The Technium

The Reality of Depending on True Fans

[Translations: Japanese, Portuguese]

I have been researching new business models for artists working in the low end of the long tail. How can one make a living in a micro-niche? Is it even possible, particularly in this realm of no-cost copies? I proposed the idea of artists directly cultivating 1000 True Fans, which I wrote up in a previous post. It was a nice thesis that got a lot of blog-attention, but it was short on actual data. I solicited real numbers from those who wrote me, and I also sought out others who had a reputation for thriving on a dedicated fan base, and asked them to share their experiences.


One of the artists I contacted was musician Robert Rich, whom I knew only as a fan (but not a True Fan). Rich was an early pioneer in ambient music, and a force in the Bay Area new age music scene in the early 1980s. He’s prolific, issuing about 40 albums in the past 20 years, many in collaboration with other ambient musicians. Among his earliest albums was “Numena”, which made his reputation, and among his latest is “Eleven Questions”, which was recorded with colleagues in a seven day burst at his home studio.


Robert Rich was one of the first professional musicians to start dealing directly with his fans via his own website, which is why I contacted him. He wrote an extremely candid, insightful and thorough reply to my query. He tempers my enthusiasm for 1000 True Fans with a cautionary realism borne from actually trying the idea. The summary of his experience is so pertinent and detailed that I felt was worth posting in full. With his permission, it follows, slightly edited.

I agree strongly with your basic thesis [of a thousand True Fans], that artists can survive on the cusp of the long tail by nurturing the help of dedicated fans; but perhaps I can modulate your welcome optimism with a light dose of realism, tempered by some personal reflections.

I have operated on a premise similar to yours for almost 30 years now, before the internet made the idea more feasible. I wanted to make the sort of uncompromising quiet introspective music that moved me deeply when I first heard others do it back in the mid ’70’s. Because of the lingering aftermath of the popularization of psychedelic culture, certain memes leaked out from the avant garde into pop culture, and publishers from the old model were willing to try marketing experimental art-forms to the mainstream. Thus, into the mind of a suburban adolescent growing up in Silicon Valley, merged the unlikely combination of European space-music, minimalism, baroque, world music and industrial/punk, most of which received the benefits of worldwide distribution and marketing – even though we all considered it “underground” at the time.

That means, I grew up as a benefactor of the old system, before demographic marketing analysis helped to cripple the spread of radical thought across subcultural boundaries. I realized from this leakage of experimental culture into the mainstream, that I wanted to be an artist like the ones that moved me deeply. I wanted to speak my personal truth, regardless of the cost. I wanted to serve the role of a modern shaman, while embracing the complexities and ironies of our modern world.

When one sets a course like this, one quickly ponders the financial realities of obscurity. I remember telling myself when I was about 15, “If I can move one person deeply, that’s better than entertaining thousands of people but leaving nothing meaningful behind.” That’s the long tail talking. I suppose when you multiply this idea by a thousand, you have your thesis.

I began self-publishing my music in 1981, struggling to get paid from slippery distributors, trying to keep track of all the shops where I had my albums on consignment. I was relieved over the years when a couple small labels showed interest in helping me, and I could avail myself of their infrastructure. I think I benefitted immensely from this exposure, through labels like Hearts of Space and smaller ones in Europe. I feel in retrospect like I snuck in under the collapsing framework of independent distribution, at a time where small companies could cast a medium-sized fishing net, to catch the interest of listeners who would otherwise never have known they liked this type of music.

If it weren’t for that brief window of exposure, I doubt I would have my “1,000 True Fans” and I would probably have kept my day job. If I hadn’t also developed skills in audio engineering and mastering, I would be hungry indeed. If it weren’t for the expansion of the internet and new means of distribution and promotion, I would have given up a long time ago. In this sense, I agree wholeheartedly that new technologies have opened the door for artists like me to survive. But it’s a constant struggle.

The sort of artist who survives at the long tail is the sort who would be happy doing nothing else, who willingly sacrifices security and comfort for the chance to communicate something meaningful, hoping to catch the attention of those few in the world who seek what they also find meaningful. It’s a somewhat solitary existence, a bit like a lighthouse keeper throwing a beam out into the darkness, in faith that this action might help someone unseen.

Now in my mid-forties, I still drive myself around the country for a few months every year or so, playing small concerts that range in audience from 30 to 300 people. I’m my own booking agent, my own manager, my own contract attorney, my own driver, my own roadie. I sleep on people’s couches, or occasionally enjoy the luxuries of Motel 6.

In your article you quote the term “microcelebrities” which rings ironically true to me. I suppose I experience a bit of that, when some of the 600 people whom I see on tour come up to me after a show and tell me that my music is very important to them, that it saved their life, that they can’t imagine why I’m not performing in posh 3,000 seat theaters rather than this art gallery or that planetarium or library.

In reality the life of a “microcelebrity” resembles more the fate of Sisyphus, whose boulder rolls back down the mountain every time he reaches the summit. After every tour I feel exhausted but empowered by the thought that a few people really care a lot about this music. Yet, a few months later all is quiet again and CD/downoad sales slow down again. If I take the time to concentrate for a year on what I hope to be a breakthrough album, that time of silence widens out into a gaping hole and interest seems to fade. When I finally do release something that I feel to be a bold new direction, I manage only to sell it to the same 1,000 True Fans. The boulder sits back at the bottom of the mountain and it’s time to start rolling it up again.

So let’s look a bit at the finances. If I can make about $5-$10 per download or directly sold CD, and I sell 1000, I clear a maximum of $10,000 for that year’s effort. That’s not a living. Let’s say, after 20 concerts I net about $10,000 for three to four months worth of full time effort. That’s not a living.

In my case I’m lucky. I can can augment that paltry income through some of the added benefits of “microcelebrity” including licensing fees for sample clearance and film use rights, sound design libraries, and supplemental income from studio mastering and engineering fees. So, I make about as much money as our local garbage man; and I don’t smell as bad after a day of work. (Note that if copyright laws vanished then much of that trickle of supplemental income would dry up, so you might imagine I have mixed feelings about both sides of the free-information debate.)

