The Technium

The Case Against 1000 True Fans

[Translations: Japanese, Portuguese]

My 1000 True Fans post provoked much discussion on other blogs. One blogger mentioned in passing that Brian Austin Whitney had suggested a very similar idea a few years ago. I had not heard Whitney, nor his proposition, and I missed this reference while researching, but I am impressed with how convergent our ideas are. Whitney organized Just Plain Folks, a community for independent artists. Writing on New Year’s Eve 2004, Whitney said,

I have a notion that we’re turning a corner (or experiencing a swing in the pendulum) where an artist who focuses on a smaller number of fans and serves them with a high level of direct interaction and communication will be the new model for success, even in the face of new technology and the shift in old school music business procedures. I think a new definition of success will be the artist who has 5000 passionate fans worldwide who spend 20-30 dollars a year on your creative output.

Four months later, on tax day, blogging musician Scott Andrew picked up Whitney’s notion and expanded on it under the title of 5000 Fans.

Brian pointed out that an artist who has 5000 hardcore fans to give him or her $20 each year — be if from CDs, ticket sales, merchandise, donations, whatever — stands to make $100K per year, more than enough to quit the day job and still have health insurance and a decent car.

Now, 5000 is a big number, but not that big. That’s like, what, one-eighth of an average baseball stadium? And you might not even need that many. Here’s an exercise: take your own salary, pre-taxes, and divide it by 20. If you were to quit your job right now and start living as a full-time musician, poet or author, that’s how many fans you’d need, spending $20 each year to support your art. So, if you’re making $30K yearly, you’d need 1500 paying fans each year to replace your salary. And it gets better if you’re willing to take a pay cut. In Washington state, where I live, a person working for minimum wage would only need around 700 paying fans.

The attraction of 5000 Fans Theory is that the numbers, while still large, are very much attainable. You really don’t need millions of fans across the globe to be a career artist, just a few thousand who actually care. And: the committment to find them.

Like Whitney and Andrew, I think there is something important and liberating in seeking a finite attainable number of passionate fans rather than hoping for a rare best-selling career backed by millions of folks who have just heard about you. The problem is that while investigating the data for my thesis, I was unable to find much that could convince me that anyone is actually supporting themselves with 1000 or even 5000 True Fans now.  I did get hard financial information from seven creators, in various arts, who are currently supporting themselves in some manner, and to some degree, with True Fans.  I got a lot of partial information from about 2 dozen other artists, but these incomplete profiles were difficult to evaluate consistently, so I have not plotted them. The results are displayed in this table:


Going left to right, the chart lists the type of artist, how many True Fans they think they have, how much each fan spends on the artist in a year, the total annual yield of the True Fans, the percentage of their total income the artist estimates this is, the number of years they have been relying on True Fans, and what they actually sell to the fans.

What my research tells me: there are very few artists making their entire living selling directly to True Fans. The few that are, are selling high-priced goods, like paintings, rather than low-priced goods like CDs. But there are many that partially fund their livelihood with direct True Fans. However, most of these artists make it very clear in their notes to me: It takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself. And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.  The fact that very few creators wholly sustain themselves with direct True Fans may be because it is a job few want to do for very long.

True-fan-dom is also certainly not a goal that very many creators have life-long yearnings for, which may be another reason few are doing it. Who dreams of having only 1000 True Fans instead of making a record that goes platinum, or penning a best-seller? Nobody. At least not yet.

But ever the optimist, I am heartened that with some work, it is possible to find partial support from direct True Fans. Micro patronage has always been an option, and indeed a part of, most artist’s livelihood. What is different now is the reach and power of technology, which makes it much easier to match up an artist with the right passionate micro patrons, keep them connected, serve them up created works, get payment from them directly, and nurture their interest and love.  In previous generations the hefty transaction costs of doing all this made living off of True Fans impossible in practice. My chart shows that it is now possible in practice, though very few are doing it extensively.  I think as role models emerge, as business models shift, and as technology continues to lower the transaction costs, more artists will avail themselves of this path. Time will tell.


Jaron Lanier at the piano at a house concert, a choice venue for True Fans.

Let me leave this topic with one last challenge. This comes from my friend Jaron Lanier, himself a musician (and inventor of virtual reality). Jaron has been researching a similar space as True Fans, and as I have, he is also seeking actual cases of “them that is doing it.”  He did not find many claiming to be doing it. In fact Jaron concludes that at this moment, most of those musicians making a living in the new direct-fan environments are musicians who made a name first in the traditional mediums of labels, CDs, contracts, or TV, commercial sponsorship. Jaron is investigating only musicians, and his definition of the type of emerging musician he is looking for goes like this:

The musician’s career is not a legacy of the old system (such as Radiohead).  The musician has not merely gotten a lot of exposure, but is earning a living wage.  I’ll define a living wage as a predictable income sufficient to raise a child. Finally, most of the musician’s income derives from sources that would still be robust in an “open” world that is highly friendly to massive, unregulated file sharing.  These include live performances, paid ads on the musician’s website, merchandising, and paid downloads (like iTunes), but does not include label contracts, movie soundtrack placement, and other revenue streams that rely on old, declining media.

Jaron claims that he has not found a single musician that meets this definition. In other words, he claims that there are no musicians who have risen to a successful livelihood within the new media environment. None. No musician who is succeeding solely on the generatives I outline in Better Than Free. No musician born digital, and making a living in the new media.

I  bet Jaron there might be three musicians (or bands) out there who meet his definition, but I did not know who they were.

To prove Jaron wrong, simply submit a candidate in the comments: a musician with no ties to old media models, now making 100% of their living in the open media environment.

If none are offered, I surrender the case to Jaron.

  • Kevin,

    Been following this discussion of 1000 true fans.

    My mother who is a fine artist, has struggled to monetize her fanbase – but I sincerely believe that is her fault. She has never created mechanisims to track, monitor or engage with her fans, and thus, can not live off her art.

    Like its been pointed out, many “artisans” may not have the skills or the desire to take on the more administrative tasks. Perhaps the “key” is to create collaborative teams, one artist with one admin / marketer?

    However, as for your thesis, I believe it is entirely plausible – especially to people who possess a marketable skill or talent.

    Lets take a bookeeper, or a marketing consultant, or a collector or a pet trainer or even a nutritionist.

    Many people in these categories are in fact eeking out a modest living thanks largly to the scale and technologies of the Internet to leverage thier expertise to a micro-niche audience.

    So, I do believe the premise of 1000 true fans is still plausible for most – but maybe not for all.


  • Angus

    Ronald Jenkees comes to mind. Has built a bit of a following by posting improve keyboard sessions on youtube. 1 CD under his belt. 723k views on his latest youtube video (below).

    BTW: Love the blog, KK.

  • Rob

    Oh so late to the party but I would like to argue that Jaron’s placing of movie soundtrack placements in the category of old,declining media is misguided for today’s independent artists.

    Services such as Pump Audio, Rumblefish and countless others that now exist have opened up a previously closed media to independent artists. One that can pay nicely [though that not need be the case].

    And as general online services and means of sharing/finding music have spread more music to more people I feel opportunities for independent artists with music placements are definitely on side with opportunities offered in a new, open music playing field, as music supervisors have more chances to discover your indie artist and offer a placement.

  • Hey Kevin,

    Great discussion. I’d have to partially disagree with Jarod. My business model was built online. It started with the Brobdingnagian Bards. We began in 1999, but it was our unprecedented success on that pushed us to one of the top 20 most-downloaded bands on that website by the time they were bought out.

    Mind you, was just the foundation. My entire success evolved from those digital experiences. I give away a couple dozen MP3s on my websites with my different music projects. As a result, I make new fans daily. Some of those have turned into True Fans.

    I should point out that the reason I said “partially disagree” is because the income generated is not from one project. My success is not based solely on the Brobdingnagian Bards. Much like many businesses, I diversify. However, all of that success remains online.

    I’ve recorded several CDs, one a True Niche–Irish Drinking Songs for Cat Lovers. It doesn’t get narrower than that. Interestingly, that one CD outsells all my other CDs.

    In 2005, I jumped on the podcast bandwagon with the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast. This combined with an ezine called the Celtic MP3s Music Magazine, a tool to promote Celtic music and increase my name recognition, I created Song Henge, an membership-based archive of Celtic music downloads. This supplements the other half of my income, totally digital.

