1,000 True Fans

1000 True Fans - Kevin Kelley
For those who are drawn to the siren call of “creative” endeavors, whether it be in any form of “the arts”, the process of making a living is often one of struggle, compromise and at times even desperation. Artists of all stripes are notoriously not a group associated with business acumen and across-the board financial success. Though some do extremely well, and are good at those aspects of managing their lives and careers. many are not.

If your work isn’t well known to millions, or in demand in circles where it can command the highest rates, it may be difficult to work out a creative living from the traditional pathways.

But what if there were an unorthodox business model for artists, musicians, writers and other creative individuals in the modern world, that didn’t depend on the kind of large-scale acceptance often associated with success in those fields?

What if artists could make a good, ongoing living from a smaller number of people who happen to love their work? Instead of having to appeal to millions, what if they could make their living on the devoted following of just 1,000 individuals, 1,000 “True Fans”?

Some background:

Kevin Kelley helped launch Wired magazine in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor until 1999. He co-founded the WELL, one of the first online services, started in 1985, and was also the publisher and Editor of the Whole Earth Review, a “journal of unorthodox technical news”. The latter is where I first encountered him, and came to hold his knack for reviewing cool stuff in high regard; as I recommended to you in my post on Blurb and Lulu, which referenced his review of same on his high-profile Cool Tools web site.

One of Kelley’s former Wired alumni, Chris Anderson, coined the phrase The Long Tail in a 2004 Wired article, to put a name to the phenomenon of business like Amazon.com or Netflix succeeding in profiting from selling low volume items, but lots and lots of different ones, as opposed to the usual retail goal of only selling a lower selection of highly popular items. (See the article on Wikipedia.)

Kelley, no slouch when it comes to ideas and thinking through the ramifications of things, posted an article, 1,000 True Fans, yesterday on his blog/column The Technium (from which the graphic above is taken), that takes off from this premise with an unusual suggestion.

In it he has put forth the notion that the same technology that allows this kind of approach, which, by its nature seems to leave out the small seller, can in fact empower individual artists (visual, musical, literary or other), if they can culture the devotion of a certain number of True Fans.

Kelley defines a True Fan 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.

He posits that if a True Fan spends an average of one days wages per year in support of your endeavors, stating that this is probably conservative, as your Truest Fan will spend more than that, there is a certain number at which they can support the artist. If the average spending figure is $100 per year, 1,000 True Fans works out to $100,000 a year, a decent living for most people.

Kelly goes on to say: “..the actual number may vary depending on the media. Maybe it is 500 True Fans for a painter and 5,000 True Fans for a videomaker.” […] “But in fact the actual number is not critical, because it cannot be determined except by attempting it.

The point isn’t the number: the point is that there is a number of True Fans, at which individual artists of various kinds can make a living.

He continues: “I am suggesting there is a home for creatives in between poverty and stardom. Somewhere lower than stratospheric bestsellerdom, but higher than the obscurity of the long tail.

But he also cautions that dealing with True Fans is time and attention intensive, and that not everyone has the temperament to culture a base of True Fans. They may need someone to run interference, like an agent, a rep, an aggressively devoted gallery or other intermediary, who is willing to share the load, but must also share in the profit, hence making the “magic number” higher to support the duo.

But, if your goal is to make a living from your art, as opposed to a choice between striving for stardom or accepting poverty, perhaps it’s a viable model.

Kelley ends his article (which goes into much more depth than my skimmed description here) with a call for those who have chosen such a path to let him know. Presumably, some interesting personal stories will be added as word gets out.

[Link via BoingBoing and Waxy]

16 Replies to “1,000 True Fans

  1. hmmm…interesting. Getting 1000 true fans will be kinda hard though…I don’t think I even got 10, haha. But this is very interesting, wouldn’t hurt to try.

  2. Charley, thanks for posting this. It’s just what I needed to read.

    For the past 4 years I’ve built up a “fan” base and have managed to make a living out of selling my work. How? Easy, eBay. Basically, it’s a means to sell my work, and it has been successful.

    And now I find myself at a crossroads and have been sought by galleries for representation. And the truth is that in the brick and mortar world of these galleries I am unknown… no True Fans. And many galleries do not like the thought of “eBay”… a word many gallery directors can barely utter.

    I’ve seen artists (you review their work all the time on this blog) who have had incredibly successful transitions from selling on eBay to galleries… and they did so in part by migrating their Truest Fans to their galleries. And that is something that galleries just don’t seem able to understand because it’s completely new and unheard of.

    Some artists are completely empowered and use the tools at their finger tips to build their careers (True Fans). I know others who hover on poverty because they’re terrified of what they’d do to their “careers” if they were to take it in to their own hands.

  3. Chris, thanks for the comment. Yes, it’s really interesting to see these two worlds, direct online sales, and the traditional gallery world, collide and come to grips with one another. I think we’re seeing many more artists take on the responsibility for representing themselves.

  4. I don’t know if this is really a new idea, but it is well presented and explained. I think the internet has been essential for introverts like me to help spread their art far and wide and find those fans, as I find many interesting artists that way who I keep up with as well.

    Great post, enjoyed the read!

  5. Thanks, eli. I think it’s just a new way of looking at an existing phenomenon, but often, mindset is more important than a lot of factors, so how we look at it can affect whether we act on the possibility.

