In this episode of Pick Yourself, you’re going to learn how to build a fanbase over five stages in your artist career. The goal is to reach 1000 true fans, which is all you need to make a full-time living off your music. This number is based on an article by Kevin Kelly (founder of WIRED) and we’re going to dissect his theory in this episode as well.
Building a fanbase of “true fans” is crucial
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that you can make a full-time living being an artist, especially if you’re in that emerging phase where you’re not backed by a respected label. You have to book your shows or DJ gigs, you sometimes even pay money to play a show because the train or plane tickets cost more than what the show promoter is paying you.
You’re probably far away from the glamorous lifestyle of jet setting from Berlin to London to New York to Tokyo, playing in front of thousands of people every night. But what does it take to become a full-time artist who’s making a living from his or her music? Back in 2008, a guy named Kevin Kelly made a bold statement: All you need it 1000 true fans.
Why the 1000 true fans theory still matters
In his 2008 essay, WIRED founder Kevin Kelly proclaimed the following:
“A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living. A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”
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Wow, what a powerful statement. Now let’s take a closer look. How did Kevin Kelly arrive at this magic number of 1000 true fans? He simply calculated that a typical “true fan” might spend around 100 bucks a year for his or her “hero”. 1000 x $100 = $100.000 minus taxes, etc. Should be enough to make a decent living, right?
The struggle of building a fanbase
But here’s the problem: How realistic is it (or how long does it take) to build a following of 1000 people with that much dedication? You can be proud if you have found 10 of them already. Then, you also need to create enough new material (be it music or merchandise, concerts or events) that you have fresh “products” for this die-hard audience every year. And thirdly, they must buy directly from you; if you deduct fees to labels, publishers, merch companies, show promoters, etc., those 100 bucks will be cut in half, if you’re lucky. These three points were also the main criticism that has arisen after the essay was first published.
Even if the 1000 true fans theory went in and out of fashion over the last decade, I still believe that there’s a lot of truth to it. It gives you some orientation and helps you focus on the right mindset for building a fanbase:
- Adding as much value as possible to your audience
- Adopting the go-giver mentality (see Episode 10 on networking)
- Playing the long-term game instead of focussing on short wins
So how can you build a fanbase and what does it take to reach 1000 true fans? In the following, I’m going to walk you through the five stages of an electronic music artist career.
1. The start: Building a fanbase of 10 true fans
It all starts with friends and maybe also your family. It might sound silly but these people are usually your first “true fans”. They support your first steps, are proud of your achievements, and will even invest in your Kickstarter project to finance your first vinyl pressing (which might be not the best investment, to begin with, see Episode 3).
At this stage of your artist career, you’re playing your first self-booked gigs at local clubs and you start to build relationships in your scene. This is also where the first “true fans” beyond your friends and family come from. They are people who saw you play or found you on Social Media and something immediately resonated with them. They can sense that there’s something special about your music and the way you present yourself. Therefore, they start to interact with you.
The big challenge of this stage is: Nobody’s really interested in what you do. You’re not a known name, don’t have a lot of connections in the scene, and you’re guilty of every little beginner mistake you can make. But hey, we’ve all been through that, so don’t worry. Growing a fanbase can take some time.
2. Building momentum: Your first 50 true fans
You might think that getting to 50 true fans is easy. Is there even a big jump from the last stage to this one? Oh yes, there is. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about 50 fans but about 50 TRUE fans. As Kevin Kelly states: “[…]for every single true fan, you might have two or three regular fans. Think of concentric circles with true fans at the center and a wider circle of regular fans around them.” That means you have built a fanbase of 200 people already (50 true fans + 150 regular fans).
Let’s take this one step further: The number of social media followers doesn’t equal your number of fans. For every actual fan, there are at least 2-3 social media followers who aren’t really that interested in what you do. That means 200 fans x 3 = 600 followers who don’t count as fans. So if you currently have a social media following of 600-1000 people, you’re probably in stage two of your artist career. By the way: If you’re the kind of person who buys followers to appear bigger than you really are, watch out for an upcoming episode on this.
Artists at this stage of their career play regular gigs in local clubs, maybe even across the wider region. Being constantly visible on line-ups (online and on posters) helps you become a known name in the local scene. An even better way to build your fanbase is to join (or start) a local artist collective. This is one of the best ways to build deeper connections with people who might turn into true fans because you’re adding massive value to your local scene.
Moreover, at this stage of your artist career, you’re getting a little bit of media coverage in niche underground blogs. A track premiere here, a guest-mix there. This is another great resource that is going to help you build a fanbase and turn some of them over time into “true fans”.
The most important aspect of this phase is constant output. You have to work hard in order to play regular shows in your area, release new music at least once every six months (quarterly is even better), and interact regularly with your audience on social media.
