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”?
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.