March 09, 2008

The myth of 1,000 true fans

A post that came out a few days ago and has been commented on in many places was Kevin Kelley's 1,000 True Fans, which makes the case that 1,000 such fans, each spending $100 a year on your product, can provide a viable income for an artist. I can only access a cached copy of it from here.

It doesn't seem to work as advertised. The 1,000 fans paying $100 spring out of nowhere, and there's almost certainly a power law to be applied that makes the plan look more realistic and less achievable. Looking at it it very conservatively, with simple numbers, and using a solo musician as the example:

For a 1,000 'true fans' to spend $100 a year [e.g. gigs at the kind of low ticket prices / cut that such a niche performer can command, plus CDs], you'd also need 10,000 to spend $10 [the CD], 100,000 to spend $1 [one or two iTunes downloads], and 1 million to be 'true friends', people who appreciate what you do but don't pay a cent. Then you get your income of $100,000 a year. For a band with four-members and no manager, multiply the above by four to get the same pay. Very soon this moves from being an exciting new idea to exactly how all slightly successful indie musicians have always got by. It's another book being written on the back of a snappy title and a not very profound idea, but one couched in enough terms of personal success, both artistic and financial, that it should appeal to the liberal arts students who have never picked up $$$ self-help book before.

Aside: I've loved The Smiths since they first came out and would consider myself a true fan, even though I've probably only spent a total of US $15 on them in over twenty years. People borrow LPs and CDs. Ownership is not a big deal. Possessions aren't great things to accrue.

In Kelley's defense, he does note:
My formula may be off by an order of magnitude, but even so, its far less than a million.
So...maybe not 1,000 true fans, but 10,000 or a 100,000, with commensurate increases in all the figures outlined above, kind of skewing his thesis from flawed to useless.

Here's something else. Most creative endeavours fail finacially. Again, it probably follows a power law distribution. For example:
JK Rowling has earned $1 billion over the last 10 years - keeping numbers simple enough for me to follow, so we'd expect 10 authors to have earned $100 million, 100 to have $10 million, 1,000 to have $1 million, and 10,000 to have earned S100,000, and so on, right down to all those who've made nothing from their work. A simplification, but the basic idea is clear.

Two things to add. First is the obvious survivorship bias of all the 'winners'. They'll talk about their struggles and the benefits of hard work, of never giving up, and the 'losers' will wrongly take away from this that with hard work and perseverance success is assured. Listening to the winners is nice, but the stories of the losers is far more important.

Second, find a job that you enjoy or learn how to enjoy your job. Interacting on a daily basis with people who hate their place in the world is tiring and makes each transaction sordid, like a crime, and of all the people it hurts it hurts yourself most of all.


Anonymous said...

It's kind of funny that you take Kevin Kelly's definition of "True Fan", make up your own definition of the term, then claim his method doesn't work. Kind of ridiculous logic. Which is a shame, because for the right person, it DOES work.

I love The Smiths, too, and I have spent over $100 on them, and would spend more if they ever got back together. But I'm not a true fan because I never drove X miles to see them. So how does your $15 make you a "true fan", especially as Kevin Kelly defined it? You can't shoot down someone's theory by making up your own definitions.

What's more, in case you missed the whole point of Kelly's article, which I believe you did, he's talking mostly about singular artists, not whole bands.

Mostly. Of course, NIN is a band, but they also charged $300 per unit and sold a limited edition of 2500 units. That's $750K, though I've lost track of how many people are in the band now. But let's say they only keep 50% of that money and that there are 4 people. That's just under $90K or so. And they always make money touring. So the theory does work. [The offshoots of Skinny Puppy, who strongly influenced Trent Reznor and all the industrial bands, applied a similar method several years back.]

I happen to have managed 50-60 bands in the past, interviewed hundreds of musicians from around the world. The ones succeeding early in their career - at least from a monetary viewpoint - were the ones who applied some variation of this theory.

Kevin Kelly never said that every single person could apply "the rule of 1,000," - just that all you needed to make a decent living as an "artist" was to find 1,000 "True Fans" via the Internet who would appreciate your work so much that they'd spend $100+/year. And that's his definition of "true fan," not yours. And yes, you would need to have "lesser fans" to find those "true fans". True fans were once lesser fans.

PS said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

I addressed Kelley's definition, then as an aside noted that there are 'true fans' [his term] and true fans, not based on money. Most of the post was clearly based on his term.

I also said that his model does work, and has always worked for indie musicians, with scaled-up / down variations of the 1,000 concert-goers/ t-shirt + CD buyers, 10,000 CD buyers, 100,000 single buyers, and so on, with my 25 year / $15 Smiths spend putting me way, way out on the long tail.

It is a viable model, but - as your experience managing bands shows - it's not anything new, just a neat tag and an arbitrary number. It could easily have been packaged, less flashily, but more realistically, as 100,000 fans, but that's not going to sell as many books, or generate as many posts.