Thanks to the internet, I am making more money now, selling directly to 1000 True Fans, than I was during the days on Hearts of Space selling 20,000 – 50,000 copies. But had I not benefitted from the immense promotional effort that it took for HOS to sell those albums, I probably wouldn’t be surviving today as a full time artist.

I have about 600 “true fans” and 2000 seriously following listeners… more on the fringe perhaps. My database has about 3,000 names but I only hear from most of these people every few years. Occasionally someone new shows up and buys everything I ever made. It’s not a simple answer. For example I know I have at least 500+ serious fans in Russia who never paid me for anything, because they get it all as bootlegs. My 4 or 5 “True Fans” in Russia inform me of these things. Many “fans” don’t feel compelled to pay for the art that moves them, or perhaps they cannot pay because of economic circumstances or the inverse laws of convenience.

The number of incoming new “fans” roughly matches attrition, perhaps. I am certainly able to communicate more directly with each individual, but that also means I have less time in the day to actually create new art (half the day doing email is not unusual.) Digital distribution seems to lower perceived value and desirability. Ease of access reduces any sense that it’s special or personal. Compressed audio quality and lack of physical artwork create the sense of a lowering in collectible value. I try hard to counteract these forces with high quality audio and informing listeners about the importance of the source… but people don’t always think about the details.

A further caveat: it’s easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions. I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent – perhaps unpredictable – artists, and from that perspective I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them.  If we play to the same 1000 people, and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don’t feel a need to purchase this year’s model, when it’s almost identical to last year’s but in a slightly different shade of black. Yet when the Fans’ Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable. Damned if you do or don’t.

I don’t want to be a tadpole in a shrinking puddle. When the audience is so small, one consequence of specialization is extinction. I’ll try to explain.

Evolutionary biology shows us one metaphor for this trap of stylistic boundaries, in terms of species diversity and inbreeding (ref. E.O. Wilson). When a species sub-population becomes isolated, its traits start to diverge from the larger group to eventually form a new species. Yet under these conditions of isolation, genetic diversity can decrease and the new environmentally specialized species becomes more easily threatened by environmental changes. The larger the population, the less risk it faces of inbreeding. If that population stays connected to the main group of its species, it has the least chance of overspecialization and the most chance for survival in multiple environments.

This metaphor becomes relevant to Artists and True Fans because our culture can get obsessed with ideas of style and demographic. When an artist relies on such intense personal commitmen from such a small population, it’s like an animal that relies solely upon the fruit of one tree to survive. This is a recipe for extinction. Distinctions between demographics resemble mountain ranges set up to divide one population from another. I prefer a world where no barriers exist between audiences as they define themselves and the art they love. I want a world of mutts and cross-polinators.  I would feel more comfortable if I thought I had a broader base of people interested in my work, not just preaching to the choir.

Indeed the internet is a tool that allows artists to broaden their audience, and allows individuals in the audience to broaden their tastes, to explore new styles, to seek that which surprises them – if they want surprise, that is. The internet can also give us tools more narrowly to target specific demographics and to strengthen those assumptions that prevent acceptance of new ideas, nudging people towards algorithmically determined tastes or styles. Companies can use demographic models and track people’s search patterns to pander to their initial tastes and to strengthen those tastes, rather than broaden their horizons. This problem doesn’t lie within the technology of the internet, but within the realities of capitalism and human psychology.

Like most technologies, the internet is morally neutral and we can better use its powers to assist the broadening of artistic expression, to assist minority artists to make a better living by communicating directly with their audience, to create tools that help people discover the surprising and iconoclastic, rather than to reinforce only that which supports their existing inclinations. Starving artists will probably remain starving, although perhaps with new tools to dig themselves a humble shelter; and as in the past, some of these artists will use those tools to build sand castles or works of great art.

– Robert Rich

I am deeply grateful to Robert for his generous and courageous disclosure of his real-life finances. Very few of us are willing to do that. But the truth about money is powerful. In the coming days, I will report in summary the real-life True Fan economics that other willing artists have shared with me.

  • My first try at a comment did not “take”, so I’ll try again.

    Thanks for this article. As an ambient music listener, it was great to hear from this “ambient star” with a dose of reality I found neither encouraging nor discouraging, but instead a nuance on the theory.

    Robert Rich is very well respected in most ambient music circles, and it’s great that you got his views on your thesis. This kind of useful information moves us past “weblog theory” into “explanation of praxis”, and makes for interesting reading. It also makes me think I do not own nearly enough Robert Rich–whose recent Creative Commons releases and recent re-issue at another ambient label I like both are now “calling” to me.

  • valentina contenti

    The German band Einstuerzende Neubauten started a Supporter’s program a few years ago and it’s still supported directly by its fans.
    It would be interesting to hear their contribution on this issue.

  • Ibrahim Cesar
  • bart

    Youtube vlogger RACTALFECE made a video called INFORMATION DYSTOPIA about this very topic. He was featured on youtube and received nearly one million views overnight which distilled into about 1000 fans. The question being “How can I turn this into a career?” In the video he explains how some of his vlog peers are making money and how the content suffers accordingly. WARNING: about 3/4 way through the video there is a graphic ‘protest piece’ -not for the faint of heart.
    He distributed this video via bit-torrent

  • Alvaro Medina

    I dig into the “cross-pollination” mr. Rich talks about. I play in Escaso Aporte, a band frome Chile, where the market is very small (we’re 15 million countrywide), and even smaller for indie bands. We’ve been “lucky” that we have found a place in a “scene” of some other bands that are regularly playing together and in similar venues.

    This bands have (including mine) have some cross similiarities, but none plays the same style. Therefore each time we play with a different band of the “scene”, everyone is getting more followers and new listeners. In the last 2 years we have doubled our followers compared to the previous 9 years; and that is true for new bands as well. Bands with fewer than 5 years have already a respectable fan base (500-2000), and they are _all_ unsigned.

    And that’s where this “cross-pollination” works — United we can win, even if we are not all in the same “niche”. Play together. CD or download sales are not the only nor should be the main source of income, we’re musicians, we have to play!

    Maybe that’s where mr. Rich has failed (he does not mentions anything, so I can only guess) — play along with others, join with other artist and play together. If you have a successful combo of bands, no venue will reject you — in fact they will come to you.

