What Will Fans Pay For?

This guest post first appeared on Debbie Chachra's blog zed equals zee. Debbie is a Cambridge, MA based academic, music fan, and geek, not always in that order. You can also follow her on Twitter.

image from www.subhub.com I know that there is ideology on both sides: people who feel that all music should be free, and people who feel that downloading any music you didn’t pay for is theft. But how you feel about the issue doesn’t change the facts: listeners have the option of not paying for music. And, as Cory Doctorow has pointed out, it’s never going to get harder to move bits around than it is right now. So it might be time to think about a business model that reflects this.

I’m not a musician. I’m a fan. And from my perspective, it’s clear that fans do want to support artists that they like. Taking a page from NPR’s book, here’s a list of things that fans will pay for, even if they can get your music for free:

The music.

First and foremost, many people will (and do) pay for digital music, even if they don’t have to. This might be because it’s easier to use iTunes than BitTorrent. Or it might be because they want to support the artist. Or both.

CDs and merch.

Atoms, not bits. Do you pledge money to NPR to support the programming, or for the This American Life DVD? I’ve bought merchandise even when there was no rational reason for me to, simply because it was a way to support an artist I love. I buy CDs at concerts, because I know the money goes directly to the artists (and because I can listen to them in my car).


Anything signed or limited-edition is not just about the article itself—it’s about expressing a relationship with the artist. And relationships aren’t fungible. Jonathan Coulton and Amanda Palmer are two excellent artists who have close relationships with their fans, who in turn support them.

An experience.

The canonical example of this is, of course, the concert – whether it’s $5 to see your favorite local band or hundreds of dollars for an arena show. But this also includes things like doing ’shrooms in a Lamborghini with your favorite drummer.

Something unique.

The illustration at the top of this post is a commissioned portrait (“Portrait of the Blogger, with Johnny Toaster,” by rstevens). Definitely worth paying for.

A narrative.

What’s a story worth? Apparently, quite a bit. The Significant Objects art project posts thrift-store finds for auction on eBay, along with the back stories. But the back stories are fictional, and are described as such. Nevertheless,  the items go for substantially more than their market value.

Share on:


  1. there is one more thing fans will pay for that is conspicuously missing from the list:
    Consider Lee Perry, or Sun Ra, or Cirque du Solais or David Bowie or Joni Mitchell or any of ten thousand groundbreaker trendsetters, to the fan, as soon as there is a new statement from these artists, all that went before becomes yesterday’s news.
    Why do magazines sell? Why are blogs popular? Somewhat and sometimes because they define a clique of interest and a common bonding, but I think mostly because they tell us the NOW within their genre of interest, and while 99% of the mags on the convenience store shelves leverage only this much of human nature, there are those, like those artists I cited, who are leading a NOW dynamic that is going somewhere.
    Going somewhere we want to go.
    We are all of us, secretly, readers of Seventeen Magazine, only as we age we hide it behind titles on cars we’ll never own, stereos we’ll never buy, clothes we’ll never wear. Nonetheless, it is one thing to be in a crowd of like minds, and a totally other to be in the in-crowd that is on the cusp of something greater than it was last week, and in that latter case I think the pull is strong enough to coax the fans to pay for passage on the spaceship.
    People will pay to “be there when it happens.” In fact, Andy Warhol may have pioneered this approach decades ago…

  2. mrG, I think that you’re absolutely correct: ‘Innovation’ is conspicuously absent from my list. But I’d go farther than you and decouple it from the Cirque de Soleils and David Bowies, artists with existing fanbases. There is certainly a population of people who would be willing to pay for the privilege of being ahead of the curve (the first to listen to a cool new band, to have the latest gadget, and the like). Great addition!

  3. If at one point, it becomes clear that it’s all about the money, merchants become avengers: they want you to pay.
    In the current climate of traditional revenue streams breaking away for the people making a living from their taking part in the music business, it is only legitimate for these people to develop different workable ways for them to generate income.
    Maybe I as a music lover (who has not unofficially downloaded a song since the closure of the old Napster, but has since replaced those files with CDs), have been reading this blog for too long a time, but the constant talk of “monetizing” and “making somebody pay” does not present certain business people on here in a way that I would trust them enough to build up a seller / customer relationship.
    There still is something about the attitude of certain marketing people from the music industry, which has been going against the grain of music lovers for at least 20 years. And that certain something found their expression in wide acceptance of the filesharing of the Napster of old and the P2P of today.
    People just don’t buy from avengers.
    Re-reading this reply, it does not have much to do with the initial post by the guest blogger, but was merely triggered by its title. Still, I figured I should post this reply anyway, because it focuses on a point that has been somewhat lost in the analysis of the status quo of the music business.

Comments are closed.