Kelley simply presents an obvious enough idea, but one that’s worth saying out loud anyway: an artist (or writer, programmer, or whatever) can make a sustainable living if they manage to get about 1,000 dedicated fans who will support them on an ongoing basis.
One thousand is a feasible number. You could count to 1,000. If you added one fan a day, it would take only three years. True Fanship is doable. Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.
As Popular Culture 2.0 marches on, this is an attitude to making music that I would love to see gain traction. It’s a humble but potentially very rewarding approach to making a living by being an artist, and it can come about just by a change in the artist’s own mindset. Commercially it makes sense, technically it is easily achievable. From an artistic point of view it encourages development and progression, as opposed to the pump-it-up inflationism of the bigger label-driven pushes that only seems to trip most bands into their sophomore slump. And it means that a lot more stuff gets made.
That’s not to say that there should no longer be any big labels or blockbusting artists; of course this will always be the case, but that’s just gravy for the artist, and really shouldn’t be the overriding aim. I’m happy for people who succeed, but I don’t think that even genius comes with any intrinsic entitlement – chances are you’re already very lucky to be able to do what you love full time. 1,000 isn’t a limit, but it’s all you really need to comfortably keep going, to keep getting to do what you love.
KK only focuses on the idea from the role of the creator, but this makes me wonder about my role as a consumer. Personally, what artists would I consider myself a True Fan of? The Books and Errol Morris come to mind (even though they already have thousands of fans): both produce work that I think is important and inspiring, and I would not hesitate for a second to buy something that they released. I don’t get it when other people don’t seem to like them as much as I do, but I am happy to think that by buying their stuff I am contributing to their continuing to put out work.
It also has to be said that it requires a lot more effort to be a True Fan than to just follow a popular act. It’s interesting to think of what might happen if everyone decided to become micro-patrons of just one or two creators – probably nothing less than a massive explosion of cultural production. The environmental movement has managed to instill a sense of the importance of our individual activities in contributing to a successful wider ecology, but it could be a harder sell for art.