    Alvaro Medina
    Escaso Aporte

  • this has been a very interesting thread and i thank everyone for their contributions—-

    I would like to specifically comment on Eric Gs
    statements regarding spreading the Art (music) across several genres maybe constantly re inventing as the music (and audience) grows!

    We live in New Zealand a long way from every other country and when we play live here we do a lot of covers— as that is what the audience demand.

    However we have several online sites where we put up a huge variety of genres (more than any other “Band” I have come across—-and this has served us well in the USA where we have won Indie Awards in 3 genres last year!!

    This doesn’t convert directly to sales but it gives us credibility (they are industry Awards not fan based) and has helped our profile here and overseas!!

    We all have day jobs teaching music, maths, or part time work –and we also sell music to the advertising industry, in fact we made more $$$ from this than our 3 “HITS”

    There are Gatekeepers throughout the industry and in a small market like NZ unless you can get them on board you have no chance—-whereas in the usa online market we have several points of difference— and unknowingly are on the way to those 1000 fans ( I loathe that word)

    As we are not reliant soley on MP3 sales, we are just Artists with a story to tell, and we will keep doing what we do because this is who we are!!

    I pity those who are starving for their art, as I don’t think being famous equates with being successful——



  • sigh…we’re (artists) swirling in chaos freefalling wondering how and in what condition we will land as the technological upheaval settles into a more stable paradigm.

  • Sue Wilhite

    Thank you for the initial article, and this follow-up. The concept of the True Fans actually does work, but only if you use them properly. There’s a self-destructive mindset (besides poverty) that artists seem to fall into: it’s called “I have to do it all myself.” It’s a vicious circle, I admit: “I’m broke, so I can’t pay anyone to help me do marketing and/or publicity, be a roadie, manage my finances, etc; so because I can’t do any of these activities effectively, I’m gonna remain broke because I don’t know how to do marketing and I’m (of course) the only one who can handle my logistics.” Alvaro Medina Escaso Aporte seems to have gotten out of the loop a little by cooperating with other bands. Here’s my advice for all of you starving artists out there: get someone professional to do your publicity. Offer them a percentage (up to 10%) of your first year’s take if you exceed a threshold amount. (um, and get all this in writing!) That way, you are leveraging their talent (publicity/marketing) and they are leveraging yours. That’s how you get your 1000 Raving Fans. Then, you produce as much as you possibly can to support their need for you. It’s a win-win.

  • Junk Man

    What a great man! As I am in my early 20s and quite far away from the US (originally from Romania, but living in London now), this was my very first encounter with Robert and his music. I welcome his dose of reality to the future definition of what an artist could likely be:
    a self creating, self publishing and self distributing “shaman” who does what he does because a true burning passion and not to reach a Top 30 release. I must admit, as an amateur musician myself, hearing directly from someone who has actually been living through this idea of artistry is both heartbreaking and admirable. The Internet is indeed a bit of a catch 22, giving and taking at the same time. But I am confident that this is only the begging: the collaborative power of the Internet and the simple fact that someone like myself, from the other side of the world and with absolutely no prior knowledge of Robert’s music, is here, enjoying and talking about him. And,let’s just imagine a possible scenario where I would would be an artist that had 300 true fans and a network of other 20 musician friends with their own 300 true fans and so on… There, i believe is the true power of the internet, to create hypothetically impossible connections between artists and people at the other side of the world and from completely different generations. Working business models are likely to follow the new digital economies and I don’t doubt that there will be some serious shifts in the value chain. By the looks of it, the live/interactive side of things is taking the lead and recordings are falling behind. But my question here is “How many gigs can a small artist realistically do in a year and live without a daytime job?”

  • Chris McCallum

    While it did sound harsh, I agree with Jonathan’s comment (April 24,2008).

    Art and business are separate concepts. Art is allowed to be selfish and the artist need not think about what his fans want. It seems to do so is to “sell out”. Great from the art’s point of view, but don’t expect it to make money.

    A business, oppositely, exists solely to make money by giving its customers exactly what they want. Not what the business wants to give them.

    Very rarely it occurs where what the artist selfishly wants to create is exactly what a large market wants to consume. Hello Michael Jackson. While most artists strive for this situation, it’s just plain unlikely.

    So if you want to be true to your art, do that. Find someone else to market and sell it and you will find out exactly what it is worth in terms of dollars. You might not like the market feedback though if you plan on eating it.

    I love the idea of the True Fans. These are the people you want more of. The idea of 1,000 is really just a break-even calculation and now we are back to business again…

  • kleerstreem

    The majority of artist do not have enough hours in the day to take care of all the marketing & business items. Add to that, the daily attention that must be address to the growing number of social media sits.

    If you can get a manager/marketer/PR person to work for a strait commission, then you should do it. But, I think it recruiting those one thousand real fans to help you out would be most beneficial.

    If an artist really wants to make a living, there is nothing as important as connecting with fans to create memorable moments during each show.

    Every artist must figured out where their real fan base resides in each physical sector, then go into those areas and do at least 3 gigs. If you don’t see a decent turn out after 3 gigs, then you need to move into a different area. It’s trial and error but after some time, if you keep good records, something will “pop” out at you as to why you had better turn outs in some areas than others. It could be something as simply as the age of folks you did shows for. I have one venue where a band must know the audience. In this venue, (this is a 5 set gig..not kidding), but the first ninety minutes you play very old music because the crowd is old; then the next 90 minutes you play top 40; the next hour top 40 plus some originals; the last hour is wide open you play any thing. If the venue has a dance floor and no one is dancing, you need to find out what the audience wants to hear. The other very important item is many venues are about a band’s following and how much revenue an artist/band can generate in terms of adult beverage sales. I managed one band, who’s following were water and coke drinkers. Venue sales were low and eventually that band was cut from the rotation list. I know one artist & his band, that doesn’t sing well at all, but, every where they gig three to four hundred fans show up and are big consumers of adult beverages. This band has a full schedule each week and annually do 200 + gigs. Club owners report they make more money when they book this band vs some of the better known names.