    That said, I agree it is not easy to make a decent living as a musician using the old formula. I figured out a while ago that every time I release a CD with the Brobdingnagian Bards (who, outside the podcast, have a bigger fan base than any of my solo projects), I earn $25-100 extra per month, more when it is first released. That is obviously not dependent on how many True Fans, but it still points out that the financial plausibility. Our biggest problem as a group at present is that we are not releasing enough CDs to meet the $100 per year minimum.

    That is the big trick IMHO. In order to earn a “living wage”, you need to release enough music to equal your $100 per year minimum for 1000 fans. Thus if you are selling CDs for $15, you need to release six CDs or other products per year to meet that need. Personally, I can realistically see releasing four albums per year. Thus again, diversify.

    As Alexandria K. Brown, the Ezine Queen, points out, you need a Marketing Funnel, different products which earn different products. I sell CDs. I also offer a mid-level membership-based program (Song Henge). And for the high-end, live performances.

    All of these things contribute to my growing monthly income and continue to allow me to make a living with music. Difficult yes. Implausible no, once you do the math AND follow up the math with action. That is the key. I’d wager that the vast majority of musicians are not following math with action. And they have good reason. It is weird!

    Your article offers a lot of great hope because it does the math. It’s the artist’s job to turn the math into a financial possibility. Once they do that, you will see a Lot more success stories from your 1000 Fans concept.

    -Marc Gunn, Celtic musician and podcaster

  • They are not musicians, but people who have used social media to amplify their likability as people and thus create income in some form are Ze Frank and Gary Vaynerchuk. If these guys picked up a guitar, then I am sure people would listen and buy. I am not totally familiar with Jonathan Coulton but I am sure he has the same marketing talents as Ze and Gary.

  • IshMEL

    Ze Frank’s the show, perhaps. Also I sixth the Coulton nomination.

  • Riki

    Portland Oregon’s Sallie Ford

  • Though not one myself, I have a friend, Kristin, who might count as a Jonathan Coulton true fan. When asked about him, she offered the following links. Quote:

    This is a long and sort-of-famous blog post he wrote called “How I Did It” that covers a lot of the unorthodox career-building stuff

    Some good interviews:
    This NYTimes piece is one of the biggest bits of press he’s gotten. It’s about other people, too, but there’s a lot of Coulton content

    Pretty good interview

    Rather heavy on the video-game nerdiness (and this was even before the Portal song)

    More about “the creative process”

    This one is ok, and recent:

    And in Chinese!

    Podcast people and NPR like him, and so there are quite a few good audio interviews out there, including:

    And that, my friend, should get you good and sick of Jonathan Coulton pretty darn fast.

    Extra credit: find the passing mention of me in one of these interviews!

  • Hi Kevin —

    Thanks for your ongoing efforts to qualify and fine-tune your thesis. As a stereotypical “struggling artist” myself, I personally want to believe in the viability of the 1000 (or however many) TF model… though I haven’t yet made it work for myself.

    But what I’d like to add to the conversation is the question of artist expenses — I haven’t noticed this element of the subject getting addressed (apologies if I have simply missed it).

    For instance, any musician who expects to make a living from selling CDs — e.g., your third entry in the table above — has to factor in the cost of *producing* CDs. If that artist is making $40 from each true fan per year, I assume he/she is selling at least two CDs. It’s a lot cheaper to make a recording nowadays than it used to be, but when your margins are low, it’s still a significant investment. Studio time, engineering costs, band costs, mastering, manufacturing, artwork — it all adds up. Multiply that by two, and the total cited income for that artist ($24,000) is probably knocked down quite a bit.

    Of course, there are ways of skimping on CD production costs (go lo-fi!), but certainly there is *some* initial investment that has to be subtracted from the total income derived from TFs. (Add in touring — with the price of gas being what it is — and you’ve got another significant outlay of cash to be taken into consideration.)

    Just a thought…

    Anyway, I look forward to seeing how these ideas develop and get put into practice!

  • Sesli Sohbet

    This is precisely what I’m attempting at the moment with the evolving field of docu-pop. I’ll keep you posted.

  • Hi Kevin,

    The guys of Family Force 5 might represent a good case, even though the do not match the definition Jaron is propossing.

    But this guys, even though they have a contract with a record label (Forefront Records), they sort of came back to the web to make a living. They actually downloaded (closed) their nice and original web page, and now their myspace account is the official web site.

    They put almost daily a podcast, and have recorded a home-reality-show of their lives on backstage.

    Might be good to contact them.

  • Max

    I don’t find it very interesting if a musician can make all of his money in the new environment. In the old environment most musicians weren’t making any money anyway or had debts to the recording companies. And they did not have control over their rights anymore. At least some things have chenged for the better now.

  • Looks like I am not the only JoCo fan who reads this blog! :)

    I’m also very intrigued by the notion of nurturing a small base of True Fans, rather than being exposed to a huge faceless mass of regular fans – not that I would mind the latter, I just wouldn’t want to miss out on having the former first.

  • Rick Saenz
    • @Rick Saenz: Yes, Pomplamoose may be a good proof, although I have not heard weather they are supporting themselves this way.

  • Chad Cooper

    I’d check into Atomic Skunk… a solo ambient music musician. He’s using the social media… FB, Twitter, Blog and dealing directly with fans. I don’t know anything beyond the above basic info, but he came to mind.


  • Perhaps the Digg girl (Kina Grannis) could fall into this category, although there are reports of her being offered a label deal. However, this is still a good illustration of how an independent musician can leverage the power of Web 2.0 to create buzz and awareness of her existence. Developing a sustainable living out of it is another matter, of course…

  • mrG

    while not worked out in accountancy detail, I think this small-fanbase idea was first presented by Momus (Nick Currie) in his 1992 essay “Pop Stars? Nein Danke” most memorable for the famously prophetic paraphrase, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people…”

  • just admit your wrong and the idea is a nice dream, but completely ignores the relationship of the patron to the object and the artist in what we like to call human reality..

    jaron at least has realized first hand the failure of his original mythlogy as reality has proved it icey grip on us.

    No “artist” can escape the branding mythology driven by the mechanized media for the last 100 years. Not and use that product-art- as the sole financial tool for his survival in the culture.

    as with any “object” of desire placed into the humans economy– it will become only the property of those who offer the most in return to its creator.

    when “altruism” and “just because” become the main drivers of the creators, AND the rest of the total of humanity as well…. THEN one can entertian such beliefs.

    “by the time “chocolate rain” was heard by 100,000 geeks, taye was on G4 and then KIMMEL LIVE, already part of the old media you suggest isnt needed…
    like every Internet Star before him, he’ll either become a professional balancing the control of his ownership of his work, with anothers(big media included) or work at any other job needed to pay rent.

    what i find objectionable is that all this “pro” artist hyperbole, only truly works to defeat the artists offerings in society, and strengthens the role of the current media…which so happesn now to be digital driven, as opposed to the old evil empire that was analog.

    same song… different dancers….
    same control mechanisms.

  • larryr

    Its been a year. even Jarons mea Cupla(NY Times) has risen online as TRUTH to combat the CC myth. Are you ready to do the same Kevin?

    Name the 3?

    I see attempts here, but are there any “proofs”

    and 3 equals a freakshow, not an industry, nor a artists movement:)

  • I kind of question a lot of the premises of the challenge. The question of what constitutes a connection to “the old system” seems pretty ambiguous to me. A candidate is out because they had a major label contract? What about someone like Ana Voog, formerly Rachel Olson of The Blue Up? The band got a deal with Columbia but I’d argue it had zero to do with her current career (which is itself ambiguous in context of the challenge as her major outlet isn’t music, but music is still a component of her career)… Who defines whether someone’s career is a “legacy” of the old system? What about indie labels? A band like The Poster Children, which would seem to fit the bill for this challenge as true independents who rely on core fans, have their own label – does that count? What about small collective labels like Rhymesayers? But if indies are allowed, what about “major” minors, like Matador or Sub Pop? Where do you draw the line?

    I don’t think it makes sense to exclude a legacy of the “old model” entirely in assessing the workability of the new model. Excluding revenue like movie (and presumably television and commercial?) placement because these are deemed “old, declining” media seems really arbitrary. What about video games, practically a canonical example of a new market for musicians? Copyrights aren’t going anywhere anytime soon: neither are the movies or television, so business concerns for whom having a straightforward legal right to use a work is an obvious legitimate market for an independent.

    Anyway, I’ll nominate Ana Voog, the Poster Children, and Issa (formerly known as Jane Siberry) for consideration.

