Does The 1000 Trues Fans Theory Work In 2021?

The 1,000 Fan theory – an idea that 1,000 ‘true’ fans are enough to sustain an artist’s career – has been trumpeted in the music biz for a number of years now. As is often the case with theories, however, the reality seems to play out somewhat differently.

Guest post by James Shotwell of Haulix

Many music business strategists preach the 1,000 fan theory as gospel, but is success as easy as it sounds? 

Pick up any music success book, attend any industry conference, or study the music business in college, and someone will inevitably bring up the 1,000 fan theory of success. It’s the scientific equivalent to telling someone, “anyone can do it” when discussing their dreams. Very few studies have been done to test its accuracy, but today we’re going to see what, if anything, we can learn by taking a closer look at this frequently promoted idea.

In 2008, Wired Magazine’s Kevin Kelly proposed that all an artist needs are 1,000 loyal fans to maintain a fruitful, if unspectacular, career, thereby relieving the artist of the need for a day job.

Kelly’s idea is that if an artist can find 1,000 fans who spend an average of $100 per year supporting them, then they’re more or less living the dream. That amounts to $100,000 gross income per year, which would leave a livable wage even after taxes and expenses. 

The trick, or one of them at least, is finding how to accrue that many fans willing to spend money to support your career.

There are a few issues with Kelly’s theory that we should address.

Your 1,000 fans need to spend an “average” of $100 per year.

Some fans will spend $500 to support you in a calendar year. Others may only pay $20. Generating enough income to make a $100,000 gross will require you first spend money. You have to print merch, record music, and promote your content, all of which costs money that you have no guarantee of recouping. 

The theory doesn’t work as well for duos or groups.

$100,000 gross may be enough to give one artist a comfortable living, but the idea falls apart when you add more people to the equation. A four-member band, for example, likely needs far more fans to create a livable wage.

Expenses can really add up.

Let’s say you earn a gross of $100,000 as a solo artist. The expenses you need to subtract from those earnings can include a manager (on average, 10% of the gross), booking agent, publicist, recording costs, “hired gun” musicians for studio and tour work, promotional fees, merch costs, and upkeep for your tour van/bus. All that, plus taxes, will take a substantial bite out of the initial gross. 

People are spending less per artist than ever.

Kelly’s theory came about before the streaming age, back when people paid $10 or more for albums. Artists make a decent amount from physical media sales, but that marketplace has cratered since Spotify and similar streaming services became the most popular way to consume music. Today’s listener gives an average of $10 per month to the streaming platform of their choice, which pays fractions of a penny per stream to artists. A fan can listen to their favorite artist thousands of times in a year, and that musician will not earn anywhere near $100 from their consumption.

That is why, as many of us know, artists rely heavily on live performances and merch sales to make ends meet. It’s not enough to have a fan attend a show. It would be best if you had fans buy a ticket, convince their friends to come along, and (ideally) buy merch at the gig. 

Attrition is a problem.

The fans that support you in 2021 may not help you in 2022. Some listeners won’t discover your music until your second or third album, and they may only pay to see you or pickup merch on one occasion. You cannot rely on a single set of 1,000 fans to support your career over time. Instead, your goal should be to make new, financially supportive fans faster than you lose them. Do that, and your job has a fighting chance of thriving.

Kelly’s theory is much easier to achieve with fan clubs.

Services such as Patreon, which give fans access to exclusive content from an artist in exchange for a monthly fee, can create reliable revenue streams. It’s easier to ask someone for $10 per month than it is to request a single payment of $120. 

So, can Kelly’s theory work? 

Yes, it is possible to survive with 1,000 fans supporting your music beyond merely streaming it online. However, finding and retaining those fans is a tricky proposition that Kelly’s idea ignores in favor of simplicity. 

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company’s podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.

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1 Comment

  1. $10 per month requires like 2000 streams or something.
    Artists need to try to get listeners first, and then fans that actually pay for things.

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