3. Becoming a local hero: 100 true fans and a nice little side income
The third stage of your artist career is a massive leap forward. It means that you’re already making a nice little side income from your music. Remember that a true fan is spending around $100 per year on your stuff. That means you’re already making $10.000 thanks to the support of your die-hard following. Even better: Since the regular fans also spend some money to see you play (or to get your latest release), you will have around 300 more people who are contributing to this.
At this stage, you’re most likely to be a resident DJ at one of the best clubs in your area. You’re getting booked quite a lot nation-wide and your artist fees are rising. You’re a well-known figure in your local scene and your name is often in the upper half of the line-up.
You’re likely to have regular releases on established labels in the scene with track premieres and interviews on well-known blogs. In consequence, your schedule is getting quite busy. You will have to juggle between your regular life and your artist career. Growing your fanbase is still the number one priority.
The big challenge here is to go out of your comfort zone and play shows outside of your area. Most artists get stuck in their local area because it’s comfortable and they’re already a familiar face. But that’s not enough if you want to build an artist career (and not just enjoy a side-hobby).
4. International expansion: 500 true fans and close to making a full-time living off your music
This is where your artist career really starts to take off. You’re getting so many booking requests that you can’t handle them anymore without a booking agency. You’re playing gigs at respected clubs and festivals every weekend and your artist fee starts to rise significantly. This is, by the way, the first phase where it might make sense to hire a manager. If you want to find out if that’s even a good idea, go back and listen to Episode 02.
At this stage, music tech companies are asking you to become their brand ambassador and you can earn some nice gear sponsorships. Moreover, you’re getting featured extensively on big electronic music blogs and magazines with long interviews. You constantly release new music on the top five labels of your genre. Moreover, you have lots of physical products available, especially vinyl releases in the famous record stores around the world.
The strange thing is: You have way more true fans than you can handle personally. Even if you’d love to have direct interactions with everybody, it won’t be possible time-wise. So your main challenge will be to maintain a personal touch but on a very broad scale. You’ve built a fanbase, but it’s important to keep it engaged.
So finding enough time to take care of your true fans is one of the biggest challenges here. Many artist careers fail because their core audience gets disappointed and loses interest. You have to think hard about how you can maintain that deep connection with your true fans. Keep in mind that limited editions of releases, behind the scenes footage of your production process, and even merchandise are things that these true fans value.
5. Living the dream (or not): 1000 true fans and beyond
This is the peak of your career. If you cross that threshold of 1000 true fans, your wildest dreams might come true. Mainstage slots on all big festivals, a booked-out global touring schedule over the whole year, and artist fees that are a triple of what all other artists on the line-up are earning together.
You might think that getting to 1000 true fans isn’t that big of a deal, but it is. Keep in mind that there’s also fluctuation. You’re naturally losing people on the way. To get to 1000 true fans, you might have had more than 5000 true fans throughout the last years. Now add to this the regular fans and the social media followers and you can guess why I don’t think this is an easy point to reach. Building a fanbase of this size can take five to ten years, so don’t worry if it feels out of reach right now.
At this point, you will get a lot of media attention. From the biggest blogs and magazines in your genre but also from mainstream media from time to time (depending on the artist brand you’ve created, see Episode 11). Whether you want it or not, you’re in the spotlight and every move you make will be watched closely. It’s also natural that you will receive a lot of criticism at this stage of your career. Old fans will be disappointed. Some reviews of your releases will turn out bad, and you will get a lot of really weird comments on social media.
So is this a dream worth having? It depends. If you’re realistic about the sacrifices you’re going to have to make, it can be an option for you. But let’s be honest: Stage 4 still sounds like a lot of fun with less headache. So don’t worry if that last step isn’t happening for you.
Putting it into action: How to build a fanbase of 1000 true fans
1. Analyze at what stage you are currently
- Do the math: How many true fans, regular fans, and extended followers do you have right now? Be honest, no cheating here.
- What kind of deep interaction and benefits are you offering your true fans right now?
2. Think about what it takes to reach the next level
- How big is the gap to reach the next stage of your career? Have you just crossed an important threshold or are you close to reaching the next level?
- Keep in mind that it can take years to go from one career stage to another.
3. Make an action plan and start working towards growing your fanbase
- Write down the next three steps you can take immediately to grow your fanbase.
- What can you do to grow your number of true fans consistently?
- What can extra benefits can you offer your existing fans so you don’t lose them and turn some of them into true fans?
So that’s it for this episode. Now I’d like to hear from you: What stage are you in right now? And what’s holding you back from entering the next level in your artist career? Let me know in the comments, I read everything.