1000 True Fans Model

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Contextual Quote

"To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans. A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free YouTube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month."

- Kevin Kelly [1] ([2])


Kevin Kelly: [3]

"Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail?

One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. 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. " (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/03/1000_true_fans.php)

Case Studies

From Robert Rich, introspective music composer:

"I began self-publishing my music in 1981, struggling to get paid from slippery distributors, trying to keep track of all the shops where I had my albums on consignment. I was relieved over the years when a couple small labels showed interest in helping me, and I could avail myself of their infrastructure. I think I benefitted immensely from this exposure, through labels like Hearts of Space and smaller ones in Europe. I feel in retrospect like I snuck in under the collapsing framework of independent distribution, at a time where small companies could cast a medium-sized fishing net, to catch the interest of listeners who would otherwise never have known they liked this type of music.

If it weren't for that brief window of exposure, I doubt I would have my "1,000 True Fans" and I would probably have kept my day job. If I hadn't also developed skills in audio engineering and mastering, I would be hungry indeed. If it weren't for the expansion of the internet and new means of distribution and promotion, I would have given up a long time ago. In this sense, I agree wholeheartedly that new technologies have opened the door for artists like me to survive. But it's a constant struggle.

The sort of artist who survives at the long tail is the sort who would be happy doing nothing else, who willingly sacrifices security and comfort for the chance to communicate something meaningful, hoping to catch the attention of those few in the world who seek what they also find meaningful. It's a somewhat solitary existence, a bit like a lighthouse keeper throwing a beam out into the darkness, in faith that this action might help someone unseen.

Now in my mid-forties, I still drive myself around the country for a few months every year or so, playing small concerts that range in audience from 30 to 300 people. I'm my own booking agent, my own manager, my own contract attorney, my own driver, my own roadie. I sleep on people's couches, or occasionally enjoy the luxuries of Motel 6.

In your article you quote the term "microcelebrities" which rings ironically true to me. I suppose I experience a bit of that, when some of the 600 people whom I see on tour come up to me after a show and tell me that my music is very important to them, that it saved their life, that they can't imagine why I'm not performing in posh 3,000 seat theaters rather than this art gallery or that planetarium or library.

In reality the life of a "microcelebrity" resembles more the fate of Sisyphus, whose boulder rolls back down the mountain every time he reaches the summit. After every tour I feel exhausted but empowered by the thought that a few people really care a lot about this music. Yet, a few months later all is quiet again and CD/downoad sales slow down again. If I take the time to concentrate for a year on what I hope to be a breakthrough album, that time of silence widens out into a gaping hole and interest seems to fade. When I finally do release something that I feel to be a bold new direction, I manage only to sell it to the same 1,000 True Fans. The boulder sits back at the bottom of the mountain and it's time to start rolling it up again.

So let's look a bit at the finances. If I can make about $5-$10 per download or directly sold CD, and I sell 1000, I clear a maximum of $10,000 for that year's effort. That's not a living. Let's say, after 20 concerts I net about $10,000 for three to four months worth of full time effort. That's not a living.

In my case I'm lucky. I can can augment that paltry income through some of the added benefits of "microcelebrity" including licensing fees for sample clearance and film use rights, sound design libraries, and supplemental income from studio mastering and engineering fees. So, I make about as much money as our local garbage man; and I don't smell as bad after a day of work. (Note that if copyright laws vanished then much of that trickle of supplemental income would dry up, so you might imagine I have mixed feelings about both sides of the free-information debate.)

Thanks to the internet, I am making more money now, selling directly to 1000 True Fans, than I was during the days on Hearts of Space selling 20,000 - 50,000 copies. But had I not benefitted from the immense promotional effort that it took for HOS to sell those albums, I probably wouldn't be surviving today as a full time artist.

I have about 600 "true fans" and 2000 seriously following listeners... more on the fringe perhaps. My database has about 3,000 names but I only hear from most of these people every few years. Occasionally someone new shows up and buys everything I ever made. It's not a simple answer. For example I know I have at least 500+ serious fans in Russia who never paid me for anything, because they get it all as bootlegs. My 4 or 5 "True Fans" in Russia inform me of these things. Many "fans" don't feel compelled to pay for the art that moves them, or perhaps they cannot pay because of economic circumstances or the inverse laws of convenience.

The number of incoming new "fans" roughly matches attrition, perhaps. I am certainly able to communicate more directly with each individual, but that also means I have less time in the day to actually create new art (half the day doing email is not unusual.) Digital distribution seems to lower perceived value and desirability. Ease of access reduces any sense that it's special or personal. Compressed audio quality and lack of physical artwork create the sense of a lowering in collectible value. I try hard to counteract these forces with high quality audio and informing listeners about the importance of the source... but people don't always think about the details.