  6. Hey Charley,

    GREAT post. I’m working on 7 years of selling paintings for a living. It’s gotten better each year, because I find some new true fans each year. I find this idea of making a living as an artist, by appealing to true fans (therefore not needing to sell out,) to be completely accurate, but the trick is getting access to those fans. I think most artists could find people who would enjoy their work. But the work has to be out there where people can see it. I’ve shown in small time gift shops, outdoor craft fairs, and now in very nice galleries. Starting out small and collecting more followers every step of the way has given me a chance to paint for a living and still paint what I want to. I’ve never thought of this method for describing people who follow my work, but I really like it. Selling art is such an odd business, and it always feels like artists all find different ways of doing it. But I think this article is a sort of common thread.

    Thanks for posting so often, and worthwhile posts at that.

  7. Thanks, Colin. It’s particularly interesting to get your comments on the idea, as I’ve had the pleasure of seeing your work on display at the F.A.N. Gallery here in Philadelphia, in addition to the work I’ve seen on your site. At the time of the one-man show, I thought your work was underpriced. Just my opinion, of course, and perhaps I should consider that fact that the show, which was ending when I caught it, was sold out to a high degree.

    You’re certainly right that selling art is an odd business, though it is a business, and some of us may benefit from looking at it that way a little more clearly, particularly in terms of long term planning. I appreciate having your point of view on the subject.

    Other readers may want to see my post on Colin Page.

  8. That is so true and so great. I have a friend who has ridden on her True Fans for years. She has a clothing/accessories business she is in the process of selling; she’s designed more comfortable patterns for her clothes, designed great art to go on the clothes and accessories, traveled around to local fairs, et cetera, and has a regular customer base of (iirc) right around a thousand names which has supported her very well for well over a decade.

    Now she’s moving into producing more of her own artwork, not in conjunction with clothes, taking that business energy and putting it into her art along with a day job to support the transition. It helps me see the connection between the “true fans” concept and the way that, say, a therapist or personal organizer or other established small business/service provider works. We KNOW that someone who is charging appropriately (that is, charging well for great services) and has enough loyal customers can make a very comfortable living indefinitely; we’re just not used to thinking that that also applies to artists of all kinds.

  9. Thanks, oakling. I think you’re right, as artists we don’t often look to the experience of those whose endeavors are similar to ours in in some ways, but not quite the same. We lose sight of a lot of potentially valuable knowledge that way.

  10. This is a very cool blog. I believe I will enjoy it for a long time. Many thanks for all your work. My blog is not work, just fun.I don’t sell any thing just enjoy the doing of them. I mostly draw and sculpt, seldom paint.
    I enjoy looking at what other artists are up to.
    peace, Ted

  11. Hi Charley,
    I agree with the true fan mentality 100% and Colin is right about the trick being in getting access to those fans. Different approaches work for different people. Some can self represent well, others prefer a middle man.
    I have self represented my work for about 12 years with some gallery representation as well. I show my work in my own studio/ gallery, which accounts for about 85% of my sales. I spend a lot of time there, and I meet people who are interested in my work. I started by selling “underpriced”, as you say about Colin. Priced to sell. I found a lot of true fans that way and many of them have stuck with me as my prices have raised.
    I treat those true fans well and with respect. You must continue to nurture what you have while always seeking to expand your base. One fan at a time.
    One more thing, Colin’s work is still well priced. I wish I could have afforded a few last year, but I have some now, and he has one more true fan.

  12. FYI – This model also applies to retail. My friend and major patron used to manage events for a major department store chain. They held events for the store’s select customers. These customers accounted for the majority of the store’s sales. In essence they were “true fans.” They received special treatment, passes, sales, etc. in appreciatation of their patronage. So if you happen to be lucky enough to have a large number of fans, it may help to do special things for your small group of “true fans” who probably put you there.

  13. Great post and obviously well recieved; very interesting slew of comments as well. Obviously struck a chord with this one!

    I agree the model is exellent at describing how many ‘independent’ artists make a living of sorts. I think many of the visual artists who work the art fairs and their own studios use this model, whether they are aware of it or not.

    But it’s very true, as the item points out, that it requires an enormous amount of work. And sacrifice. Having tried it unwittingly for a few years with the art fair scene found I just wasn’t up to it or willing to make the kind of sacrifices required, let alone deal with the equally challenging task of coming to terms with my actual abilities. Managing mailing lists, mailing mailings, packing and unpacking, doting, being constantly available and, by far the worst of all, trying to be like so many artists who are successful or apparently on their way to success; a relentlessly self inflating and self promotional tedious salesman playing a kind of confidence game to part people from their hard earned money almost every time you make a sale. Apparent failure, a day job, and the peace, quiet, freedom and obscurity that are it’s faithful companians can sometimes actually be a blessing in disguise.

  14. Kelly has hit on the Next Big Thing: a wired world where I have access to ONE fan in each of a 100,000 cities. Internet has proven that the Delivery portion of the Sales Cycle is now the easiest part…

    Money wants to flow. Contemplate if EVERYONE was a Fan for one other Fan– Kelly’s price is only $1,000 per year for any of us. One problem is herd instinct. Millions of us want to give our 1,000 to the same usual suspects year after year, while some potential Producers are eating dog food and sleeping on sidewalks.

  15. I think the important thing here is that this be looked as a particular business model. Like all business models, it has some requirements that make it suitable for some people and not for others.

    There can be multiple different business models for how you might run an art supply store or a graphic design business, for example, that vary widely in terms of size, aggressiveness of approach, amount of initial investment, scale, etc., and would be suitable for individuals of differing temperaments.

  16. This is not news; artists have existed this way since the dawn of time. Although there have been several periods when artists were considered powerful….like, ah, like, yeah, in prehistorical times when artists started recorded history in cave dwellings and then again around the rennaissance, when it became fashionable to “own” artists, commissioning them to create whatever you liked. Beethoven put an end to that by demanding to walk in at the front door – damn his insatiable ego.

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