There’s this thing I’ve been wanting to write about here, and I don’t know if it helps my cause to be so transparent. But I know other musicians read this site, so heck with it, I’m writing about it anyway.
Three things have happened in the last few months that got me thinking:
- an email from someone asking me how long I’d been doing music full-time (answer: never! I still have a day job. But thanks!).
- a fan chiding me for, of all things, making it difficult to pay for music. “I want to pay you something for your music, but you won’t let me” he wrote, referring to the free access to MP3s without so much as a Paypal donation link. (I think I replied “holy cow, you know, the RIAA says people like you don’t exist.”)
- a friend asking me how to know when it was safe to quit a day job to pursue something creative-yet-risky, like a full-time music career.
These things have been on my mind of late as I try to book more shows, write and record more songs and basically establish some sense of legitimacy for myself, and I recently read something that give me a point of reference for addressing this kind of stuff in my head. It’s called 5000 Fans Theory.
5000 Fans Theory was first floated by Brian Austin Whitney, founder of Just Plain Folks, in one of his monthly newsletters. Brian pointed out that an artist who has 5000 hardcore fans to give him or her $20 each year — be if from CDs, ticket sales, merchandise, donations, whatever — stands to make $100K per year, more than enough to quit the day job and still have health insurance and a decent car.
Now, 5000 is a big number, but not that big. That’s like, what, one-eighth of an average baseball stadium? And you might not even need that many. Here’s an exercise: take your own salary, pre-taxes, and divide it by 20. If you were to quit your job right now and start living as a full-time musician, poet or author, that’s how many fans you’d need, spending $20 each year to support your art. So, if you’re making $30K yearly, you’d need 1500 paying fans each year to replace your salary. And it gets better if you’re willing to take a pay cut. In Washington state, where I live, a person working for minimum wage would only need around 700 paying fans. As Hobbit sez, there are a lot of people working for minimum wage doing stuff they hate.
Note that I say “paying fans.” This is important, because depressingly enough, it’s a numbers game. You could already have 5000 people on your mailing list, but only a percentage of them will actually invest some money in you. I have no idea what that percentage is, but it’s small. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a few hardcore fans who offset those merely interested by contributing more dollars to your cause. At this point it (sadly) starts to smell a lot like Statistics 101.
And of course, it’s not a steady paycheck. Remember also that tastes change, and sometimes people just stop being interested in what you do. So your quest for new friends and fans is never really over.
The attraction of 5000 Fans Theory is that the numbers, while still large, are very much attainable. You really don’t need millions of fans across the globe to be a career artist, just a few thousand who actually care. And: the committment to find them.
I’m gonna try to tie this all together to make a point: if you really like a particular artist and want to support them without paying for yet another piece of plastic, the very best thing you can do is tell other people. Swap those MP3s, burn those CDRs, blog about them, play those tunes in your podcasts. Bring a friend, two friends, ten friends, to a show. Anything you can do to put the art in front of ten more potential fans. Get involved in the quest for fans and help make it happen. (Of course, the artist has to do his or her part, too. If all you’re doing is pushing MP3s out to your website, you’re gonna be waiting a long time for your 5000 fans to discover you.)
And of course, we’re always glad to take your money :) But anyway, that’s how you can pay artists back.