    My only point here, is to live in the real world of what’s required wherever you play.

  • Nate Talbot

    As an entertainment consultant, I’ve been preaching the 1000 fan theory for years, just in a different way. I think it is very feasible for many DIY artist to make a fair living following this method. I haven’t read through each comment to see if someone has pointed this out, but the true catch to the 1000 True Fans theory is to look at that as a starting point. Yes it may take years to get the first 1000, but once you have them, don’t stop recruiting! If you reach 1000 fans after 3 years, than using basic sales and word of mouth, you should be able to grow that by at least 25% over the next 2 years, and again after that. Only when you become content with “I have 1000 fans, so I’m good” do you begin to cap your potential earnings.


  • Robert’s disclosure of finances really helps to keep honing the “1000 True Fans” theory (thanks, Robert!). There were some great points that need consideration.

    I think the “1000 True Fans” model still holds true – what Robert’s testimony gives us is a guide to where tools and services need to be developed to help the artist working at far end of the long tail.

  • Great to have a big dollop of truth – would be interesting to see the opinions of people creating more commercial music, as opposed to finding a niche they are heads on with the majors and the old way of doing things

  • Robert,

    I have read a lot about the pros/cons of the True Fans concept. The evolutionary biology metaphor was the smartest thing I have read regarding 1,000 True Fans. Excellent!

  • Shouldn’t the title be ‘A Teality’ instead of The Reality’? There are lots of examples of people with a small fanbase that make a decent living.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Erwin, if you know of any people making a decent living from a fanbase, please send me their contacts so I can interview them. Thanks.

  • I am also an artist struggling with these same issues, although much further behind in the “game”. I plan on diving into online self-publishing this year, but with the same concerns of, as Rich says, “more stuff, lower quality, lower price”. not something that interests me. I think, as artists, we may not have much of a choice but to embrace this trend, as it seems that the solution would be rooted mostly in matters of human (buyers) psychology and not forces of technology.

    I enjoyed the evolutionary biology analogy because it applied specifically to a problem with my own path that I have been thinking about. What if, for example, an artists’ output is so varied that it confuses their brand? I don’t mean on the scale of one record being far more experimental than the next (leaving some fans in the lurch) as much as an artist attempting to maintain an audience from one genre to another. Would it simply be a more exaggerated and failed attempt, or, in reference to your biological metaphor, could an artist possibly create many mutually exclusive “trees” at once to feed off of? This assumes a lot about the artists’ capacity, of course, but the possibility for stability seems attractive enough…

  • Matt Trifiro

    Now I am a fan! This beautiful essay will cause me to buy one of Richard’s albums. Part of what makes a long-tail product special is that extra meta-layer of terroir, history, personality. Now when I listen to his music, I will not only hear the packaged product, I will see him and remember his words. Bravo.

  • I suggest contacting sci fi and computer writer Jerry Pournelle ( He is trying the true fans model in his subscriptions.

  • This is a very important conversation for the future of culture. We gain the benefits of reduced cost of production through the digital, but also suffer the reduced price on the sales end. The digital is a copy at the point of origin. Forging new economic rig for the independent artist could lead to a new era of discovery.

  • hey kevin
    the artists financial life has always hanging by a thread. as the money in music moves from one big industry (the music business) to another (the isps, mobile and social networks) there really is a void in the development landscape. its hard enough to get 100 true fans never mind 1000. who is going to help get the up and coming artists to the next level.

  • Very detailed description by Robert. Thank you, I agree completely
    That’s what it’s like at the moment. Still I love being independent. Maybe it’s a bit of a struggle at times. Compared to the struggle that people in their daytime jobs have I think I’m blessed.
    Just a few days ago I read, that the winner 2006 of the German equivalent to ‘American Idol’ is back to play small clubs in my area with his Metallica Cover Band.
    Poor guy! He had a nr.1 hit.

    At the moment I learn how to communicate with my future fans by improving my online marketing skills.
    Being an artist and an entrepreneur is a great freedom. I can do what I love the way I want to do it. I am grateful for that.

  • Kevin,

    Thank you so much for following up with Robert Rich on this. He truly is an amazing artist; one whose influence extends much further than his “viability” (as disgusting as it is to mean that).

    Although this provides a great example for those producing anything on the long tail, perhaps it also provides a significant measure of commentary on this nation’s lack of commitment to support the arts. When the forces of unregulated capitalism are applied to art, we all miss out on a lot of amazing stuff.

    I was fortunate to see Robert Rich perform at the Detroit Science Center a few years ago, and it was incredibly moving. Still, my emotional connection with that performance didn’t translate into me buying a CD. In fact, he gave me a CD, which I promised to review — and that never happened. Regardless, imagine the hidden costs of promoting yourself like this.

    I’m sure small businesses everywhere can relate.

    In a lot of ways, MySpace has saved independent music. These acts now have a venue to promote themselves with young fans. But it’s insufficient. And although I’m sure Robert has a MySpace presence, Gen Y seems to be completely oblivious to ambient music.

    My point: Brilliant artists like Robert Rich are increasingly reliant on licensing deals and live shows. Easier said than done when you’re your own contract negotiator and roadie (and, believe me, he travels with TONS of equipment).

    The fact is that the long tail matters. If it weren’t for people like Robert Rich, the world’s sense of culture would be that much more diminished. Sadly, the free market’s wisdom often doesn’t give voice to those who deserve it.

    If anyone reading this has an opportunity to hire someone who’s ever made a dollar — one — marketing independent music, please do it.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for raising this topic and posting Robert Rich’s thoughtful response.

    The idea that you can do OK as a creator if you can get 1,000 people to give you $100/year has a certain appeal to it.

    I think what you can see from Robert’s experience, though, is that this is much easier said than done. There’s also a tremendous amount of cost that goes into generating that $100,000 income.

    A lot of attention is given to artists like Nine Inch Nails that can generate significant incomes from indie releases. These anomalies really don’t tell us anything, though, about how a new artist or niche content creator can survive in this day and age.

    The big question that the 1,000 true fan concept raises is where are the examples?

    Unfortunately, they are still few and far between.