  • Oh, I’d also like to nominate Andrew Pants of the Songs to Wear Pants to website – I don’t know if he’s making it financially yet or not but he’s definitely new model all the way.

  • Adrian


    The key is in the marketing. It is perfectly possible for an artist to create a membership-based web site, but the tactics required to grow this site are probably at odds with the artists search for truth.

    To grow a membership based site you have to launch a product, seminar or service and attach a recurring credit card subscription. Give them 30 or 60 days free but then start charging $10 to $29 per month unless the buyer opts out.

    The internet marketing “gurus” mentioned earlier use high-pressure tactics which trigger emotional responses to fleece people of money by re-badging basic, often outdated, marketing ideas and selling them for $50 to $2000 a pop. They then follow up with the opaque recurring billing for a steady stream of income until they launch their next flim-flam “power product”.

    Artists want to truly engage but they often sell themselves short. They need to create value in the eyes of the buyer but the hardcore online marketing guru “pressure sales” model is probably not compatible without heavy modification.

  • The 1000 True Fans economic paradigm is only made possible because of the existence of the internet. On the other hand, it is the artists who master the skills required by this new communication era that will be the most successful using it. Among other things, artists will need to have blogging, chatting, twittering, facebooking, videoblogging and so on, in their blood. They need the automatism and the desire to communicate with their fans efficiently, painlessly, and to have fun doing it.

    If you take a look at the personal pages of the young adult crowd, it is obvious that this generation will be much better equipped for this. They are born with the tools and they are much better with using them compared to older generations.

    I think 1KTF economy might or might not be viable right now, but wait, this is not the end of it.

  • Rick Saenz

    @Kevin Kelley: From the transcript of the NPR segment on Pomplamoose:

    Mr. CONTE: Yeah, I mean, what does it mean, really, to need a label? I mean, we’re making a living. We’ve got a sustainable business. We’re growing every year as a good business should. We’re happy. We don’t have to do things that we don’t want to do. We don’t have to please people that we don’t want to please. We get to make the music that we love.

    Yeah, we’re not on the front page of Rolling Stone magazine, and we’re not getting $10 million checks in the mail, but we don’t need that to have a nice life.

    Ms. DAWN: And also, our goal has never been to be a huge hit band. We just started…

    Mr. CONTE: We want to make a living doing what we like to do.

    Ms. DAWN: Exactly. We’re just making a living.

    • @Rick Saenz: It’s so encouraging to hear that Pomplamoose is making a living. (I love their covers, too.) They would indeed be a great example of 1,000 True Fans.

  • I wonder if Banda Calypso from Brazil fits the bill. They have been very successful (own a private jet!) by distributing their CDs to street vendors for free in advance of performing in a town.

    This reference came from Chris Anderson’s Free! article in February’s Wired:

    On a busy corner in São Paulo, Brazil, street vendors pitch the latest “tecnobrega” CDs, including one by a hot band called Banda Calypso. Like CDs from most street vendors, these did not come from a record label. But neither are they illicit. They came directly from the band. Calypso distributes masters of its CDs and CD liner art to street vendor networks in towns it plans to tour, with full agreement that the vendors will copy the CDs, sell them, and keep all the money. That’s OK, because selling discs isn’t Calypso’s main source of income. The band is really in the performance business — and business is good. Traveling from town to town this way, preceded by a wave of supercheap CDs, Calypso has filled its shows and paid for a private jet.

    The thing here is that this is possible, even if it hasn’t been so easy that there are many visible examples.

    Keep up the search, Kevin, as we’ll find more eventually.

  • Suzanne Lainson

    I’ve had personal experience working with a musician who has the required number of true fans. She has a core of fans on her email list who come to shows and buy her CDs. She has grossed an annual six figure income this way.

    But what you haven’t talked about are how many people an artist/band must play in front of each year to reach core fans. The musician I worked with was able to sell, at a minimum, one CD for every 10 people in the audience. (Often it was more, but that was worst case scenario). So she would need to be playing in front of 10,000 people annually to guarantee selling 1000 CDs.

    To make the 1000 True Fan concept a working reality, artists/musicians/writers must think in terms of reaching a much bigger audience to find those interested enough to pay. In this day of Internet marketing, what often happens is that they can find lots of people who love their work for free but have no interest in paying for it. That’s a big challenge. And even more so right now in tough economic times.

  • 450 isnt bad, but i think your student loans will be 100 times that amount after your 4 year BFA:)

    sadly, the only 1000 true fans model i know of doing business in today online world, is that of the webcam girl- prostitute.

    and thats mostly out of teenagers bedrooms..
    welcome to the singularity….erg.

    the forgotten factor of the new media futurist.

  • Stephen Silk

    I’m way late to this discussion, but I’d like to point towards Tom Smith ( ) as a possibility.

  • What about the world of DJs? I think this works perfectly for this world. Most of my clients are small record labels started by DJs, who usually release their own music on their own label. Sometimes they might get signed to a major for a release or two, but for most of them they exist inside the world of club music and parties. The fan base for some of them is in the hundreds of thousands. So if you want names of artists who exist completely outside the structure of a major label and have thousands of fans paying $20 per year then I submit:

    Richie Hawtin
    Sven Vath

  • Curtis

    I wonder how general fuzz does? Seems to me a lot of space music people mainly make their livings from a strong internet presence.

  • Chris Shaffer

    Any number of online comics artists who have given up their day jobs. One that springs to mind right away is Rich Burley, creator of Order of the Stick. He interacts with fans directly on his web forums and in-person at game conventions.

  • Stephen Elliott

    Would Amanda Palmer qualify?

  • Houghton

    I think if you’re willing to broaden your definitions a bit to embrace “content creators”, you’ll find some decent examples. A few come to mind:

    *There’s a guy in the UK named Mike Herberts who sells online videos of guitar instruction. He’s not a scam artist, his videos are actually quite clever, but he’s using the sales tactics of the online “marketing gurus.” As an example, he sells a package of instruction videos for $30, some individual videos for $10 a download, and those who purchase his package deal get free videos frequently emailed to them. He also places a number of videos on YouTube free as a marketing tool. Conservatively, you could estimate that he makes about $30,000 from one DVD. I think it’s safe to assume he probably makes at least $100,000 a year.

    *Mars Hill Audio Journal is an online “audio magazine” offered for a yearly $30 subscription for 6 times a year MP3 downloads. These are in-depth interviews from a former NPR reporter/ancor with Christian thinkers such as Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson and so on. Conservatively, let’s say that Mars Hill only gets 2,000 subscribers. That’s $60,000 a year.

    *A couple of writers have launched One Story, a literary magazine, for a yearly subscription of $21. That gets you a new short story mailed snail mail every three weeks in an attractive pocket-sized format. This venture is getting some nonprofit backing as well, but I’m willing to bet their subscriber base is somewhere in the 4-5,000 territory. That means it’s netting somewhere around $80,000 a year.

    *I’d also like to know how the “1,000 fans” model might apply to something like CSA micro-farming, providing subscription-based baskets of vegetables and fruit on a weekly basis during the summer. The average summer CSA subscription is about $300-$600 depending on the region of the U.S. If you could find 500 people willing to pay $500 for a summer CSA share, that’s about four monthly payments of $125, or about $31 a week for fresh food for a grand total of $250,000 in net earnings. Not bad for part-time income 3 months out of the year. (Note: I don’t have the math on how much land, water, etc. would be required for growing food for 500 people over a 12-week summer growing season every year, but in many parts of the country you could certainly purchase a couple of acres and I’d assume the land could be paid off fairly quickly under this model. Perhaps someone can step in and tell me if my math is off here).

    So those are just a few examples of ways in which people can be quite creative in their lives, do something personally fulfilling and and earn a fairly good living with micro-patronage. These examples may not be “artists” per se, but they are certainly creative.

    • @Houghton, thanks for the examples. Good tips.

  • Houghton

    Brief update: Mars Hill Audio Journal was featured in Sojourners magazine and has been featured in other publications, so I think it’s fairly safe to assume 2,000 subscribers for the MP3 version (they also offer a cassette and CD mail subscription). The Facebook page has about 300 fans, and note that Mars Hill subscribers tend to be a pretty cerebral demographic and like to embrace a “simple living” ethic, so probably not very many of them are actually on Facebook. This is just a rough estimate on my part, but considering they actually have three full-time employees, they’re probably doing pretty well. Their production costs are cheap (though the segments are very well done) they’re selling through their website and not much overhead is required.

