Came across this really interesting article about how artists can make a decent living if they have at least 1,000 true fans. Considering Mr. David Archuleta got over 12,000 “likes” for a picture of spaghetti, methinks he’ll be okay. (Does anything in the second paragraph sound familiar? )
Here are the highlights:
The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply: A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
A True Fan is 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.
To raise your sales out of the flatline of the long tail you need to connect with your True Fans directly. Another way to state this is, you need to convert a thousand Lesser Fans into a thousand True Fans.
Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day’s wages per year in support of what you do. That “one-day-wage” is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let’s peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.
One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable. Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.
The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans. They are giving you their support directly. Maybe they come to your house concerts, or they are buying your DVDs from your website, or they order your prints from Pictopia. As much as possible you retain the full amount of their support. You also benefit from the direct feedback and love …
This small circle of diehard fans, which can provide you with a living, is surrounded by concentric circles of Lesser Fans. These folks will not purchase everything you do, and may not seek out direct contact, but they will buy much of what you produce. The processes you develop to feed your True Fans will also nurture Lesser Fans. As you acquire new True Fans, you can also add many more Lesser Fans. If you keep going, you may indeed end up with millions of fans and reach a hit. I don’t know of any creator who is not interested in having a million fans.
But the point of this strategy is to say that you don’t need a hit to survive. You don’t need to aim for the short head of best-sellerdom to escape the long tail. There is a place in the middle, that is not very far away from the tail, where you can at least make a living. That mid-way haven is called 1,000 True Fans. It is an alternate destination for an artist to aim for…
An important caution: Not every artist is cut out, or willing, to be a nurturer of fans. Many musicians just want to play music, or photographers just want to shoot, or painters paint, and they temperamentally don’t want to deal with fans, especially True Fans. For these creatives, they need a mediator, a manager, a handler, an agent, a galleryist — someone to manage their fans. Nonetheless, they can still aim for the same middle destination of 1,000 True Fans. They are just working in a duet.
In 1999 John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier published a model for this in First Monday, an online journal. They called it the Street Performer Protocol.
Using the logic of a street performer, the author goes directly to the readers before the book is published; perhaps even before the book is written. The author bypasses the publisher and makes a public statement on the order of: “When I get $100,000 in donations, I will release the next novel in this series.”
Readers can go to the author’s Web site, see how much money has already been donated, and donate money to the cause of getting his novel out. Note that the author doesn’t care who pays to get the next chapter out; nor does he care how many people read the book that didn’t pay for it. He just cares that his $100,000 pot gets filled. When it does, he publishes the next book. In this case “publish” simply means “make available,” not “bind and distribute through bookstores.” The book is made available, free of charge, to everyone: those who paid for it and those who did not.
New models of support include micro-patronage. Another model is pre-financing the startup costs. Digital technology enables this fan support to take many shapes. Fundable is a web-based enterprise which allows anyone to raise a fixed amount of money for a project, while reassuring the backers the project will happen. Fundable withholds the money until the full amount is collected. They return the money if the minimum is not reached.
Here’s an example from Fundable’s site;
Amelia, a twenty-year-old classical soprano singer, pre-sold her first CD before entering a recording studio. “If I get $400 in pre-orders, I will be able to afford the rest [of the studio costs],” she told potential contributors. Fundable’s all-or-nothing model ensured that none of her customers would lose money if she fell short of her goal. Amelia sold over $940 in albums.
A thousand dollars won’t keep even a starving artist alive long, but with serious attention, a dedicated artist can do better with their True Fans. Jill Sobule, a musician who has nurtured a sizable following over many years of touring and recording, is doing well relying on her True Fans. Recently she decided to go to her fans to finance the $75,000 professional recording fees she needed for her next album. She has raised close to $50,000 so far. By directly supporting her via their patronage, the fans gain intimacy with their artist. According to the Associated Press:
Contributors can choose a level of pledges ranging from the $10 “unpolished rock,” which earns them a free digital download of her disc when it’s made, to the $10,000 “weapons-grade plutonium level,” where she promises “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 a $5,000 contribution, Sobule said she’ll perform a concert in the donor’s house. The lower levels are more popular, where donors can earn things like an advanced copy of the CD, a mention in the liner notes and a T-shirt identifying them as a “junior executive producer” of the CD.
The usual alternative to making a living based on True Fans is poverty. A study as recently as 1995 showed that the accepted price of being an artist was large. Sociologist Ruth Towse surveyed artists in Britian and determined that on average they earned below poverty subsistence levels.
I am suggesting there is a home for creatives in between poverty and stardom. Somewhere lower than stratospheric bestsellerdom, but higher than the obscurity of the long tail. I don’t know the actual true number, but I think a dedicated artist could cultivate 1,000 True Fans, and by their direct support using new technology, make an honest living. I’d love to hear from anyone who might have settled on such a path.