Can a music career still thrive on 1000 true fans? Could it ever?

Kevin Kelly set music and the creative and music industries on fire back in 2008 with an essay that posited that artists could survive and perhaps even thrive with as few as1000 dedicated fans. But does that still hold true in 2022? Did it ever?

by James Shotwell from Haulix

The problem with so-called timeless business lessons is that they rarely work in the 21st-century. Most of the basic tips and tricks for successfully building and sustaining a career in any field no longer apply in the internet age. Employers can hire people from anywhere, and employees can work for anyone. Similarly, everyone can be a fan of any artist without spending a dime. Meanwhile, artists are expected to engage with fans of all sizes, despite the growing number of platforms and time-consuming content creation efforts needed to appease each follower.

Still, without fail, we hear old advice regurgitated as a timeless fact regularly. One of the most prominent beliefs is that the only thing an artist needs to sustain their career is 1000 dedicated fans. 

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.

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. 

Kelly’s theory predates the launch of Spotify by nearly three full years and barely arrives in time to catch the launch of Twitter. How we define a fan has drastically changed in the fourteen years since the original observation was made, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue.

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 2022 may not help you in 2023. 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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