A further caveat: it's easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions. I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent - perhaps unpredictable - artists, and from that perspective I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them. If we play to the same 1000 people, and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don't feel a need to purchase this year's model, when it's almost identical to last year's but in a slightly different shade of black. Yet when the Fans' Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable. Damned if you do or don't.

I don't want to be a tadpole in a shrinking puddle. When the audience is so small, one consequence of specialization is extinction. I'll try to explain.

Evolutionary biology shows us one metaphor for this trap of stylistic boundaries, in terms of species diversity and inbreeding (ref. E.O. Wilson). When a species sub-population becomes isolated, its traits start to diverge from the larger group to eventually form a new species. Yet under these conditions of isolation, genetic diversity can decrease and the new environmentally specialized species becomes more easily threatened by environmental changes. The larger the population, the less risk it faces of inbreeding. If that population stays connected to the main group of its species, it has the least chance of overspecialization and the most chance for survival in multiple environments.

This metaphor becomes relevant to Artists and True Fans because our culture can get obsessed with ideas of style and demographic. When an artist relies on such intense personal commitmen from such a small population, it's like an animal that relies solely upon the fruit of one tree to survive. This is a recipe for extinction. Distinctions between demographics resemble mountain ranges set up to divide one population from another. I prefer a world where no barriers exist between audiences as they define themselves and the art they love. I want a world of mutts and cross-polinators. I would feel more comfortable if I thought I had a broader base of people interested in my work, not just preaching to the choir.

Indeed the internet is a tool that allows artists to broaden their audience, and allows individuals in the audience to broaden their tastes, to explore new styles, to seek that which surprises them - if they want surprise, that is. The internet can also give us tools more narrowly to target specific demographics and to strengthen those assumptions that prevent acceptance of new ideas, nudging people towards algorithmically determined tastes or styles. Companies can use demographic models and track people's search patterns to pander to their initial tastes and to strengthen those tastes, rather than broaden their horizons. This problem doesn't lie within the technology of the internet, but within the realities of capitalism and human psychology.

Like most technologies, the internet is morally neutral and we can better use its powers to assist the broadening of artistic expression, to assist minority artists to make a better living by communicating directly with their audience, to create tools that help people discover the surprising and iconoclastic, rather than to reinforce only that which supports their existing inclinations. Starving artists will probably remain starving, although perhaps with new tools to dig themselves a humble shelter; and as in the past, some of these artists will use those tools to build sand castles or works of great art." (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/04/the_reality_of.php)


A critique of the 1,000 true fans business model for creativity

The On the Spiral blog discusses an important article and argument by Venkatesh Rao:

“Venkat attacks the notion that the average “Long Tail” content creator should aim to attract 1000 raving fans.

- This basic model of creative capital is just not believable for two reasons. First, it reduces a prosumer/co-creation economic-cultural environment to a godawful unthinking bleating-sheep model of community. … The second problem is the tacit assumption that creation is prototypically organized in units of 1. The argument is seductive. The bad old corporations will die, along with its committees of groupthink. The brave new solo free agent, wandering in the woods of cultural anarchy, finds a way to lead his tribe to the promised land of whatever his niche is about. [4]

He proceeds to argue for creators to organize themselves into groups of about twelve people – small enough to foster collaboration while at the same time large enough to motivate competition. In this model creation is still an individual act but is perpetually spurred by the pressures and opportunities created within the group dynamic. Venkat also asks that we consider a more intimate market for our creative output:

- Your actual goal as a creative today is to find and keep your 150, to whom you pay individual attention. Pass-through crowds don’t deserve much attention. In fact, the monetary value of your transaction with them is exactly $0.00. Anderson hammered home the point that to the masses, the right price for your work is $0.00, but he didn’t address the flip side. They are also worth only $0.00 to you on average. Which means you should put no marginal effort into pleasing them. If one of them finds something you did for your 150 useful, let them have it. You get paid in word-of-mouth, they get free stuff. Small serendipitous barter transaction. Aggregate over 100,000 and net hard-dollar value is still 100,000x$0=$0. The barter is non-zero sum, but doesn’t pay your rent. [5]

As the closing comments make clear, Venkat is concerned with how the creative earns the “hard-dollars” that enable him to satisfy material needs. While your group of twelve provides motivation and co-creation opportunities, it would be your 150 devoted customers who pay real money for highly personalized, high value service.”

