Tech journalist Kevin Kelly has just written a smart blog post on the concept of 1,000 True Fans. Business, art, and geek types, I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
But here’s a synopsis: the True Fans idea posits that a single creator only needs 1,000 people to spend an average day’s worth of wages – say, $100 – on his work each year to survive. So rather than working towards superstardom, which more often translates to toiling forever in poverty and obscurity, artists should focus on developing and nurturing relationships with 1,000 people who are True Fans – the kind of people that will drive long distances to see them perform, buy stuff from their online store on a regular basis, and so forth. Kelly makes clear that perhaps the 1,000-people figure isn’t the right number, varies by medium and by geography, and can only be determined after it’s attempted by the artist. But the concept really makes sense… after all, 1,000 people spending $100 a year means $100,000. That’s a decent living.
And Kelly notes the idea is scalable. The 1,000 True Fans cover the expenses of a single creator. But increases to the group of creators just need a proportional increase in true fans (same goes for artists that don’t want to deal with fans and so use a manager).
My interest in this concept was really piqued when Kelly discussed the idea of micro-patronage, or fan-funded projects. He quotes two other authors, John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier, who came up with a similar model and called it the Street Performer Protocol:
Using the logic of a street performer, the author goes directly to the readers before the book is published; perhaps even before the book is written. The author bypasses the publisher and makes a public statement on the order of: “When I get $100,000 in donations, I will release the next novel in this series.”
Readers can go to the author’s Web site, see how much money has already been donated, and donate money to the cause of getting his novel out. Note that the author doesn’t care who pays to get the next chapter out; nor does he care how many people read the book that didn’t pay for it. He just cares that his $100,000 pot gets filled. When it does, he publishes the next book. In this case “publish” simply means “make available,” not “bind and distribute through bookstores.” The book is made available, free of charge, to everyone: those who paid for it and those who did not.
And here’s another brilliant idea, from Kelly:
Another model is pre-financing the startup costs. Digital technology enables this fan support to take many shapes. Fundable is a web-based enterprise which allows anyone to raise a fixed amount of money for a project, while reassuring the backers the project will happen. Fundable withholds the money until the full amount is collected. They return the money if the mininum is not reached.
Think about all the various Iranian magazines and websites and blogs and other media you consume. Think about the ones of which you are a True Fan. Personally, I can think of four off the top of my head. One is my own project that’s on hiatus (ParsArts.com), the other is Iranian.com, one more is bebin.tv, and the last is the organization Iranian Alliances Across Borders. The first project is self-supported and makes no money, the second and third are investor- and ad-funded, and the fourth is a non-profit that relies on grants and donations.
For the three content sites listed above, all the content is free and the fan contribution is traffic. Meaning, I don’t spend any money there, but I do spend my time, which means advertiser dollars for those sites. There are also musicians and artists I am really into – namely, the Abjeez and a visual artist named Asa Soltan-Rahmati, and too many photogs to list. When they produce work, I buy it, and I go to their shows.
But when it comes to launching new projects and building traffic numbers, it’s really hard to finance that stuff. I have watched three Iranian-themed magazines sort of sputter out recently – two of which I wrote for – and it’s because those ramp-up costs are really tough to come up with while you run around looking for readers and for advertising. So I wonder if this idea of pre-financing would work for new Iranian projects.
What if bebin.tv, for instance, wanted to create a free-to-distribute, free-to-download, free-to-mashup, feature-length documentary and needed $100,000 to do it? Would micro-patronage work? Note that bebin.tv recently branched out into music production and released a song for free: see their blog to download it. But could a full-length album – with its studio and production costs – be fan-supported?
How about if Pars Arts partnered with some photographers to create an online microsite that focused on photography – and made the photos free to download and applied a Creative Commons license so they could be built upon as long as the original artist gets credit, and people could order copies of a print book in which they themselves chose the images they want printed and pay wholesale for it? Would that be supported by the community?
And what if Iranian.com wanted to host a conference on Iranian literature and broadcast it for free online? Would Iranian.com readers pony up to pay for the cost of putting together an awesome conference, in exchange for it being totally free to attend, both physically and virtually?
Though all of these projects are hypothetical, and completely made up, I am really curious about what level of patronage, if any, Iranian artists, musicians, writers, and media have seen, and how the 1,000 True Fans concept would apply to our community… or if it would work at all. What do you think?