The Truth Behind The 1,000 True Fan Theory

1For some time, a theory has existed in the music industry that, for an artist to have a sustainable if not particularly lavish career, they must have at least 1000, 'true' fans. Here we look at the reality of the math behind this idea.


Guest post by Bobby Owsinski of Music 3.0

The “1,000 True Fans Theory” was proposed by Wired magazine’s “senior maverick” Kevin Kelly back in 2008 and states that all an artist needs is 1,000 true fans to maintain a fruitful, if unspectacular, career, thereby relieving the artist of the need for some of the nastier things in life as a regular job. True fans are sometimes called superfans or uberfans, depending on whose theory we’re talking about.

2The idea is that if each of the 1,000 fans bought $100 worth of product every year (the figure equals an arbitrary full-day’s pay), you’d have an income of $100,000, which, even minus expenses, can still represent a reasonable living for most artists. The trick, of course, is how you expand your fanbase to that magic 1,000-fans number (providing that you buy the theory in the first place, of course).

Like most theories on such things, the detractors of the 1,000 True Fans theory point out several relevant issues. They are:

  • The $100,000 amount is the gross income and doesn’t take expenses into account. Expenses for any creative endeavor can be quite substantial and must be accounted for in any income assumption.
  • Even if you reach the magic 1,000-fan number, that doesn’t mean that each will spend $100 per year. That’s true, but remember that $100 is an average number. Some fans might spend $500, while others might spend only $20. Of course, you have to present them with the products and the opportunity to spend money. If you put out a single release and don’t tour, it’s unlikely that you’ll hit your target. If you’re touring, and a true fan attends three shows and brings five friends, that could easily account for $100 right there. And if you release two albums, a deluxe box set, and newly designed T-shirts, hats, mouse pads, and coffee cups, there’s an even greater chance that the true fan will just have to have whatever you’re selling.
  • Today we have a worldwide marketplace, so 1,000 fans don’t necessarily have to reside just in the United States. Again, this is true and can lead you to believe that developing your fan base is a lot easier than it really is. Don’t forget that true fans in developing countries might enjoy your work yet not have the wherewithal to purchase anything from you. Also, postage and import taxes make international sales difficult as well.
  • You can expect some attrition of your new fans. Hopefully, the attrition of your fanbase will at least be offset by new members, and perhaps even grow some in the process.
  • Other artists are competing for the same fans. There’s always competition in the marketplace for every dollar, sale, and item. You must differentiate yourself and your product from your competition to make the choice easier for the fan. For sure, you’ll lose some fans during this process, but if done well, you’ll make that number up, and more.

While the total number of true fans actually required to make the theory work (is it 300 or 1,000 or 4,000?) may be in question, the idea is that you need this hard-core group in order to sustain your career. Whatever the number that you’re lucky enough to develop, be sure to take care of and nurture them, because they truly want you to.

You can read more from The Music 4.1 Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

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  1. Don’t forget that with the streaming era, having 1,000 true fans who are constantly streaming and sharing your music can also add royalty revenue. You don’t necessarily have to “sell” things anymore – you have to get people to listen to your music consistently. If they like your music, they will naturally look for ways to support you more outside of streaming your music from their phone. That is why you must have the rest of your business model set up to make it easy for those fans to spend money.

  2. Bingo. You hit the nail on the head.
    I have built up an audience with roughly 11,000 fans on my email list, based on the number, I am at about 550 superfans that on average are spending $100 between downloads, merch sales, virtual tip jar and gigs. I reach that number after 2 years. Add the streaming in as gravy and yep – I have nice income that I could totally support myself on. Instead I reinvest my profits to keep building momentum.

  3. Heck, many of us have been working for years and dream of having 1,000 committed fans. Even if you get them, now that they can stream, they’re certainly not spending $100 a year on extras.
    The problem with articles such as this is the assumption that everyone is working in reasonably mainstream genres where there is a possibility of getting 1,000+ fans. I’d love for some of these writers to come up with strategies for those of us who work in minority niche genres or in very hard to define genres.

  4. It’s also worth noting that what you’re selling doesn’t have to be just music – whether physical, downloads, or streams. If you look at merch, music, turning concerts into experiences, etc. there are many ways to create an offer for your fans. And obviously, fans will fall off your list, so having offers allows you to customize, break apart smaller sellable pieces, and hook new fans.

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