    • Kevin Kelly


      I agree this is a hard road to follow. It may be the no one is really doing it now. It may also be that 1000 is the wrong number. It may be impossible for anyone. Or it may be that it is simply a path no one has taken because it hasn’t been possible before. I’m looking for data with an open mind.

  • Kevin, first of all thanks for sharing this! And thanks to Robert for his candidness.

    Such eloquence in how the positions are stated. The almost stoic acceptance of reality, tempered with an incisive analysis of the situation makes for very compelling reading.

    Perhaps Robert is the precursor of the new breed of artist. One who not only cavorts with the artistic muses but also interprets the commercials aspects with the lens of science. The transition must be painful but just as musicians have learnt to use machines in the production of their craft this too could be a necessary skill.

  • DWO

    This makes me think about what it means to live a good and happy life as an artist. To me, I think it is simple. I strive to perform, compose, and record music that results in a fan base that can support me as I live. I don’t think being poor is appropriate or a goal of mine. Although I don’t make a lot of money now, I have strivances to become financially afloat due to my musical creativity. I think every artist should have this motivation. I am inspired by artists who are positive and active; they create work that resonates with people and they have enough self-respect to ensure, for themselves, that they will be successful financially. In other words, they have faith that everything will be all right. I don’t agree with the notion that an artist should starve. I don’t agree with the notion that great artistic work predominantly arises out of great financial woes and great depressions. This happens at times, but not all the time.

    I think it boils down to the musical content. Do people like it? If you are creating something that is abstract, avant-garde, experimental, and purposefully transgressing pop-cultural expectations, then I think you should be prepared for very little financial success and you better love what you do! Of course, this isn’t always true. Some artists push many boundaries and acquire plenty of reverence, money, notoriety, and they build something that lasts through history and lasts posthumously. However, I’m not that kind of artist. I create music that is novel but borrowing from traditions past down. Where some artists don’t compromise, I do by saying that I know we all want to be completely unique, novel, unprecedented, contain integrity, and transgress any kind of social or political structure that seems popular yet immoral or wicked or whatever… however, I know I can’t make a deep enough impact on society unless I have enough clout to do so. And, making $30-40 thousand dollars a year makes that road rather tough. So, I have to compromise and appeal to the people because that’s what matters anyway. I’m trying to appeal, not repel! If I have an argument or fight to win, I’ll be better off when I have enough clout to do so. Largely, my artistic goals are centered around my ability to influence the world to do positive actions; actions that culminate to a more egalitarian world.



  • thanks so much for this, thought-provoking, poignant, real

    you can see why the ancients invented the concept of karma… hard work, integrity, are no guarantees of success, something else is at work

    we can more accurately describe how information flows, “long tail”, “true fans”, but the situation is still the situation

  • Much as I liked the premise of your True Fans post, I found myself wondering how many artists of any stripe are ever able to find 1000 people to give them $100, year after year. Robert Rich’s eloquent summation of his career sounds more realistic: work hard, cultivate your True Fans, and find other ways to generate enough income to survive. Does Rich have a family to support?

    Artists have always had to struggle to survive. The great breakthrough of technology is that it puts tools for both creativity and distribution into the hands of anyone with a laptop and talent. But no one ever promised it would pay the bills.

  • The Long Tail is a nice Marketing gimmic for one. But without a fair value on “art” vs. “technology” using broad terms.-not mine- the accelerated society of the machine human, has no time, place or desire to fund the human arts.

    I have lived the “1000 fans” mode for my online media for 15 plus years. A “living” beyond Mr Richs description cannot be made without what again is considered “old”(accepted by another) media thinking and terms in the balance.

    I think Mr. Richs experiences are true to reality, and at least for the forceable future, the fact against all FREE and LONG meme fiction that I beleive when promoted as factual- infections- in an already declining culture / society that coulnt balance its previous myths and realities well either.

    But alas im still a cynical optimist that enough good and enough stupidity will still define regular humanity. And thats a good stable balance of things.


  • jm

    The whole thing is hugely impossible, but if you want to create meaningful art, it is slightly less impossible to work this way over working within the media conglomerate system. Mostly because by serving things up the best you can and putting the ball in the audience’s court over a gatekeeper in the current system has a slightly better chance for success. But there needs to be a shift in the way people view artists. Everyone is into art (movie’s music et cetera) but no one is into artists.

    Most artists if they succeed independently just end up signing with a major label, studio et cetera and not staying indie because it’s so difficult and you have to be really sharp with your business maneuvers so that you can get distro.

    I love this artist as a case study:
    And of course what we are struggling with:

  • jm

    “who is going to help get the up and coming artists to the next level.”

    KK, may I suggest that you take some submissions and elevate a few artists who you think are worthy of true fans and position them accordingly? I’d be curious to see that as a case study. Clearly people are listening to what you think. I’d rather see some technique explored here over just theory.

  • I think you’ll find examples going both directions.
    There are a plethora of web comic artists (Penny Arcade, Questionable Content, xkcd, etc) that have made the move to doing their web hobby full-time and seem comfortable doing it. They seem to be funding themselves off of merchandise sales stemming from their comic work and fan base and not making money directly off the comics themselves.

  • Interesting to read someone who isn’t quite making it by this theory. There are alot of variables within an artist’s approach to this theory, which make it hard to completely prove or disprove. I think one of the most important parts of the previous post was this statement; “Lastly, the actual number may vary depending on the media. Maybe it is 500 True Fans for a painter and 5,000 True Fans for a videomaker. … But in fact the actual number is not critical, because it cannot be determined except by attempting it. Once you are in that mode, the actual number will become evident.”

    Robert Rich sounds like a very inteligent artist, and one with a good work ethic (one of the more important elements in making it.) His numbers don’t add up to fit the True Fans model, but reading his statement I kept wondering what part of his approach could be changed to make it work better. This model seems like an ideal, a way to tell artists to be true to themselves and just find the people out there who apreciate exactly what the artists wants to create. Unfortunately I think that, even following this idea of True Fans, an artist is going to have to make the occasional compromise, work their ass off, promote themselves non stop, and approach the sales/moneymaking part of their artistic career with a business mindset. The first and last on that list are usually the hardest.