  • Houghton

    One more update: One Story is offering a Kindle version for $1.49 a month. They’re currently ranked #2,592 in the Kindle store. I have no idea how to translate that into the number of subscribers.

  • Sage

    I’d like to submit Zoe Speaks… except I can’t recall if their albums have been self, or indy produced.

    They’re very much to this path, though. (Or, now… Mitch Barrett and Carla Gover, as they’ve gotten divorced and are now single artists.)

  • Jeff

    Hey, Kevin. How about Jonathan Coulton? Have ya heard of him? If not, I bet I could find a few URLs for reference somewhere around here…

    Very interesting debate, by the way. I came in by way of Tim Ferris’s web site… If I get to 1000, I’ll let you know how it goes, but so far there seems to be more sobering information and a touch of inspiration. Definitely seems a realistic goal, though!

  • Alvaro Medina

    I don’t think being “100%-old-way-free” is possible, unless the artist himself wants to keep away from that. 1000 or 5000 fans means there are probably lot more (2 to 5 times) people that knows that artist; as soon as that happens, normally some traditional media should be running some news about that artist.

    I believe the point of cultivating a strong fanbase that eventually can produce enough revenue to allow sustainance for the artist is to make concience to concentrate our efforts there, since it is pointless or very difficult or improbable to attain mass-media; but I don’t think that traditional media should be avoided either.

    By the way, the figures given in this articles are for 1 person, and doesn’t includes costs. That is, for example, for a 10-piece band like mine, you have to multiply that numbers by 10; let alone the venues rents, PA rents, prints, transport, etc.,etc, that are normally associated with a DYI business.

    Alvaro Medina
    Escaso Aporte

  • I’ve been in my field for just over ten years and I’ve worked on approximately 13,000 clients, many of them repeat customers. I have had no other job but this, and my customers shift often.

    The math is close. My work costs anywhere from sixty up to several hundred dollars. I have no idea how a musician or author could survive at their prices for their work.

  • Mayson Lancaster

    What you really need is a fan base with a power law distribution, and a reasonably long tail: a couple of fans willing to give you a few K per year, a few dozen giving you a few hundred, hundreds giving you tens of dollars, and a few thousand giving less than ten. Obama’s contributions seen to be tending toward this model on a much large scale. Also, see the 1secondfilm: a movie with thousands of producers, which has achieved this kind of support.

  • Laura

    Award-winning indie folk-rock singer-songwriter David Ippolito, known around the world as That Guitar Man from Central Park.

    No label. No manager. No agent.
    Huge talent with committed work ethic.

    Based in NYC, David performs outdoors every summer weekend in Central Park and puts on a kick-ass December concert every year at beautiful Merkin Concert Hall near Lincoln Center.

    Great website (with links, CDs, photos).
    Blogs EVERY DAY.
    Offers free mp3 downloads;
    fun and fascinating music videos he creates and then posts to YouTube;
    PhotoShop art that he creates, which tackle timely news/politics.
    In addition to songs about love and life, he writes satirical and topical songs about news/politics.
    Will be running a TV ad spot for his concert and new 8th CD release on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (in New York City market) for two weeks in November. Pricey? Yes. But willing to take the leap. He really believes in his art. Calls himself the luckiest man alive — because he gets to write songs and sing them for his living. And, yes, I’m a friend. A very lucky friend. Watching his total commitment to his art is inspirational.

    Check him out at:

  • Justin Wright

    That is a very interesting theory. I wonder if that will apply to blogs as well. I would much rather have 5,000 consistent readers that buy 30 dollars of stuff from me every year. It sure beats having 100,000 followers and selling nothing…

  • jeff

    You could talk to Chris Commisso:

    I don’t know his $ details, but he has built a decent fan base on youtube.

  • Tad

    I nominate Lojo Russo
    She is making her living making music
    playing small venues
    posting to her mailing lists

    she has had record deals
    but not large ones

  • dave

    eric roberson perhaps would be a great candidate. except for the fact that he’s had publishing deals with major companies in the past…

  • Cam

    Hi Kevin and comment readers,

    a musician friend of mine and I have decided to work on the 1000 true fans idea over the next two years at

    We have the website up and running with the online store all operational, which has taken a while to get happening.

    So here is our basic plan and rules.

    To treat the fans with respect and be generous with what we do and provide.

    Regular weekly content up dates

    Mass emails about once a fortnight about gigs and events (no more than three a month/ No les than once a month) where people can subscribe and unsubscribe easily

    Two album like releases for down load a year

    All back catalogue up an available for sale as both CD and Mp3

    Video content when possible hosted on you tube to extend reach.

    Pod cast interviews with Sime and other musicians to keep fans in the loop.

    A lot of time in front of the computer 

    If you are interested I’d be happy to keep you updated over the next twelve months and let you know how we are going from time to time just let me know.

    Anyway thanks for the inspirations and thoughts


  • Mark

    Japanther I believe would be an example, they’re pretty DIY, have maintained ownership of their music etc.

  • Kristian

    I am in a growing band trying to make this exact thing happen for us.

    I have a theory that the reason you are not really finding musicians that fit this model might be because the traditional model are shopping in the thick end of the long tail. With so many musicians making their own path, it is easy for labels to just wait until a musician has done the legwork and then offer them a contract. I feel that a lot of musicians feel overwhelmed by this point at the hard work it has taken them so far and are glad to let someone else take the wheel.

    Another band that has done it all on their own is Atmosphere. they built their own indie label and have been going since 98. They recently signed a promo, marketing, distribution deal, but have always done everything on their own!

  • Whoosh!

    I can’t believe no-one has mentioned Jonathan Coulton yet…

  • Robert

    A computer game called Dwarf Fortress runs on a model similar to this. Tarn Adams, the co-creator of the game, has built up a large and rabid following and relies on donations to allow him to work on it full-time.

    Check it out here:

    Warning: it’s pretty niche… ASCII art coupled with a maddeningly overwhelming interface.

  • neminem

    Hey, have you heard about Jonathan Coulton yet?

    Just kidding. I actually wanted to point you in the direction of Brad Sucks, who it seems has *not* yet been mentioned, even after two years of people stumbling on your blog like I just did.

    Actually, amusingly enough, I stumbled on your blog like two years ago, sent myself a message to remind myself to look at it when I wasn’t at work, then totally misplaced the message, and found it again like a week ago. Now I’m binge-reading it all, and it’s all kinds of interesting. This will be the… third personal blog I’ve ever specifically gone out of my way to rss? You’ll probably be seeing more comments from me in the future. ;)

    Also, if you didn’t want to limit it to just musicians, the half-dozen or so guys behind the web game Kingdom of Loathing, which consumes a decent chunk of my life these days, have a business model sort of like this – a microtransaction-based game, only designed specifically so it *doesn’t* seem like they’re just trying to milk players for cash before they burn out, but instead, actually encourage players to help support them doing what they love (the game’s otherwise free, and you can get everything you buy with cash, without the cash too.) I know a few other web games have tried to emulate their model, but to my knowledge KoL is the only really successful one.

  • jump higher

    His songs are not only easily downloaded as MP3s on his site, but are also licensed under Creative Commons so you can use them in your own non-commercial applications.

  • Andrew Huang

    I’ve enjoyed reading the 1000TF-related posts this morning, and was happy to see I had a quiet nomination a couple years ago!

    Let me confirm that I am making my living by producing music at and have been since 2005.

    The concept of the website is that I write and record songs (lots of them and in any genre) based on visitors’ instructions. Many I’ll do for free if the suggestions spark funny ideas, but I can also be commissioned to make personalized music for any project or event. The majority of my income stems from these commissions, and is supplemented by song downloads and live performances.

    Those are my three streams of revenue. They aren’t entirely predictable, but reliable enough that I can expect to make about $20k a year. So I hover around the poverty line here in Canada, but probably love my job more than most people think is possible.

    I measure up pretty well with Jaron’s emerging musician. I have no ties to the old system music industry. Songs To Wear Pants To has received decent exposure (features in The Globe & Mail, The Hour, Exclaim, and CBC Radio programs, mentions in lots of places including Harper’s and Now Magazine) and I’m sure children have been raised on incomes less than mine.

    I’ve no idea what my True Fan count is, but I think my model may be slightly different. While I do have a few repeat clients, most people won’t commission my services more than once. There’s a joke somewhere in there about me not doing a good job, but I think it really comes down to the nature of the product. Once you’ve given personally tailored music to your mom, spouse, cat, or 4th year film project, you can’t really do it again. My repeat clients are those who are working on multiple or serial projects and so they need new music to be made periodically – although there is one guy who seems to be on a quest to commemorate each and every one of his friends and family members in song.

