1,000 True Fans

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Imagine this scenario: You're a performing musician with over 1,000 dedicated fans.

Is this a real and ongoing business? For some, it can be. Based on the "1,000 True Fans" theory, proposed by Kevin Kelley, the founding editor of Wired Magazine, an artist can earn a reasonable living with just 1,000 true fans. Kevin defines the fan as someone who is willing to purchase anything and everything that the artist produces. They're willing to drive 200 miles for a concert. They'll set up a Google Alert to catch the hottest artist news. They're the type of fan that spends about $100 a year on the artist.

On the flip side, the artist must produce over $100 worth of desired goods and services for each fan over the course of the year. Selling a concert ticket, a t-shirt, their most recent recording and a poster might just generate $100 bucks but what will you do for an encore?

It requires a highly disciplined artist to build this kind of cottage industry. Not only must they create compelling work year after year, but they must also market it, promote and sell it, and then come back and do it again year after year.

And if the plan doesn't work, it often fails in the worst kind of way. Fans lose confidence and feel betrayed for investing so much time and money. And there's a more subtle issue. Sometimes fans feel that by investing in an artist's career, the fan has some control over what the artist does. Fans can go from true fans to blue fans over minor choices the artist makes.

But in today's market, building your own sustainable business is a far better choice than relying on the Hail Mary pass of a major record deal. Only a tiny percentage of artists of major labels ever build a self sustaining business, while the 1000 true fans model is far more reliable.

Of course, it's only been in the digital age that the artist has been able to build a financial relationship with their fan base. Prior to that, true fans were relegated to a PO Box fan club, if anything at all.

Only bands like the Grateful Dead, really understood the significance of the artist/fan relationship. Their vision shaped a massive community of Deadheads, with their own economic fortitude.

Last week, almost 2000 bands performed at South by Southwest. Most of these young bands are searching for ways to develop a working career in music. Only a handful will have the advantages of record label financing.

The 1,000 True Fans model points out that it is now possible for an artist to live comfortably in the gray area that exists between obscurity and super-stardom. Artists can now live in an enduring long-tail of producing and selling their content.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.