  • Yes, Yes, Yes to RR’s perspective!

    My response to the 1000TF idea was similar (YES! but…), however I could never have articulated it as succinctly.

    I, myself, am on the cusp of implementing such a system. According to my calculations, the real cost of one of my CDs should be somewhere between $35 and $50 a copy. And that doesn’t even really pay me for my time and energy in the musical process!

    I, too, would be absolutely nowhere with out having been connected to larger success elsewhere. But the fruits of those connections are tenuous when it comes to turning efforts into cash.

    I, too, have a constant struggle with all the professional aspects of being one’s own record label, publisher, publicist, art director and manager. When is the time to play music? “Just a few more emails/phone calls first….”

    I hope this idea works! I’d hate to think that artistic pursuits will end up being left only to the young, who have unlimited energy and unabashed enthusiasm for the untested. I want to live in a culture whose aims including creating Masters. That means creating space to work with one’s craft decade after decade after decade after decade…

    It’s hard to imagine Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, or Pablo Casals spending their days hunting down lost publishing money or talking to record distributors, while at the same time getting anywhere with their connection to music through their instruments.

    And yet, this idea rings some kind of bell. Let it ring, then.


  • It’s interesting that I discovered a link to your post on Boing-Boing right after I addressed a similar issue on my own blog. I operate a non-profit archive and museum dedicated to the art of animation. A lot of the same issues that affect artists looking for their 1000 true fans applies to the web presences of non-profits as well.

    Back in the internet boom, I spearheaded an attempt by a small independent animation company, Spumco, to create an entertainment site that sustained itself on the true fan theory. The trick ended up being how to handle the commerce of charging and selling online and finding true fans that were willing to buy non-physical products. It was a rough lesson, and ultimately it wasn’t financially successful, but I still hope that that tide will turn and the internet will provide a source of income for independent artists.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Stephen Worth
    ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive

  • charles platt

    Kevin, I have always felt that the two processes of creating something, and marketing it, are best handled by separate entities. Creative people are wasting their talent when they divert their time to self-promotion, and most of them aren’t very good at it anyway.

    If the internet is going to make most small-to-medium sized publishing businesses uncommercial, as I think is likely, I believe a whole segment, possibly even a whole generation, of creative people will be unable to make a living being creative. Indeed I see this already happening to writer friends of mine who are less fortunate than I am (I have always been able to diversify).

    For years, probably decades, people may not notice the difference, since the Age of Content Aggregation that we are entering eliminates so many barriers to archival material, we will be able to feed off the past with great enjoyment. To take just one example, there is an obscure New Jersey radio station that aired a weekly show of obscure music during the 1980s and 1990s. ALL of those shows are now available as audio streams. I could fill my listening hours with that music alone, for months.

    I have a feeling, though, that this is not culturally healthy. We need new art, and creative artists should be paid if they entertain people. I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see a model that makes this possible without forcing me to become my own self-promoter.

  • I posted some thoughts about this over on my own blog about game development (

    One problem is that $100/year is a lot of money. For “indie” type games, that’s 5 $20 games per year; this requires the game developer to create one game per 2.5 months on average. With the falling cost of indie games, this just gets depressing.

    The other issue here is business. As a rule, creative types are terrible at business. There are numerous stories of people getting taken advantage of in contracts, or being unable to do even simple marketing and PR. This is on top of the act of creating music, games, or working in whatever medium one prefers. The instant-access of the internet works against the indie once again, since it’s hard to rise above the constant noise level, or even compete when people can download big-budget alternatives from P2P.

    An interesting topic, though. Something near and dear to my own heart as a small-scale online game developer.

  • What a wonderful essay by Mr. Rich, a man whose music I’ve [bought and] enjoyed over the years. As an emerging artist I’ve been made optimistic by this 1,000-true-fans idea. But Robert has a lot of great points on the matter, and delivers them with realism as opposed to cynicism, which is nice because it gives me perspective. I mean, if Robert Rich, one of the top names in high-quality ambient/space music, can suffer, that means the industry is a lot more tenuous than I thought.

    The first thing I’d like to throw out there, however, is that the fanbase of 1,000 does not necessarily have to stay the same 1,000 people. As Robert says, he more or less gains a new fan with each one lost. That means the fanbase is still maintained, of course with hard work.

    Second, if each new fan pays the $100 admission up front, according to the theory, what does it matter?

    Third, 1,000 fans at $100 each is a LOT of money. It could easily be 500 fans at $100 each, or 1,000 fans at $50 each. Per year, that is. $50,000 a year is a great salary for an artist in this culture. I get paid exactly that for a job that is entirely unrelated to music and I despise all that time wasted when I could be focusing on my art. Yeah, I’m not going to be living in a plush pad anytime soon, but I’m fairly comfortable. And if I could be making that money from something I actually believed in, and that 1,000 people in the world also believed in, I’d be a very, VERY happy person. And I can only assume that happiness would transfer to my fans in various interesting ways.

    Still, though, there definitely seems to be a fine line here akin to the debate between Capitalism and Socialism. As in: highly complex. I’d love to see it work, though. I’m a fan of Socialism. Let’s just cross our fingers that if it did start to work it wouldn’t rapidly degenerate into a Capitalistic form where artists sell their crap to True Fans for $9.99.*

    *+ shipping and handling.

    Anyway, thanks Kevin and Robert. Lots of food for thought. :)

  • Another point to keep in mind is your geographical location and currency. I am located in Europe so playing live in Europe I earn euro. However when i tour Canada or the States i am earning currency which is almost halved in value and makes it very difficult to cover costs I have outlayed (flights, visas etc) in Euro. Earning US dollars for downloads in most cases is also problematic as my living costs are in Euro.

  • Of course it’s tough being a freelance anything, which is basically what we are talking about, but 1000 True Fans is an important concept, in my view. It’s the focus on achievable goals rather than pinning all your hopes on BIG SCORES or MEGA STARDOM. It’s a realistic play for a working living rather than an unrealistic focus on making it big. It is hard, yes, but if you are a) good at what you do, b) authentic, and not trying to be something you lack the wit or talent to be, and c) prepared or able to chug away thanklessley for a year or so, you will find moderate success, I’m certain. Jonathan Coulton is kind of our poster child in this respect.