    These commissions make me a bit of a special case though – I would definitely not be making a living if I were only selling “copies” and touring a live show. I also don’t know if it’s a model that can be repeated. How many “I make songs based on your instructions” websites can be out there and succeeding at once? It’s a wonderful idea, and some fans have pointed me to other sites with similar concepts, but as far as I know I’m the only one who manages to pull it off full-time.

    Thanks Kevin for your thoughts and for facilitating this discussion. Let me wish anyone reading this, artist or not, much success with your gifts. It’s a beautiful blessing to be able to earn any kind of wage from talents you enjoy using.


    • @Andrew Huang: Thanks for contributing, Andrew. It’s helpful to hear from someone actually pioneering a new income model. Your idea of all custom work is thrilling and brave.

  • This is precisely what I’m attempting at the moment with the evolving field of docu-pop. I’ll keep you posted.

  • Pancrazio Auteri


    this is a good question.
    Inspired by the Street Performer Protocol and KK’s article, we built BuskerLabel to contribute to find the answer.

    It is a fund-raising platform focused on the uniqueness of the period preceding an album release.

    We’ll go public on 1st March; in the meanwhile you can start raising money by signing up with this invitation link:

    If you want to know more feel free to contact me.


  • Judith fits the model. They are creating music for healing and stress relief. They started last January and have had over 31,000 unique visitors in less than one year. They sell only online, only music, and are succeeding.

    I would say the 1000 true fans model fits, and financially will fit soon, though I don’t know their exact income. They have many people who buy everything they produce.

  • Joey

    This is insane! Not to include movie (and tv and commercial and video game) placements is to completely ignore the realities of the climate today. You can stop looking right now – I guarantee you won’t find a single artist making a living without including licensing (both the direct income from the fee, and maybe more importantly the subsequent exposure and increased sales and concert attendance).

    You won’t find that artist because A) it’s nearly impossible to gain the exposure necessary to create 1000 True Fans without licensing, and B) if an artist is moving successfully along the path of reaching 1000 True Fans, licensing opportunities come naturally and artists don’t turn them down.

    If you’re good, and are creating even a couple hundred True Fans, your outer fan base should begin to include music supervisors, publishers, directors, producers, and even people at record labels. I’d say you’d be hard pressed to find an artist with 1000 True Fans that doesn’t have the ‘old world’ of the music industry pursuing them adamantly – and most artists will be able to cut a favorable deal with a label or publisher at that point and will take advantage of what the old companies can still offer today.

    Check Joe Purdy though as exception – most exposure (and presumably income, directly and indirectly) coming from licensing, aggressively pursued by labels but stayed totally independent with his 1000 (or more) True Fans, thousands of moderate fans, and dozens of ‘indistry fans’ who offer income generating placements and other opportunities several times a year. That’s your new model.

  • Ed Cote

    I’m not completely sure if she’s able to live without any “day job”, but:

    is an amazing singer who completely blows away 97% of the top 40. I would happily count myself as one of her 1000 True Fans. I saw her live years ago and I still remember it well.

  • Scott Nicholson

    I can speak from the author world. Published via the major industry, I just released a couple 0f out-of-print works. Though I am going through Amazon, B&N, and other retail outlets, I still get a much larger percentage than I do selling through a publisher. Of course, these are digital editions with no overhead, which makes a difference. Some are now attempting to sell directly through their Web sites, in both paper and digital–greater proceeds but much more work to bring traffic. Right now, most of the authors who are successful with personal sales are or were established through traditional routes, so it’s a blend. There may be a tipping point int he near future, though.

    I am so confident that I can sell more books on my own than my similar title through a major publisher that I have set up “The Red Church vs. They Hunger” as a trial competition. it will take a year to get statements and data, but right now I can track through sales rank on Amazon and get a rough idea. Right now The Red Church (my re-release) is around 13,000 while They Hunger is around 90,000. Obviously not bestseller numbers but currently with a significant difference. I appreciate all these thoughts. it’s got me thinking.

    Scott Nicholson


    I’m really very useful to follow a long-time see this as a blog here Thank you for your valuable information.

  • Dave Kaufman – Techlife

    I also linked to this follow up column in my syndicated column, Techlife, on this topic, 1000 Loyal Customers. The less flattering points here are still very interesting and taken with a grain of salt make sense for anyone looking to get both sides of the coin. Thanks for writing this counterpoint.

  • Chris

    I don’t know whether he makes all his money from his art, but the podcast novelist Scott Sigler comes to mind. He has spoken about the process of getting an audience, and specifically mentioned hawking his novels around publishing houses only to gather a pile of rejections. After giving away his books as podcasts, initially on, he got a publishing deal and is certainly making some money. And I’d say he has a number of “True Fans”.

    By the way, it might be worth scanning the author list at podiobooks to see if there are any others there.

  • Alex Nesbitt

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and the comments about 1,000 true fans, as it fits into a concept I’ve been exploring that I call super fans. Perhaps just my words for True Fans.

    I wonder if the problem about making the economics work is due to a failure to de-average pricing while de-averaging the fans.

    What I mean by this is that the “True fans” are not your average fan, they are by definition the hard core fan. But the artists and examples you describe all approach them with average prices, eg-$10 for a CD.

    If you’re going to de-average the fan base, you need to simultaneously de-average your product and pricing model or you will quickly find yourself in the poorhouse.

    The better approach might be to release only premium versions of the CD (all hand signed with personal notes from the artist) for a very high price.

    I think the de-averaging the product and price that consumers pay can make a big difference.

    My information comes from the gaming industry, where some games are dropping subscription pricing and relying on in-game micro-transactions as the payment model. I have heard a number of stories of games that have increased their revenue per user by going to free subscriptions and relying on micro transactions instead. The only way that works is if the hard core fans spend much, much more to compensate for the free users.

    The other example is from Nine Inch Nails who released a $300 version of their album as an “Ultra-Deluxe Limited Edition Package” that included all the high quality downloads, two CDs, a data DVD, a Blu-ray high def DVD and assorted extras, all in a nice package signed by Reznor. This was only limited to the first 2,500 people. It sold out generating $750k.

    I would argue that’s the de-averaged True Fan paying for a de-averaged product at a de-averaged price.

    If you truly have 1000 True fans then others should be able to do this too.

  • tiret

    I don’t think being “100%-old-way-free” is possible, unless the artist himself wants to keep away from that. 1000 or 5000 fans means there are probably lot more (2 to 5 times) people that knows that artist; as soon as that happens, normally some traditional media should be running some news about that artist.

    I believe the point of cultivating a strong fanbase that eventually can produce enough revenue to allow sustainance for the artist is to make concience to concentrate our efforts there, since it is pointless or very difficult or improbable to attain mass-media; but I don’t think that traditional media should be avoided either.

    By the way, the figures given in this articles are for 1 person, and doesn’t includes costs. That is, for example, for a 10-piece band like mine, you have to multiply that numbers by 10; let alone the venues rents, PA rents, prints, transport, etc.,etc, that are normally associated with a DYI business.

    Alvaro Medina Escaso Aportechat

  • I’m a comic artist who’s made about $450 within the past year off of her work, and that’s probably about 5-10 people (if that) who’ve actually donated / bought stuff from me. It’s not great numbers, but for what’s essentially a “while I’m in college” job, it’s not bad either, especially for only being in business a year (which is unheard of in most webcomics).

    It’s not proving your 1,000 True Fans theory, sure, but it ain’t bad work either.

  • Jonathan Coulton comes to mind.

  • Jonathan Coulton

  • Hi! I’m a (moneyless) fan of you from Brazil.
    Have you heard about Jonathan Coulton?
    As far as I remember, He’s a former programmer that entered the Music career in the new media format.
    Relying on the fans donations and shopping, but offering free versions of his music.
    But he also makes live performances, so I don’t know if it fits entirely on your description of only making money from Digital media.
    But You could try to talk with him ;)

  • Jonathan Coulton:

    He’s never had a record deal. He bootstrapped his internet fame by blogging and putting out a new song once a week for a year. His songs are not only easily downloaded as MP3s on his site, but are also licensed under Creative Commons so you can use them in your own non-commercial applications.

    Now he has a song on Rock Band, plays to sold out crowds (including two sold out shows here in Seattle this weekend), and is supporting himself and a kid.

