Why Nobody Is Making a Living Off 1,000 True Fans

I would love to be a fly on the wall when Scott wakes up and sees that Kevin Kelly has linked to him.


Seriously, though, it does seem that the research Kevin's doing for his new book is touching on an area that readers of this site have been struggling with for a while. Since 1999, I've been writing about the simple math you can do to figure out how to make a living from a handful of listeners (relative to the number of folks it takes to keep a major label artist swimming in Cristal.)

Today, Kevin's asking why there are no artists who have emerged exclusively from the web, with no ties to "old media."

That's because it's still too damn sexy to be part of the Scene. And the Scene still demands that you sign a record deal and get your songs played on FM radio, even though nobody you know actually listens to FM radio anymore.

At conferences, I have referred to this phenomenon as the "That Thing You Do" syndrome. If you've ever heard your own song on the radio, or seen your video on TV (even a campus video show, like the one Jay and I used to produce back in the day), you end up jumping up and down like a fool, just like the folks in the movie.

We've been through this ringer a few times now, like the heroine in a bad made-for-TV movie who keeps taking That Guy back even though she always knows it's gonna end badly.

Many artists in the folk scene have weaned themselves from the recording industry, but they probably wouldn't count because they built a core audience on the back of their major label releases (at a time when you could sell 5,000 units and not get thrown under a bus). This is exactly what Janis Ian told us when we interviewed her for our house concerts book a few years ago.

So, why hasn't anybody bubbled up from the web and hung in there with 1,000 True Fans with no "old media" ties?

Because the moment you have 1,000 True Fans, you start looking really good to those Old Media editors Kevin's writing about. You go from Pitchfork to Paste to a sidebar in Spin or Rolling Stone. And, even if you don't go looking for the attention, you'll still start getting invited to perform on NPR or for other traditional media outlets. You will have "popped," and you will no longer be part of the cozy, MySpace-and-blogosphere cultivated new media music silo.

Should you make it to 5,000 fans that support you through album sales, you will probably want to sign a P&D deal with a record label, at the very least. Remember the exercise in Grow Your Band's Audience about doing what you love and delegating the rest? You will want to delegate dealing with 5,000 orders. Again, that kicks you off the list.

Truth is, there's nothing wrong with any of that. We don't live in a world where you can exist entirely online. Even Melody Gardot, who my old friend Helen has been preaching about to anyone who will listen, still has to perform live. To make a living from true fans, you ultimately have to get them to move from the virtual world into a live interaction. And old media's still a good way to reinforce that relationship.

Are there folks who come very close to meeting the "1,000 True Fans" guideline? Arctic Monkeys and Drive-By Truckers were a perfect example of this, until they "popped." Jill Sobule and Jonatha Brooke are great examples of this, although their early major label releases disqualify them. Music Hates You have the potential to do this, solely because they're far too scary for mainstream media to deal with. But they're not at 1,000 yet, and there are always plenty of financial and personal reasons keeping artists from really hitting that mark.

More on this throughout the week... In the meantime, who would you nominate (yourself?) as being oh-so-close to 1,000 True Fans?