards.

    The thing about that box-set was six months before its release i gave all the audio away. Yet i still presold enough to make the thing at no loss. Well before Thom Yorke and Radiodead and also Nine Inch Fails.

    We are already ahead of these people, small networks of labels out there trying new things and not ball and chained to some dull desk job.

    There's nothing difficult to understand about making this work only that you cut out all the middle men.

    Oh and i don't tour anymore or send any kind of promo material out. Yet the label and operation i run is more future proof than those around me in a simillar niche who rely on traditional distribution and also iTunes as distribution is going to be gone in around 5-10 years and will take the majority of labels with it.

    Quite why people are saying that this is an impossible idea is ridiculous. Come and talk to me about it and move into the here and now instead of all clinging onto old and outdated values about music production and consumption.

    The main thing you all want is the ability to create each day with a modicum of financial pressure ideas like this come along too many of you are not open minded enough to accept todays challenge and go with it.

    Remember not all created media is worth money.

  • Eric C.

    V/VM, I don't know if your last comment is aimed at me or not, but to be clear, I'm not bagging on the idea of independent artists making a living. I'm doing the same thing, so of course I want it to work out well.

    Your 6-CD set sounds great. Do you think it's practical to produce a 6-CD set every year? Did you do one in 2007? And in 2008? That seems to be to point of the original article – that a sustainable life can come from 1000 fans.

    I know it's possible to make a life as an indy artist. 1000 people, each spending $100 to net $100,000 seems out of step from reality. That's all I'm saying. 2000 mediocre fans spending $20 each netting $40,000 is much closer to the reality of every successful indy artist that I know.

  • Boy, I hope I don't have to spend $100 on an artist to be a non-mediocre fan. 🙂

    But, you know, as hard as we are on musicians, the nature of a lot of freelance businesses is putting together more than one revenue stream. I think quite a few of my all-time favorite artists have other gigs or even day jobs. So I don't see any shame in that. And naturally, to *whatever* extent we can support our art, it's a good thing. There's no reason to have to assume you have to do it entirely for free.

  • brad

    I'll just settle for 5-6000 fans that think i'm "OK", and release vinyl autographed in my eyeliner.

    @V/Vm- "Nine Inch Fails"? I'm not a big fan, and I fournd the method for this release to be a bit confusing for the average listener, but they sold 2500 of those $300 box sets in a day and probably could have easiyl doubled that. A respectable $750,000. No label to pay off, no physical promotion to pay for, only 10 weeks in a studio that he owns, and he didn't even have to write any lyrics (thank god!!) !!!! On top of that, the other versions have no doubt been selling. I want to make that kind of money and just kick it with modular synths all day dicking around in the studio!!!

    Right now I'll settle for editing and net-readying songs for the internet for my neighbors label. Could be worse.


  • Eric,last year i didn't do any physical releases surviving of older releases and new people who found the label. This year i will work on something similar again giving all the audio away at the same time as making a physical sale it all depends as an artist with what you need to live a comfortable life. I need very little so survive well on minimal releases which cover rent, food and drink and that leaves me with more time to make things and give things away.

    My only point in posts above is that it is possible if you make a website to survive on your own with the help of people who support that independent attitude.

    I get 1000 hits a day with no advertising and only word of mouth as promotion and existing releases maybe out of the 1000 just 1 person is interested enough to buy something or donate some cash, so in that sense the more i can do and give away the more likely i am to get some kind of revenue.

    as for Nine Inch Nails they did what they did with this release and should be applauded for this, but still these big artists could do more. I mean $300 for a boxset. this is ridiculous and alienates so many people who cannot afford to pay. It's not like Trent needs the cash at the end of the day, but top end musicians sadly are only motivated by big $$$$ no matter what codswallop they say in interviews.

    One great thing i have noticed over the years though about giving a lot of free audio away is the attention you get from places like Russia, Poland and also increasingly more developing countries who are getting a bigger online presence. Traditionally you could never really sell to these people and it's great to be able to reach out online to people who otherwise would be alienated.

    It's a great time right now.

  • Machines

    I don't weigh in very often around here, but I'm in agreement that the 1,000 number seems to be kind of arbitrary. The idea is there, but the number is clearly pulled out of you know where.

    @V/Vm: as for Nine Inch Nails they did what they did with this release and should be applauded for this, but still these big artists could do more. I mean $300 for a boxset. this is ridiculous and alienates so many people who cannot afford to pay. It’s not like Trent needs the cash at the end of the day, but top end musicians sadly are only motivated by big $$$$ no matter what codswallop they say in interviews.

    I'm not a major NIN fan, but I really don't think their $300 box set is alienating anyone. There are plenty of packages that they are making available to people so everyone can listen to the music. If you're a hardcore fan who's got 300 bones to drop on a box set with some cool artwork and a book, that's an awesome option to have. For those of us casuals who just want to check it out, we can stream the first part for free. I don't see a problem with any of that or how it "fails" in any sense of the word.

  • fudduf

    @V/Vm: keep in mind you had quite a bit of a head start, and have migrated from the "traditional" system which you started from.

    i do think it's a bit idealistic/naive to think that other artists can achieve the same success that you have right now if they just started out that way. i generally agree with your comments about where we're headed, however there is simply way too much music being made/self-released to be able to sift through it all without SOME sort of filter. i'm not saying that filter necessarily needs to cost any money, but i don't think any new artist should expect to maintain a living just by making a website and assuming it will reach people without any additional effort.

  • Fudduf i get what you're saying and agree in part, but then when i started releasing audio physically back in 1996 it certainly wasn't easy then as you had to fight the industry to get heard. I spent one year going from shop to shop with boxes of vinyl to be turned away from almost everywhere.

    Two years of this and at the time improving product somehow ended in 1998 with V/Vm on the cover of The Wire magazine. Just combinations of hard work and determination coupled with finding some good music at the time really got me in the position i am in today which really is nowhere but able to just about survive.

    If the audio is different enough and also progressive in terms of style it will be noticed and people will be interested in output even if it is promoted on just myspace, your own site, facebook or any other media rich provider.

    Filters right now are poor online, this will be one area where it will improve as time goes on you can bet your bottom dollar on that as the amount of audio/video/art created online is massive. Slowly a new network will appear but this will be personal to you (via blogs/sites you trust) and that network will provide what in the past traditional print media provided.

    For now the important thing is content and making good (or in my case bad) audio and getting it out there or certainly ready to be made available out there.

    It's a strange question for me to ask myself would i rather be starting out back in 1996 with only traditional forms of ditribution or now where really anything is possible from a bedroom and everything is immediate ?

    It's a question i find tough to answer as now i have the advantages of today on the back of all the hard work i did in the past and the experience of those days which were very hard but also rewarding of course.

    It's exciting times for us all right now and no-one really can say where everything is headed.