    I don’t know anything about his finances, but I bet he fits your definition.

  • Elizabeth

    I think Hay House/ is extremely useful to look at here. The writers there are
    intuitives/doctors/astrologists/shamans etc. but they depend on true fans, and they do quite well. Yes, they have deals with Hay House to publish their books, but Hay House pumps out SO many books a year, and we all know 95% of books don’t really make anything at all, so that business model can’t possibly provide much more than publicity & a forum for individual writers.

    The writers–like Sonia Choquette, Mona Lisa Schulz, Carolyn Myss—make money from events and from individual consultations: their consultation prices can be quite high, I think Sonia Choquette is $800/hour. That’s a True True Fan.

    Almost all of these spiritual visionary folks (and many of them truly are—but they are unsurprisingly ghettoized out of mainstream publishing in many cases) could benefit from Ferriss’s Four Hour Work Week—could offer something online more focused than a confused tangle of tapes & cds & videos etc etc.

    Half of Brooklyn would do well to take a close look at the Hay House authors–almost all of whom are doing way, way better than your average poverty-level writer/artist/guy-in-a-band.

    The key is going beyond entertainment to participation: providing a service that reaches into the fan’s life. Co-creating. Using what we have learned from social networking sites: everybody has something to say. People want a stake in something–it goes beyond entertaining your fans. The key for those of us trained in expression is remembering the fans are looking for a partner in their OWN expression. It is actually quite utopic/Aquarian/Obama/2012, in a way–the only way forward is together, putting your true self forward as an artist honestly, boldly, fearlessly, humbly. Not trimming the rough edges to look more normal, but putting it all out there so your weird niche can find your weird self. How cool.

    It sort of comes down to time management on the smaller scale: how much can you step up to the plate, as an artist AND as a business person without losing your mind/overworking/burning out? We do desperately need more examples of this!

    Tori Amos is also someone to look to who is famous for her fans, her longevity. Her book Piece by Piece is extremely instructive. Most big rock stars now, what does the record company even really do for them? It’s this same model, times 1000—the touring pays the rent.

  • Here’s an example.
    The kids that created the movie Once.

  • Kevin Smith

    Ani DiFranco out of Buffalo, NY has been doing it from the beginning and I think in the past 8-10 years Prince has really been pursuing this model.

  • If you’re interested, there are toy artists who do something like this. You buy a subscription and you get all the toys and products they put out that year. Frank Kozik is one example. Here’s a link:

    I doubt they actually make their whole living that way though…

  • Ibrahim Cesar
  • Steve

    You might want to ask Jonathan Coulton (

  • hey kevin
    1000 i could swallow as attainable, but 5000:)
    ive been doing this a long time and have the benefits of old media behind me. 5000 true fans in todays cluttered world who will not become distracted in a year or 6 months or…
    dont fool yourself, 5000 is a lot. its not easy to attain or maintain and few independent artists will have the social media skills to do it.

  • Amul Kumar

    I don’t know about musicians so much, but I can name a handful of visual artists, like myself, who derive our incomes (or at least, the portion of our incomes which we depend on) entirely from selling our artwork at science fiction/fantasy conventions and similar places: myself for 1 year (, Nigel Sade for 7+ yrs(, Alain Viesca for 5+yrs ( and Echo Chernik ( recently joined us.

  • I don’t know this artists personally, but I’ve been to a couple of his shows in Chicago. He seems to be independent and he has a dedicated fan base in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (it seems) that come to his shows and know every lyric, performance, etc.

    He’s been doing it like this for at least 8 years (since I moved to Chicago) and I think he had a definite number of True Fans that support him through consistent concert attendance.

  • Kevin, thanks for the update to your original post. I’ve been following this discussion closely around the blogosphere, and think I understand why the 1000 true fan supported artist is so rare: Because if the art is appealing enough to *deeply* engage 1000 “true fans,” what’s to keep the work from appealing to 10,000 or 100,000 “casual fans?”

    Also, the amount of time and energy required for an artist to engage any number of fans over 100 or so, limits the *ongoing* interaction to something less than “personal.” In other words, it’s not much more work for the artist to engage 10,000 people than it is to engage 1,000.

    Wealthy patrons might make something like this possible (Michaelangelo, Leonardo, etc). But in that case, they’re paying for the exclusive control of the artist rather than the art itself.

  • Chris

    One name for the list is Stefan Molyneux of Freedomain Radio. He’s not a musician, but rather a philosopher who does a podcast. Otherwise he seems to fit the definition of a True Fan-supported artist.

  • I have several examples, but the purest I can think of is Jonathan Coulton. He supports his family in NYC with revenue related to his music.

  • D

    One musician is Jonathan Coulton. (wish I knew of more.) If you’re expanding to other artists, consider Penny Arcade and Red vs. Blue.

  • It’s my understanding that there are artists in ambient music making a living off the true fan model, but not in the way that may be anticipated. Ambient music is big with some very wealthy folks who are willing to pay some of these known artists (I feel mentioning names would be rude) several thousand dollars to perform at what amounts to dinner parties or house shows. I know of annecdotal cases of $10,000 paid for such performances. The question is how to get on these circuits. It is worth noting that this is similar to the old time patron system.

    • Kevin Kelly

      OK, I got the nomination of Jonathan Coulton. Others?

  • Kevin,

    I read an interview a while back with Derek Sivers, founder and CEO of CDBaby. He makes some interesting points on how musicians can survive and flourish in these changing volatile times for the music biz:
    “Surprisingly, most of the money goes to places you wouldn’t expect; it’s not going to pop singers. It may be to someone doing a gospel record to benefit the soldiers in Iraq or using hip-hop music to teach multiplication. We have a woman named Eileen Quinn who is a sailor and only writes songs about sailing. Sailors everywhere want her music. She’s got her niche.”

    Here’s Eileen Quinn’s website: Note that after exploring her site I did not find that she has any ties to old media models.

    Something else I’d like to mention. One of the most profitable niches on the Internet is the ‘Business Opportunity’ market which is dominated by products that teach people how to successfully market on the Internet. These product launches by the big-name gurus have achieved a sales run rate in the area of $1M per HOUR for the limited time their products are available. Why not learn and adapt the online promotion and marketing techniques used by these successful entrepreneurs? Musicians, artists, authors, creators of most anything can use just a few of these proven techniques at a minimum of time and financial investment to not only start to build the list of their ‘lesser fans’ and convert them to ‘true fans.’

    In your post “The Reality of Depending on True Fans”, Robert Rich states that spending “..half his day doing email is not unusual”, I suspect he may not be most effectively using autoresponder technology. If he receives questions or suggestions from his existing true fans, he could aggregate them into a periodic broadcast sent out by autoresponder, and then incorporate these broadcasts into an email sequence whenever new fans opt-in to his autoresponder.

    I’ve signed up for artist newsletters distributed by autoresponder and I’m amazed at how underutilized these artists or their agents or managers make of this fantastic tool to communicate with their fans. There are so many things that any fan, lesser or true, would appreciate hearing from their favorite artists that they simply don’t think of doing. Here are some examples that come immediately to mind: a fan signs up for the newsletter, the fan is then sent to a ‘thank you’ page and offered a free mp3 download of the artists personal favorite song from their catalog, or there’s a FlipVideo produced clip with the artist simply thanking the person for signing up, or there’s a page of ‘behind the scenes’ photos of the artist and an audio stream thanking the artist. All this is fairly simple to do, it can be done once, and then it runs forever.

    Another opportunity that artists overlook is by sending out ONLY the touring schedule as their newsletter. This is all I get from some established artists (Aimee Mann, pay attention here!) Kevin, true fans want to have a look at the minor behind the stage details of the artist and their creative process, and we don’t necessarily want to be a part of it. With fast, cheap, and out of control devices to capture these details (FlipVideo, digital voice recorders, photo enabled cell phones, etc) someone in the artists retinue of hangers-on could be tasked with taking these snippets and loading them onto a running diary type web page and then updates announced to the fans via the artists autoresponder service.

    Getting back to my point, the marketing and promotion tools used by the successful Internet Marketing gurus are also being used in a wide variety of non-business opportunity related markets, and I think that artistic creators could learn a lot from this particular domain and transfer some of this expertise and these techniques to promoting themselves and their artistic endeavors.