  • This essay fascinated me. Thank you and Robert Rich for sharing it.

    In ambient circles, Mr. Rich is frequently cited as the example of an ambient star who has “made it”. The essay confirms the sense in which “this is so”, but also points up the irony in that phrase for an artist in a niche field.

    I continue to believe that most niche artists, rather like most writers, will rarely be “professional” musicians, but instead be professionals in another field who also make music.

    This essay perhaps shows it is possible to “get by” on the 1,000 true fans, but also that 1,000 true fans do not outlandish success engender.

    I also found myself intrigued to find that I am in all likelihood older than Robert Rich, whom I think of as having been around much longer than I have. I further realized that it’s high time, I bought some Robert Rich–and perhaps I’m 1,001.

  • Lindsay Stewart

    There are both good and bad elements to the changes that have been occurring and will continue to reshape the art and media industries. The downward proliferation of technology and means of distribution has opened the playing field to far more people and decentralized the power once hoarded by a few conglomerates. That is good. At the same time, there is now a glut of material of often substandard quality in every genre clamoring for attention, time and money. That’s kind of bad. For years now I have supplemented my income and for a few years at a time subsisted on the earning of my art. I consider that a success.

    One thing to consider is that with the freedom to express and explore in this brave new world comes the need to alter expectations. When I started out in the early 80’s there were blessed few means of getting your material heard and even fewer means of getting it into the hands of fans. Recording was still enormously expensive, pressing was also prohibitive and distribution was nearly nil. My band was able to fill three hundred seat clubs and lose money doing it. We could push our cassette into the charts of regional college radio and couldn’t afford to produce a product to capitalize on the airplay. We were stuck with every other wannabe hunting for the elusive record deal.

    When I plonked out my first solo CD, I was able to clear a tidy profit on a thousand units. Off the stage sales in pubs and cafes generated more income than I’d been able to pull in years before in much larger, busier rooms. In my mid 40s, I’ve now moved on to the hobbyist stage of my career. As my new recording project nears completion, I ponder my options and I’m not convinced that pressing a CD is even necessary, why waste the resources to create a physical artifact that requires handling, shipping, storage and fuss. I’m building a site that will allow me to post the material and interact with the people that either care or stumble over me. If I can generate a thousand downloads at $10 I will snicker and dance in the light of the moon. But I will allow the thing to stand or fall on the merits of the work.

    That remains the key. The hottest, coolest, sexiest whatever has a shelf life of minutes. It may pop a million hits this week but who knows what comes screaming down the pipe next. Sometimes it is better to be a ‘never was’ than a ‘has been’. I’m confident in my craft and the quality of my work. I don’t have to rely on the fickle pop marketplace. A thousand true fans is likely out of reach but a hundred doesn’t seem unlikely. Supplement that with a few hundred more generic fans and a modest living or considerable supplement to a day job isn’t out of reach.

    Thanks for the fascinating articles and thoughts.


  • Lenswork Magazine has essentially achieved this recently, and will no longer be selling on news stands. It’s an interesting idea and makes a lot of sense given their demographic of True Fans. You might hit up Brooks and ask his take on this (or follow the thread on the site:

  • Kevin:

    You should really contact Bob Hicks, publisher of the ‘zine “Messing About in Boats.” For over two decades, he has been making a passable living selling this print-only magazine to a hard core of a couple thousand subscribers. You’ll need to contact him by phone or postal mail, though, as he has no regular access to email or the Web.

    Yes, that’s right, he’s making a living on this model without the Internet-based technologies that would supposedly make it easier. I think he may have some interesting insights on it.

  • Ben

    Great post, thanks for pursuing this.

  • Very nice article to begin with and a very elightning response article by Robert.

    Here’s something I think is relevant that I wrote upon request for Revolve magazine in the UK:

    Should we buy our music?

    A question everyone with a computer faces these days is should I buy my music or should I just download it for free. Every musical piece that exists these days (and even some that don’t) is available for download for free through myriad of ways. So should we buy our music? As someone who’s been buying music and getting it in other ways for a long time, and as someone who has a label and is involved very much in our small alternative musical scene I want to offer some insights.

    Let’s go back in time… quite a long way back… when I started to get into music, I used to record music on cassettes – we didn’t have much money, so we used to go 3-4 friends to a record store, each would buy one record, and then we would go back home and each would record the others’ records to a tape. Downloading/sharing is the same, basically, isn’t it? Both are illegal copying. Well, the scale is different. For one person who buys a CD, you have millions who share it with him. This does put us in danger of making music making something you can’t live from, and that is especially true if you’re not an artist that performs a lot (if you perform a lot, you might be able to live from shows).

    The way I see it, this is a very simple thing. You want good music from artists and labels, you gotta make it possible for them to make it and live from it, especially when you’re talking of underground music that doesn’t have a big market, that doesn’t have a commercial appeal. Draw your line, as long as you do all you can to support the music you love, it’s OK. Once you cross that line and start getting something you really like for free, when you can afford to buy it, you choke the music, and then you won’t have good music- very simple.

    We have to get it into our minds, that if we don’t give back to the music we like- it will deteriorate, and finally disappear. The good artists that devote themselves to their art, that work professionally, that walk new paths, will quit or go where the money is (commercial music). The good labels that present an interesting musical vision, invest in their artists and develop them, will dwindle and die. This is already happening and for quite a while. Let’s no kid ourselves, good original, mature, deep, professionally made music is very hard to come by in our scene.

    Music, as all forms of art, was never in history a profitable business. Musicians and music institutes were always supported, by kings, by aristocrats, by governments. We live in a better age- it is in our hands to support the musicians we like and the music we like. Let’s do it. It can work.

    So, if you like it- support it, buy it!!! If you don’t- you won’t have more of it. Very simple.

  • thank you robert for your thoughts.

    i suspect that throughout history, at any one time, there have been a few mainstream artists who “got rich” and a lot who just “got by”. in that respect nothing has changed, has it?

    the music machine of the 2nd half of the 20th century distorted reality by the way celebrities were marketed. now we’re all waiting to see what the new world looks like. probably not so different in the end.

