5000 Fans

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.

17 thoughts on “5000 Fans”

  1. I’d also like to complain about the lack of a PayPal donation link.

    However, if you could *not* put one up until I get paid at the end of the month, it’d be much appreciated.

  2. Aniki makes a great point!

    As someone who’s bought your CD’s (and plans to buy more!), sent clients who live in Seattle to see your shows, linked to your blog on my blog as well as blogged about you, it makes sense to me as a fan to do what we fans can do so you can make music your full-time gig.

    Having said that, living in high cost areas, Seattle being one of them, I know housing is outrageous, healthcare insurance when you don’t have a corporate job can suck AND be incredibly expensive, and touring can go thru money like no one’s business.

    Bottomline, Kottke’s doing it and no reason you can’t do it too.

    So yeah, when’s the paypal button going up?

    ps- the cute little dinosaurs you included when I bought your CD’s look darling on my range hood in the kitchen :-)

  3. nice article, as a part-time musician I’m always looking for that way to break free. I’ve heard many musicians say that after you sell the first 1000 cd’s that the next 500 or so will sell with almost no effort. I’m not sure if thats true, but I’d like to find out-

  4. One important thing to consider is, are you a Solo producer of music or do you play in a band. Of course if you play in a band of four people, you need to figure x4 at the end of your equation. Also, not many people can successfully do their own recording, so that can cause disturbance in
    1. The cash flow (paying someone else to record you)
    2. The fan base (if you do your own and it sucks)

    In the end, music is all or nothing, in most cases.
    btw, where is the naked cow link? (aka paypal?)

  5. Presuming that hardcore fans respond at a rate similar to what you see on the web. The ratio is 1 to 5 percent of lurkers who will actually follow you will actually be converted to hardcore fans. The percentage will vary according to factors like marketing presentation and your own talent.

  6. You might be interested in the threshold pledge concept, discussed in this article by Karl Fogel – http://www.red-bean.com/kfogel/writings/copyright.html . This is a fairly long article about the history of copyright, with the threshold pledge system discussed as an alternative to the traditional process of finding a single backer in the form of a publishing company.

    I just saw that he acknowleged me – heh! – and I have been encouraging!

  7. I feel very nitpickish saying this, but it’s probably more accurate to say that you should divide your salary by 18 than by 20, to reflect the self-employment tax. I suppose the main reason I bring this up is a fear that someone might decide to take the plunge in January, and learn in April of the following year just how badly they’ve underestimated their tax burden.

    Not that I’ve ever done anything like that.

  8. Dear Scott,
    I really enjoyed your “5000” discussion. I am well behind the curve on electronic sales, MP3’s, etc. but if you are trying to sell 5000 physical units, I suspect that the mfg. and handling might cost you as much as 20 weeks out of the year, based on the proverbial 40 hour week. But that’s better than “werken’ for da man.”

  9. Just start a org. like Mr. Whitney and ask for donations and let others support your as you travel world wide; on the ticket of the poor slobe donating to keep his site, going, put food on table and travel….

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