    I suggest that getting even a little fraction of a $1M/hour sales run rate is going to make a huge financial difference for the artist. A quick example: someone recently put together a product on dressage (‘horse dancing’ for pete’s sake!) and netted about $60,000 using strictly online marketing and promotion to a very small list of customers.

    In direct response marketing the rule of thumb used to be that “the money is in the list.” In our current web 2.0/3.0 world, that’s changed to “the money is in the relationship with the list.” Artists need to learn not only to effectively leverage the communication tools available to them, but also to re-think the way that they communicate with their current and future fans.


    Joachim Klehe

    • Kevin Kelly

      Joachim, thanks for the suggestion and your larger points about tools. I tend to agree that the right new tools can ease the load, but for some folks, nothing will be it fun no matter what.

  • Pranab Majumder

    I think the question of dynamics is missing from the discussion. Let me present my thoughts.

    Is the set of 1000 fans static? I think if you have to make a living off n true fans, you also have to worry about recruiting new fans to replace those who move away in different ways. Thus, your music or art may appeal to a particular age group (or demographic or whatever), but each year some folks move on in live, and you have to recruit replacements.

    I think that over time this set may either implode, or explode, and thus it would be difficult to find an artist who would sustain herself/himself for many years in an equilibrium of n true fans. Either you give up on this shrinking base of users, or you become so big that you get copted by the mainstream.

  • I’d check into Atomic Skunk… a solo ambient music musician. He’s using the social media… FB, Twitter, Blog and dealing directly with fans. I don’t know anything beyond the above basic info, but he came to mind.

  • i complete your article,
    this article is very informative of fb & twitter users.

  • Cliff B

    There are a few who may be living this dream… Try getting in contact with a few underground Hip-Hop artists, MC Lars (, MC Frontalot (, and Random (

    • JornNER

      Keep in mind those rappers appear on other signed artists’ tracks, which means they actually do have contracts with record labels. This is common in hip-hop.

      • Gminor7

        The only one of those three with any label contact at all was Lars, but he established his fan base prior to working with Network (and no longer works with them, to my knowledge–and Network is a very, very low-key label). I don’t know if Random actually makes a living, but Front and Lars do–I know this because am Front’s keyboardist and co-writer, and have toured with Lars. MC Chris is also I believe not on a label. The nerd niche definitely offers a living for a hard-working and lucky few: Coulton, and possibly Paul & Storm. It’s a small pool though.

        • Kevin_Kelly

          Gminor, thanks for the update and clarification.

  • Tell the truth

    I wouldn’t take the advice from someone who has not made it or has not top number one songs at present.  It is like listening to a English Teacher who has no books published and telling you what to write and how to write it.

    Excuse htere are better organizations where top pros come to the   pitch a nite, lawyers and producers like North Bay Songwritring Ass.  Tons, more up to date with advice, they have been there and know all the ins and outs.  Just Plain Folks are for folks not serious in performance.

    Waste of time.

    Try the bigges, ASCAP, BMI Perofrmance Org.

    Good Luck

  • Olon

    emmy the great

  • Deby Dearman

    Pomplamoose are leading the way in this new digital age. They used YouTube to carve out their successful career.

  • Uggg! This article just confused me even more. I am an author of a book for teens. My book, Words Hit Hard as a Fist, shows teens what to do when they are being bullied. It is sooo important to get this information to all the teens so an education is not a death sentence. But it takes all of my time to market and most of the time I feel like I am yelling as loud as I can and know body hears me.

    • Jazz Rasool

      You may be articulating yourself well. Now find the people who have ears for your words. Those being bullied, oddly, might not be your audience, however the friends and family that support them might well be.

    • Wang Weidong

      “know body” hears you? That’s probably why you are not selling much of your book. Have you considered another career? Painting, perhaps?

      • HE3

        An editor would have caught that so it’s unrealistic to propose that is not why she is selling books.. People rarely mind the spelling in their comments and who really cares. The idea got across.
        It’s more likely that the title does not resonate with the target market. I’d suggest surveying titles on people. Ask the target audience what a book called [proposed title] might be about and you might be surprised how badly the title falls on deaf ears.

    • Angie unduplicated

      Bought. Hope it has some advice for an adult who has antagonized an entire extended family of a**holes.

  • I would suggest Amanda Palmer as a primary example for this new model. Her previous band was signed to a major label affiliate, but her achievements in cultivating true fans (both before and after any industry backing) are truly remarkable.

    • George Christiansen


      She got exposed to her fans via major label promotion and backing.

      Many, many people have done what she haas done after the traditionl means did all the heavy lifting, but I don’t know any yet that have met the above criteria.

  • Chocolat
  • Kyle

    Check out “Pretty Lights” … he has given away all his music for free through his website. He collects email addresses in exchange for the music (like Trent Reznor). He now sells out and headlines concert venues and festivals all over the country “Djing” his studio music. He started a label around the concept to do nothing more than help popularize the sound.

  • Cube3

    3 years later…. Minecraft? a game.. and one gal writing fan fiction ebooks….
    these things happened before the web… games sold millions via word of mouth (Doom) in 1995 and made 2.. only 2 guys rich…and that was a Walmart deal that made GT Interactive leave the work out tape biz….
    The myth still erodes our culture and economy.
    More noise, less work that pays.

  • Gerry L

    Kim Boekbinder, also known as The Impossible Girl, just funded a tour in the U.S. by pre selling tickets to shows not 100% confirmed via pledges. You could pledge that you would buy a ticket to a show in your city. If enough pledges were made, Kim would play that town, and once confirmed, the transaction process of ticket selling actually occurred. It meant that nobody lost their money, and there was no refund scenario, but punters who had pledged, had formally agreed to purchase said tickets. Almost like an ebay bid. For Kim it meant that she was in direct touch with her “True Fans” and could benefit most by catering to them: putting her touring costs to the most use, at dates where she was the most likely to sell CDs and further develop that strong, if small, fan base. 

  • Beverly

    I’m not a musician and I’m making a comfortable living in my niche thanks to my true fans.

    If a musician can’t make a decent living from his music maybe he should ponder if he has any talent and probably consider a 9-5 job as many others do to raise their family in a safe and comfortable environment.

    Living from his own talents is not for everyone. Maybe having a boss telling some untalented musicians what to do every morning would help them…

  • I’m a bit late to the conversation, but came across the original 1000 True Fans post and have read up on it a great deal as it relates to my role as a fundraiser for nonprofits. There’s a simplistic beauty of the concept that may belie it’s realistic impact, as this post suggests. However, from a fund-raising perspective, I think the key is to make your True Fans, evangelists of your work or mission. That is, you may not want to measure how much they, directly buy, but rather is there a viable business model where they help sell you to new or casual fans, and what can they be rewarded with? I don’t know, but I see the strength of the 1000 True Fans concept as not an end, but a beginning (and maybe it’s not 1000, maybe under that model it’s less). 

  • John Doe

    Lindsey Stirling, the violinist, is an example of someone finding big success

    outside old media.

  • GlitterDick

    Pomplamoose is an American indie music duo consisting of
    multi-instrumentalists Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. The band formed in
    the summer of 2008 and sold approximately 100,000 songs online in 2009. Wikipedia

  • dandonche

    I haven’t had a job in almost 2 years and I support myself completely through true and lesser fans. It’s not lucrative at all – I struggle – but it allows me the time to continue building momentum. The more products I come out with, the more I make per true fan. And I’m always coming up with new things to offer so I can increase my income. I shore the little things up (anything under $100) with at least one large project every few months that brings in a larger amount (Kickstarter). I’m at the point now where I’m planning a tour this summer, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a couple years but never felt I had enough support until now.

  • So this article is pretty old apparently, but the question that comes to my mind is this: Why do we have to aim at this model as an either/or proposition against “old media” which still has a pretty firm hand on things despite industry shake up? It’s a pretty artificial vacuum to propose a model that acts as if another model is gone entirely, when it isn’t and probably won’t ever be gone entirely, even if it evolves as all things eventually do. I think the reason it may be hard to find these kinds of 1000 true fan models is that A: once you get 1000 true fans…it’s probably easier to get more, and hence attract mainstream attention which may bring new revenue streams, (but ones generated in “old media” infrastructure) In fact I recall hearing talk on this topic suggesting that AS the bigger goal (when your niche isn’t SO small as to be unexpandable). Also it IS a LOT of work building one’s own brand and following, engaging audience , creating content…none of this is new to the “1000 true fans” theory. It is one of the reasons why most businesses of all kinds started fail before they can make it…people have delusions that it’s going to be easier somehow, or that their ideas or skills are good or marketable (even though they aren’t). I think the key for media/artists is that we have to be AS creative about finding revenue streams and as ambitious about working hard (but smart) for it, as we are about making the art itself…and to that avenues should be off the table.