  • I came in via Boing Boing.

    Thanks to Mr. Kelly for investigating this question, and to Mr. Rich and all others who contribute data. I for one will be checking back with interest.

  • Incredibly insightful reading. Thanks, Kevin and Robert, for shining the light on the reality of living as a true artist. I really enjoyed your live show at Partikel, Robert. Looking forward to your next performance. If you ever decide to put on another sleep concert, I’ll be there.

  • Jonathan

    I don’t want to be harsh, but I think Mr Rich (although by no means on the only one) needs to gain a little perspective. I myself am a chartered surveyor. It’s a boring job, but I make a lot of money from it. Perhaps Mr Rich should consider that if selling music isn’t paying enough?

    Ha ha, only serious. Perhaps making music is not about capitalism, or market value, or profit. It is about art. Maybe consumption of music is not about obligation or contract or copyright or compulsion. It is about preference and taste. To complain that you cannot make enough money from art is therefore almost the definition of the phrase “missing the point.”

    I do not understand why any one artist, or even group of artists, not making enough to live on is a problem. If, as a consequence, you cease to produce the art that some people like, then what of that? Not enough people liked it to buy it.

  • Don’t think about money but about creation… will come it is just our expections what kill us

  • jh

    Excellent insights in this article, even if it seems a little over-optimistic. I think more focus should have been placed on touring and related activities – artists who tour frequently will generally enjoy increased sales, as opposed to those of us who are strictly focused on recordings.

    Certainly, over time, the market for unusual independent music has changed. On one hand, the audience is potentially larger than ever. On the other, due to the accessibility of inexpensive recording and duplication to everyone, there’s a much larger sea of available music to wade through. As a small label owner, I see this reflected in changing sales patterns over the years. In 1993/94 runs of 1000 copies were common for ‘experimental’ labels, even if the artists were more or less unknown. In 2007, it’s hard to break the 100 mark. Even with the low cost of manufacturing a run of 500 discs (the minimum order at most pressing plants), it’s become much more difficult to break even. If just getting the music out there is the only concern, then the DIY CDR option is always there, and indeed the current boom in small CDR and net labels in some way resembles the cassette culture boom of the 1980’s (with equally variable results), but for people who actually want to make a living, however marginal, physical products are no longer enough. It’s necessary to either diversify (licensing music for film, TV, or advertising – obviously the latter is not a ripe field for us electroacoustic/acousmatic/noise types), touring as often as possible (and this doesn’t pay nearly as well as it used to in North America and Asia, though people seem to do well in Europe) or, as in the case of most of us, holding on to that day job or other gainful self-employment.

  • Trey from Memphis,TN

    I can relate very much to Robert and the “micro celebrity” statement. His concert here was canceled and we heard through the grapevine that he was outside of town signing records. It was a very nice idea how close and real he was. A person not the myth of an artist detached from his community. The idea that he was communing with his crowd has to be the real testament to him as a genuine dedicated artist.

  • I tried to post this before, but apparently your spam filter ate it. You should really contact Bob Hicks, publisher of the ‘zine “Messing About in Boats.” With only a couple thousand fanatically dedicated subscribers, Bob’s been making a living at the bottom of the long tail for a couple of decades now.

    The interesting twist is that the Internet revolution has completely bypassed both Bob and his magazine. You’ll need to contact him by phone or postal mail, and be prepared to explain your original thesis, which he won’t have seen; Bob doesn’t have (or want) regular access to email or the Web.

  • Jared Matthew Kessler

    I’m a writer/blogger and a music composer… so I understand everything said here. I think it’s spot on, yet sometimes hard to quantify a number to everything.

    I love the quote, “if you WANT to be a musician, you’re not.” I’m not sure that we can choose it. I write and do music for my sanity, and I think people have to understand that they pay us so we can do what we do. If we weren’t paid for it, we’d have to do something else and our art would be gone.

    Sometimes it’s just a numbers game. “True fans” have to be factored in with “fans,” and “people that just want to sign up on your mailing list and get free stuff.” I think it ALL has to be factored into trying to make a living.

    Great stuff!

  • nada

    The interesting twist is that the Internet revolution has completely bypassed both Bob and his magazine. You’ll need to contact him by phone or postal mail, and be prepared to explain your original thesis, which he won’t have seen; Bob doesn’t have (or want) regular access to email or the Web.

  • yeah i agree with you !

  • I have unknowingly been “following” a philosopher without ever hearing more than a few of his samples – the last 3 paragraphs are baby elephant huge (I remember one bit of artwork featuring an elephant strangling a guy – It may not have been his but was part of the samples kit.)
    Anyway – it’s certainly sobering to see a guy this prolific, this advanced in all measures of the new economy, and this unique and talented (both) in one of the most flexible areas of music (production-performance-publishing…), to claim an income so working class. Judging from the price of permissions and samples – and he is way beyond successful there – it seems not to follow at all. I would definitely want to delve deeper into the numbers if that is at all possible – and I am not a numbers guy – just a guy who has to minimize risk and really values verifiable and good information.
    Thanks for keeping on it – now don’t let go – you may be onto something better here than “dress for success” – for sure. Hey – “Dress for Success for Internet Musicians” ? Ha~!


  • What you are not “getting” in your comment is that we are all very specialized creatures and we are starving because of it. Increasingly it is a specialist-only world at all ranks. You will be A but not B, nor can you pretend or play at B until you give up A. And as soon as you cross “a certain threshold” (depends on the job specifics) you lose your place in A, and become unemployable – not because you cannot – but there are now new job applicants and they want to specialize in A.
    This is not a cyclical change like “it has always been” but a permanent retraction of the job and home-business market – and here is a case in point of a guy that does it all in his specialization who has “made it” – back to zero – for 1970.

  • Richard Hack

    Well, you didn’t want be harsh but…….
    Honestly I don’t where your comment came from? I don’t know how you got what you got from his article?

  • Trader Travis

    My suggestion is that if you are looking for data then create your own data with your own experience. Don’t let the conversation in your head stop you from taking action. The only way to prove concepts such as this is to take action and see for yourself. Selah…