Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Value of 1000 True Fans

I have long evangelized to and annoyed folks with this idea of 1000 True Fans. It was first discussed by author Kevin Kelly on his Technium Blog in 2008. Basically, his idea is simple. All an artist needs is 1000 true fans, give or take some details (like number of people in your band, etc.), and he or she can maintain a career. This idea was extended on Hypebot.com in their article about The Rise of the Musical Middle Class. Granted, we are not talking Gaga money here, but if music is the way you want to make your living, then this was a way to do it. If you have true fans, they will support you through anything. They will buy your music, come to your shows, buy your merch, talk about you online, wear your t-shirts, do your marketing for you... They will follow you through music industry fluctuations, label negotiations, lean periods. I have been a true fan of several acts, and I know the enthusiasm and sincerity in many fan communities. So, it all made sense.

Then I started hearing about all the different ways that artists could "crowd fund" their activities. Sites like Kickstarter, Pledge Music and Patronism started popping up, making it easy for artists to promote projects directly to fans. It was a beautiful thing.

So, I was thrilled when I learned that one of my favorite artists, Rhett Miller, was experimenting with a crowd-funded project. Rhett is the lead singer of Old 97's, but he launched his own Pledge Music campaign a few weeks ago, during Thanksgiving weekend. The project is for a new solo CD, not a 97's recording. And in just over two days (over a holiday weekend, mind you), he reached more than 100% of his goal. The pledges were coming in with blazing speed there for a while, really demonstrating the power of his fan base. Rhett didn't disclose the amount he was seeking, but my guess is that it was substantial, something in the $20k-$25k ballpark (completely a guess on my part), with the idea that he could actually achieve 200% of his goal throughout the two-month campaign. He set up a charity component, so that a percentage of the proceeds after 100% go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Northeast Texas Chapter, so the campaign continues. Things slowed down a little after the initial goal was met, but currently Rhett is at 141% of his goal, gaining contributions from 658 fans. I think this is a model use of the service. Rhett's been working for close to 20 years as a performing musician and has developed a strong and avid fan base. While the band has label support (and any limitations that might go along with that kind of deal), he wanted to explore some of his options for his solo work (this will be his fifth solo outing), and find ways to do it on his own. And, he was just launching his own label Maximum Sunshine. I'm guessing, when all is said and done, when Rhett reaches 200% of his goal, we'll see contributions from about 1000 of his true fans, a definite confirmation of that theory.

Look at it this way. Rhett has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter. If only 10% of those people each gave him $20 (just above the cost of a new CD), that would be $32,000. Think of it as buying the CD in advance, WHICH ALL TRUE FANS ARE GOING TO DO ANYWAY.

I have spoken to lots of musicians over the years about this topic. Some are tentative about it. They feel that it is begging for money or that it might indicate that they had few other options. But it's the new age, folks. It's not begging any more than marketing is begging people to buy your CD. It's actually a much more sincere engagement of your fans than the "persuasion" of a huge promotional blitz. And, it is just one of the options that an artist can now use, giving them more control if they seek it. I see this model working on a number of levels. Obviously, established artists, like Rhett, with passion projects and other ideas, should use the power of the fan base they so long developed and earned. New artists, who are just coming up, can use crowd-sourced projects with a growing, avid fan base as a bargaining point if they are seeking label support. And, anyone in this model can avoid labels and/or management, if they so choose, if those options don't seem as lucrative or flexible as a self-funded project.

So, while some think it's risky, I think it is a big win. It's cutting out the middle man when you no longer need him.

This strategy doesn't work for everyone. You have to have the 1000 (or so) true fans. And you don't get them overnight. But here are some things that I have been thinking about in that regard:

  • Engage your fan base and develop a community around your music - this is happening anyway. Fans go to your shows. They communicate online. They talk about how much they love you. They meet each other online, become friends, travel to shows around the country, meetup in person. Hell, some of them even get married to one another. Why not? They share a very passionate hobby... a true love of a music artist... It only makes sense that these connections would occur, often without a band or artist doing a thing. But if you stoke that community a little, provide some incentive, create events and destinations, offer opportunities for fans to connect, then you are aiding the community that is being developed. You don't need a heavy hand, and you probably want to avoid doing too much. Let the community be what it is going to be. But a little attention here and there can make a difference.
  • Be accessible online -- and maybe even sometimes offline. Granted, every artist has a different persona and a brand they want to portray, whether it's online or off. If you want to be an aloof hipster, this may not work as well for you, but in most cases, fans want to connect with the artists in some meaningful way, and social media makes it easy. That's why those promotional tweets that only say "Come to my gig" or those that are obviously being made by management or a PR agency aren't buying you any goodwill with fans. You share a little of yourself in your music, why not share a little in a tweet or facebook update from time to time? Talk about what you are doing, inspiration, projects you are working on, books you are reading, movies you like. Show humor, if you are humorous...intelligence, if you are intelligent... but be yourself and people will respond. I think Rhett is great at this. He started out on Twitter in 2009, and his natural tendency to care about and connect with people emerged. I don't think he put much thought into exactly how he would use the platform, but he knew that interactions with fans could be important. And fun. Rhett's also done a great job experimenting with YouTube videos, offering fans a slice of his life as a touring musician. Plus, Rhett's often accessible after shows, signing autographs and chatting with fans. It's a natural part of his character.
  • Be awesome - this is really the most important thing. If you aren't great, you probably won't have many fans. And if you don't have fans, you probably won't be able to create much of a community around your music. The music industry is hard, and there is competition all around. So, you still have to carve time out to work on your craft, what you love to do in the first place. Don't get overwhelmed by all this social interaction that you are suddenly expected to do. Focus on the music, and then let the interactions happen. The tools are mostly free. Think about authentic ways that you can communicate with fans, and then build that into your routine. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice anything about yourself as an artist. 
So, I'm not a musician, and you can tell me I don't know what I am talking about. But I do know how social media has helped in my own career as an academic and as someone who blogs about music. It's an extension of what I do, not an entirely new line of activity that I needed to find time and energy to execute. Use tools that you think can add value, and avoid those that do not.

Once you are ready to test out a crowd-funding project, take a look at the different services, check out their offerings, and create an authentic campaign. Really put some time and thought into the perks you offer.  In most cases, the minimum people receive is a download of the project with an advance release. I have seen artists offer all kinds of things beyond that, from equipment, to clothing, to VIP access, to special events and performances. Think about funding amounts that make you comfortable, and don't agree to any that don't. Offer a variety at different price points, and don't be surprised when someone takes you up on that $3000 producer credit or $5000 for a house party. Those people are out there and many of them want to help you. If they love you :-)

Personally, I see tons of potential in this model. Check out Rhett's Pledge Music campaign and see what he's got going on there. I also support a few other artists who have executed campaigns including Salim Nourallah, Miles Zuniga, Cotton Mather and Quiet Company. Support them or your own favorite artist if they embark on a crowd-funding project. Their music means a lot to us. Now we have an opportunity to show them just how much. And it's fun to be along for the ride.

1 comment:

Mando Lines (Jim Warren) said...

Nice post Cindy. The Greencards chose to depart the record company scene to do something similar with The Brick Album, and that was very successful. The key is knowing your fans, honest communications and a platform to facilitate the pledging process.

By the way, Kasey Anderson is the latest to move in this direction. Here's a link to his project page for Let The Bloody Moon Rise: http://www.kaseyanderson.com/news/the-making-of-let-the-bloody-moon-rise