True Fans

Back in 2008 Kevin Kelly wrote an influential essay entitled “1,000 True Fans.” The basic premise is that an artist or creator only needs 1,000 true fans who are willing to spend $100 or less a year on their content to make a decent living, independent of studios or publishers or corporations. It’s a fascinating concept because it makes the dream of being a self sufficient artist more attainable.

Young artists starting out in this digitally mediated world have another path other than stardom, a path made possible by the very technology that creates the long tail. Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum hits, bestseller blockbusters, and celebrity status, they can aim for direct connection with 1,000 True Fans. It’s a much saner destination to hope for. You make a living instead of a fortune. You are surrounded not by fad and fashionable infatuation, but by True Fans. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.

However, Kelly later wrote a follow up to his article entitled “The Case Against 1,000 True Fans.” In that article he actually did some research into his theory and found it might not be as readily attainable as it might have seemed.

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.

Since those articles were published Kickstarter has sprung up and seems to take cues from the True Fan idea. If you can get 1,000 true fans to support your Kickstarter project, you can have it completely funded. However, as Kelly’s research has proven, it can be hard to build up those 1,000 fans. I’ve noticed some of the most popular Kickstarter campaigns come from creators with well established fan bases. The Veronica Mars film made headlines as showing you can fund an entire movie on Kickstarter, however, Veronica Mars already had built a large following by airing for three seasons on a major broadcast network. I highly doubt the Veronica Mars film would have had any funding had it been an unknown quantity.

Glenn Fleishman recently wrote a post discussing both the 1,000 true fan idea and Kickstarter. He posits the beauty of Kickstarter isn’t that you need 1,000 fans or 10,000 fans to create something, only that Kickstarter allows you to tailor your project to how many fans you actually have.

My contention about Kickstarter since I started writing about it in 2010 is that it allows a single creator or group to decide on funding levels for projects based on their understanding of how many true fans they have. A dance troupe that needs $1,500 to rent a space to stage a production and has a mailing list of 500 people could get 50 people to contribute an average of $30 to make it happen. The much-cited Amanda Palmer project raised $1.2 million for a new album and tour, but only from 25,000 or so backers, 11,000 of whom gave $1 or $5. My friend Matt Bors had a quite successful campaign to fund a book (which he just delivered on schedule) with a total of 725 backers.

I think Fleishman has the right idea. While gaining 1,000 true fans that will actually support your income is extremely hard as an independent artist, gaining enough fans (maybe only a few hundred) that are willing to support an actual creation is much easier. However, that then limits the types of creations someone can make through this method. An unknown independent filmmaker will probably not be able to fund any film over a million dollars, and even getting tens of thousands of dollars will be very difficult. However, someone who only needs a few thousand dollars to fund a book might stand a much better chance.

I think this shows that these new methods of independently funding creativity through the internet are revolutionary and should be fully supported. However, they are not always the holy grail that creators might think, and building followings and making a living through your creations is still very difficult and takes a tremendous amount of work.

If you have any thoughts please comment below, email me, or catch me on twitter.