The Technium: The Case Against 1000 True Fans

My 1000 True Fans post provoked much discussion on other blogs. One blogger mentioned in passing that Brian Austin Whitney had suggested a very similar idea a few years ago. I had not heard Whitney, nor his proposition, and I missed this reference while researching, but I am impressed with how convergent our ideas are. Whitney organized Just Plain Folks, a community for independent artists. Writing on New Year’s Eve 2004, Whitney said

I have a notion that we’re turning a corner (or experiencing a swing in the pendulum) where an artist who focuses on a smaller number of fans and serves them with a high level of direct interaction and communication will be the new model for success, even in the face of new technology and the shift in old school music business procedures. I think a new definition of success will be the artist who has 5000 passionate fans worldwide who spend 20-30 dollars a year on your creative output.

Four months later, on tax day, blogging musician Scott Andrew picked up Whitney’s notion and expanded on it under the title of 5000 Fans.

Brian pointed out that an artist who has 5000 hardcore fans to give him or her $20 each year — be if from CDs, ticket sales, merchandise, donations, whatever — stands to make $100K per year, more than enough to quit the day job and still have health insurance and a decent car. Now, 5000 is a big number, but not that big. That’s like, what, one-eighth of an average baseball stadium? And you might not even need that many. Here’s an exercise: take your own salary, pre-taxes, and divide it by 20. If you were to quit your job right now and start living as a full-time musician, poet or author, that’s how many fans you’d need, spending $20 each year to support your art. So, if you’re making $30K yearly, you’d need 1500 paying fans each year to replace your salary. And it gets better if you’re willing to take a pay cut. In Washington state, where I live, a person working for minimum wage would only need around 700 paying fans. The attraction of 5000 Fans Theory is that the numbers, while still large, are very much attainable. You really don’t need millions of fans across the globe to be a career artist, just a few thousand who actually care. And: the committment to find them.

Like Whitney and Andrew, I think there is something important and liberating in seeking a finite attainable number of passionate fans rather than hoping for a rare best-selling career backed by millions of folks who have just heard about you. The problem is that while investigating the data for my thesis, I was unable to find much that could convince me that anyone is actually supporting themselves with 1000 or even 5000 True Fans now. I did get hard financial information from seven creators, in various arts, who are currently supporting themselves in some manner, and to some degree, with True Fans. I got a lot of partial information from about 2 dozen other artists, but these incomplete profiles were difficult to evaluate consistently, so I have not plotted them. The results are displayed in this table:


Going left to right, the chart lists the type of artist, how many True Fans they think they have, how much each fan spends on the artist in a year, the total annual yield of the True Fans, the percentage of their total income the artist estimates this is, the number of years they have been relying on True Fans, and what they actually sell to the fans.

What my research tells me: there are very few artists making their entire living selling directly to True Fans. The few that are, are selling high-priced goods, like paintings, rather than low-priced goods like CDs. But there are many that partially fund their livelihood with direct True Fans. However, most of these artists make it very clear in their notes to me: It takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself. And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so. The fact that very few creators wholly sustain themselves with direct True Fans may be because it is a job few want to do for very long.

True-fan-dom is also certainly not a goal that very many creators have life-long yearnings for, which may be another reason few are doing it. Who dreams of having only 1000 True Fans instead of making a record that goes platinum, or penning a best-seller? Nobody. At least not yet.

But ever the optimist, I am heartened that with some work, it is possible to find partial support from direct True Fans. Micro patronage has always been an option, and indeed a part of, most artist’s livelihood. What is different now is the reach and power of technology, which makes it much easier to match up an artist with the right passionate micro patrons, keep them connected, serve them up created works, get payment from them directly, and nurture their interest and love. In previous generations the hefty transaction costs of doing all this made living off of True Fans impossible in practice. My chart shows that it is now possible in practice, though very few are doing it extensively. I think as role models emerge, as business models shift, and as technology continues to lower the transaction costs, more artists will avail themselves of this path. Time will tell.


Jaron Lanier at the piano at a house concert, a choice venue for True Fans.

Let me leave this topic with one last challenge. This comes from my friend Jaron Lanier, himself a musician (and inventor of virtual reality). Jaron has been researching a similar space as True Fans, and as I have, he is also seeking actual cases of “them that is doing it.” He did not find many claiming to be doing it. In fact Jaron concludes that at this moment, most of those musicians making a living in the new direct-fan environments are musicians who made a name first in the traditional mediums of labels, CDs, contracts, or TV, commercial sponsorship. Jaron is investigating only musicians, and his definition of the type of emerging musician he is looking for goes like this:

The musician’s career is not a legacy of the old system (such as Radiohead). The musician has not merely gotten a lot of exposure, but is earning a living wage. I’ll define a living wage as a predictable income sufficient to raise a child. Finally, most of the musician’s income derives from sources that would still be robust in an “open” world that is highly friendly to massive, unregulated file sharing. These include live performances, paid ads on the musician’s website, merchandising, and paid downloads (like iTunes), but does not include label contracts, movie soundtrack placement, and other revenue streams that rely on old, declining media.

Jaron claims that he has not found a single musician that meets this definition. In other words, he claims that there are no musicians who have risen to a successful livelihood within the new media environment. None. No musician who is succeeding solely on the generatives I outline in Better Than Free. No musician born digital, and making a living in the new media.

I bet Jaron there might be three musicians (or bands) out there who meet his definition, but I did not know who they were.

To prove Jaron wrong, simply submit a candidate in the comments: a musician with no ties to old media models, now making 100% of their living in the open media environment.

If none are offered, I surrender the case to Jaron.