Here are two extented quotes from the original article by Venkat:

1. Explaining the economic logic of the 12 – 150 number:

“You cannot break the crucible rule. 12 is always the magic number for optimal creative production. The reason people make this mistake is because they draw a flawed inference from the (correct) axiom that the original act of creativity is always an individual one. I’ve talked about this before: I am a believer in radical individualism; I believe, as William Whyte did, that innovation by committee is impossible. Good ideas nearly always come from a single mind. What makes the crucible of 12 important is that it takes a group of competing/co-operating individuals, each operating from a private fountainhead of creative individual energy, to come up with enough of a critical mass of individual contributions to spark major revolutions. Usually that’s about 12 people for major social impact, though sometimes it can happen with smaller crucibles. These groups aren’t the deadening committees of groupthink and assumed consensus. They are the fertile, fiercely contentious and competitive collaborators who at least partly hate the fact that they need the others, but grudgingly admire skills besides their own.

What happens when you exit the dream team level in a mature disciplinary game is that you get out there and start innovating beyond disciplinary boundaries; places where there are no experts and no managed progression of levels with ritualistic gatekeeper tests. But you don’t do that by going solo. You look for crucibles of diversity, multidisciplinary stimulation and cross-pollination. But you still need the group of 12 or so, training your brain muscles to failure.

This gives me a much more believable picture. As a blogger, I am the primary catalyst on this site, but I am not creating the value solo. If I try to think of the most valuable commenters on this site, I can think of no more than 12. My best writing has come from trying to stay ahead of their expectations, and running with themes they originally introduced me to. But that’s far from optimal, since I still am the dominant creator on this blog. The closer I get that number to 12 via regular heavy-weight commeters, guest bloggers and mutually-linked blogroll friends (I’ve turned my blogroll off for now for unrelated reasons), the closer I’ll get to optimum. Think of all the significant power blogs: they are all team-acts. Now, I may never get there, and there’s multiple ways to get to 12, but the important thing is to be counting to 12. At work these days, I am pretty close to that magic number 12, and enjoying myself a lot as a result.

So the important number for the creative of the future is 12, not 1 or 1000. But what about money and volume? Don’t we need a number like 1000? Not really. As the creative class matures, you won’t really ever find 1000 uncritical sheep-like groupie admirers. That is a relic of the celebrity era. The real bigge- than-crucible number is not 1000 but 150. Dunbar’s number.

Why 150? That’s the Dunbar number. The most people you can cognitively process as individuals (the dynamics are entertainingly described in the famous Monkeysphere article). That’s the right number to drive long-tail logic. By Kelly’s logic though, I have to get to, say, 100,000 casual occasional customers before I find my 1000 raving fans (1% conversion is realistic).

Face it: there’s no way in hell most of us will get there.” (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/07/21/the-crucible-effect-and-the-scarcity-of-collective-attention/)

2. Building your Personal Economic Neighborhoods

“By carefully curating your Dunbar neighborhood of at most 150 (in practice, likely much less), in collaboration with your crucible of 12 (each curating their own 150-neighborhoods, with a good deal of overlap), through actual personal attention, you create the foundation for your life as a cultural creative and information worker. Free agency is an important piece of this, but don’t dismiss traditional economics: a good part of your 150 is likely to remain inside the formal organizations you are part of.

The Kelly number, 1000, is important, but not in his sense. If you and your crucible of 12 are creating value in a loose coalition, and each have a 150 circle with some high-value overlap, the total is probably near 1000. So that’s 12 people sharing a community of 1000, each of whom gets personal attention from at least 1 of the 12. The members of the 1000 get the overhead savings of finding more than 1 useful, personally-attentive creator in one place.

Count the 12 most valuable co-creators you work with. Now consider the overlap in your Dunbar neighborhoods. If the average level of overlap isn’t in the double digits (the actual set-theoretic math is tricky), you probably haven’t reached critical mass yet. Guess where you can still find such critical mass today? Inside large corporations. Any pair of people in my immediate workgroup of around 12 can probably find 20-30 common acquaintances. Our collective personalized-attention audience at is probably around 1000. Large corporations still allocate collective attention pretty badly (they hit the numbers, but get the composition wrong), but still do a better job than say, the blogsphere. But the free-agent nation is catching up rapidly. The wilderness is becoming more capable of sustaining economics-without-borders-or-walls every day.

So how will you create and monetize your Dunbar neighborhood? By definition, there are no one-size-fits-all answers, because the point of working this way is that you’ll find opportunities through personalized attention. Not a great answer, I know, but still easier for most of us than dreaming up ideas that can net 100,000 regulars of whom 1000 turn into raving fans.” (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/07/21/the-crucible-effect-and-the-scarcity-of-collective-attention/)