    • Love this. Totally agree. 1000 true fans is just for the beginning. Hopefully they spread the news and it catches on to mainstream. This 1000 true fans is just ok for stage 1. If you want to remain at this low level, then fine. But if you want to be successful and mentioned with the greats of your field you need more helpful tips than this theory provides.

    • George Christiansen

      “Why do we have to aim at this model as an either/or proposition against “old media” which still has a pretty firm hand on things despite industry shake up?”

      Do you have access to the old media financial and manpower support?

      Me neither.

      That’s why.

  • What’s up?

    How about people who make videos on Youtube? If you bring in enough views you can make a lot of money from ads, I believe. I heard the English teachers who make Eat Your Kimchi on YouTube don’t have to work anymore. Their videos are a sort of travel guide, info, entertainment sort of thing- like an independant No Reservations. The base of followers must be largely composed of us English teachers in Korea. That’s a smart way to get your base of fans- give them a service that can actually help them while also being entertaining. I’m not saying a huge fan or a fan at all, but it’s cool this is possible.

  • mjs262

    I wish I found these articles back in 08. I’m a singer songwriter, but the main source of my income comes from performing cover songs in bars. Since it’s live performances, technically I meet that criteria. But since it’s not my music, I don’t find it rewarding, nor do I really grow my fanbase that way.

    I would like to reference my friend Ernie Halter. He has 3 children and makes his living through “true fans”. He has over 500k Twitter followers. Recently he raised approximately $35k in a kickstarter campaign to write & record 1 song a week for 52 weeks. The expenses are basically just his time because he did not guarantee production quality, just a new song delivered each week. Add to that his live performances, merch sales & royalties and you have yourself a living!

    • George Christiansen

      I am in the same boat as yourself.

      I think a lot of musicians make a living doing covers, lessons, ect. in order to fund their original projects, but it seems almost impossible to build and sustain a fan base big enough to only do originals.

      Marry rich is my suggestion. ;)

  • Brady Toops

    I may be a bit late to the conversation, but I am currently an artist who makes a living fitting the guidelines set forth in this article: no label backing, no management, no liscensing deals. I find the key in this process is find venues that facilitate the most meaningful connection and impact with these true fans, but even more than that the key is to consistently create great art. Build your tribe and ignore the critic.

  • Erik van Beek

    It is not about finding enough examples, or the truth about 1000 true fans. It is about the structure: when you make choices, you have to pay. If you make a choice to focus your attention and time on direct fans, you don’t have that time available to learn more about what makes a hit a hit. If you spend all your time learning about what makes a hit a hit, there is a chance you loose your true fans. In this natural structure, people who have bigger talents are better of. One way or another, they will hit some nerve in human kind and they will be able to enchant a lot of fans. But the main question about culture should be: Does the biggest talent get the appropriate podium?

  • I love this concept. I didn’t know about it until recently when I started poking around online and found it. I actually was prompted to search for it because a very famous author was publicly bashing some reader who illegally downloaded her book. It infuriated me enough that she lost a ‘true fan’ in me. It brought to mind Cory Doctorow and how he embraced the digital age (giving his book away for free) and increased his platform as a result. It made me think, here you have a famous author complaining about one download and insulting the reader (therefore, probably LOSING him as a ‘true fan’) and Cory whose thought process is very different.

    I’m a writer with a small, but loyal readership. I write on topics that aren’t mainstream popular and I am not the most popular writer in my niche; but I always try to connect with my readers/fans. I actually enjoy it and them.

    I haven’t been able to make a living yet but I’m just a few years in and took some time off. The dream is of course to be able to support myself doing what I love, but I realize that doesn’t happen for everyone. I’m still hopeful that the hard work will pay off with time.

  • Writefast

    To the author, if you haven’t, and if he hasn’t been mentioned,check out author Scott Sigler. He seems to define exactly what you are talking about in the 1000 fans articles.

  • Joshua

    Alex Day certainly is. Check him out at, or read the interview he had with James Altucher in his book, “Choose Yourself” –

  • CL

    I think Pomplamoose are making a living solely from their music. Especially since the invention of Patreon, a site where people can pledge money towards creators who create regular content for example YouTube videos. They’re making big bucks from that!

  • Herfinnur

    I bet none of you have looked outside the English speaking market. There are probably thousands of artists making a living on a very small, dedicated fanbase in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Nederlands, Austria, Switzerland, etc. The problem is that you will not be able to find them on google unless you already know their name. They or the people interviewing them do not talk about the number of fans or how many records where sold, or indeed anything to do with business or finance. In Europe, unless you are a part of big show business, you don’t talk about business. That is mostly an American or English native speaker thing, I think. In fact, I could mention a couple of artists that I know personally that fit the bill, but I am going to insult them if they find out., so instead I am going to point out an artist that fits the bill and publicly talks about it: Amanda Palmer

  • I realize this post is old, but you should look at Peter Breinholt, Jon Schmidt and Michael McLean for a few examples. Each has their own story and Jon Schmidt has recently “broke out” as The Piano Guys thanks to YouTube, but their story is really about 1000 passionate fans.

  • eggsyntax

    Just googled for the original article so I can share it with a musician friend who’s considering various approaches to making a living. Happened to hit this page, and was incredibly struck by the fact that now, in 2015, there are *lots* of artists using some variation of this model.

    Whether or not you were mistaken in 2008 about whether there were such artists, the model was obviously a viable one. And, frankly, I think it’s grown faster than it would have if you hadn’t come up with a clear, catchy way to conceptualize it. In fact I hear it referred to, with some frequency, as the trufan model.

    Thanks for helping to make it happen :)


    Ryan Leslie

  • DaveSchwReno

    The “1,000 True Fans” biz model is a good one but it isn’t just about counting a few heads. As a small, digital business (i.e. mom & pop with a few contractors) we’ve seen this as a viable approach for close to a decade. (We’ve been in biz since 1990.)

    If your definition is that a True Fan is someone who gives you (say) $100 per year and you have 500 TFs, you are making far more than just $100 x 500 = $50,000.

    In theory, if you have 500 x $100, then you also have 250 x $50, 125 x $25, etc. etc.

    At least that has been our experience.

  • DaveSchwReno

    I adopted the “1,000 True Fans” approach as my personal business model shortly after reading the original post. Trust me when I say that the model is absolutely ingenious and it works.

    But, in my opinion, most people have completely misunderstood the proper application of it.

    First, I define a “True Fan” as someone who will send you ONE DAY’S PAY per year.

    How much is that? Well, it depends upon your customers. For me, that number is about $250.

    The first thing you’d likely look at is the math: “Let’s see… $250 x 1,000 = $250,000.” Now, that is a respectable number but I am going to tell you that it is not even close.

    In fact, I am going to say that with the $250 per year definition, 100 fans = $100,000 per year OR MORE!

    Read that again.

    But how can that be? That would mean that each true fan is actually worth $1,000. Well, yes and no.

    Think of it this way…

    If you have 100 people sending you $250 per year…

    100 x $250 = $25,000

    … you also have about 200 people sending you half as much.

    100 x $250 = $25,000
    200 x $125 = $25,000

    That’s because it is easier to find people to send you half your target.

    On top of that, there are twice as many people who will send you half again as much, and so on and so on.

    100 x $250 = $25,000
    200 x $125 = $25,000
    400 x $62.50 = $25,000
    800 x $31.25 = $25,000
    1600 x$15.75= $25,000

    Since I don’t have anything below about $17, I’ll stop adding to the bottom but you might not.

    Now, here’s the really hot part…

    When you get to the Real TRUE FANS – remember that the $250 per day is the MINIMUM to qualify for True Fan status. They are a different bunch. You can do different things for them. You can do semi-private whatever, dedicated this, etc.

    So, what you begin to see Looks like the same concept going upwards.

    Of those $250 peeps, you will find…

    50 will send you an extra $250.
    25 will send you an extra $500.
    12 will send you an extra $1,000.
    6 will send you an extra $2,000.
    3 will send you and extra $4,000.
    1 will send you an extra $8,000.

    The final tally comes in at around $69,000 EXTRA!

    In truth, that one person at the top may very well go WAY above $8k.

    The key is to keep
    1. Producing new products
    2. Retaining your customers
    3. Adding new customers.