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« The Lottery Model, The Free Culture Model, The Click Control Model | Main | How I knew I was done with my company »
Tuesday
Oct132009

In Defense Of 1,000 True Fans - Part I - The Mountain Goatsl

Since I started my career in this business. I’ve always been working within the 1,000 True Fans model.

Here’s my story: In 1996, I was living in Boulder, CO and I had just started Ariel Publicity, my boutique PR firm.

Acoustic Junction and Zuba two local bands became my first clients. Both had been staples in Boulder for a couple of years, and both made fantastic livings touring and selling their independent releases from coast to coast. They did this with no label, no distribution, and no major marketing budgets: just a manager, a tour manager, and me.

I also represented The Toasters, Bim Skala Bim, The Slackers, and Skinnerbox, (and practically everyone touring during the third wave of Ska).

These artists and dozens like them all made full time livings from playing and touring.  They had a core group of fans that supported them by seeing several shows a year, buying merch and buying albums.

Today, it feels revolutionary when we hear about bands that make a living based on their music.

What happened? What changed?

The fact that CD sales are decimated has clearly not helped at all, because a major part of the income for each one of these bands who were road dogs was selling merchandise at shows. To top that off Internet has glutted the playing field.
 
I refuse to listen to the naysayers who are refuting 1,000 True Fans and I am going to focus on featuring as many artists as I can who are proving the model.

My theory is: Plenty of artists are getting to 1,000 True Fans, but it’s going to take some time for them to prove the model because it takes time to build true fans in today’s two-way conversation economy.

One-on-one fan building using touring and social media can be painful. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that if playing music full-time is your dream, passion, and calling I believe it’s possible.  

Trent Reznor and Radiohead proved 1,000 True Fans practically overnight and they will always remain as the two cornerstones of artists who did it quickly and efficiently for obvious reasons that don’t need to be rehashed here.

On our panel at the New Music Seminar in Chicago this past week Corey Denis presented the first artist I will focus on: The Mountain Goats.

Here is Corey Denis’s full report:

I entered the music business at the exact witching hour when the Internet was born. My career was rarely based on physical marketing and very quickly became focused purely on digital content, online street team/ fan base development & digital marketing for artists & projects ranging in genre from comedy (Stephen Lynch), indie electropop (Figurine), funk (Maceo Parker), folk (David Wilcox), to indie rock (Frank Black, The Slip), Jazz (Charlie Hunter) and Jambands (New Monsoon).

And through all of this work over a 12-year period, I’ve discovered 3 key crucial elements to figuring out the new music industry.

1.    Run your career like a business, but ditch the myths: there is very little money in the music industry, there never was much to begin with and there’s less now. Record labels are not going to rescue you.


2.    Quality Matters.


3.    All careers take time: It takes at least 12 years to “make it” (for this purpose, let’s define “make it” as a television appearance on a #4 Nielsen rated late night show)
.
   

The three rules generally work together: Setting appropriate expectations, focusing on your art, and connecting to your fans as you develop over a long period of time. Your career is an investment by you, and anyone who wants to pay you to be you. And for a return on your investment, your goal is to make it a desirable investment to your most beloved fans.  But how do they become true fans?  If you remember the first two rules, the third is up to you. My favorite more recent example is the Mountain Goats. I don’t work with them, but I happen to love the band and know a “superfan” named Matthew. (Superfan: One who spends $100 - $300/ year on a band).

As I interviewed Matthew, he explained how he just purchased a purple vinyl limited edition (only 777 available worldwide) of the new Mountain Goats album; he “couldn’t wait to twitter about it.” He went on to show me that his photo of a rare Mountain Goats collaborative release with Kaki King on swirled vinyl received over 500 unique views - the most views “any photo has ever received on my flickr account.” Matthew beams with pride as he reports spending “at least $400/ year on the Mountain Goats” on items ranging from vinyl (new and rare) to digital EPs and t-shirts. And that is the best-case scenario any artist can hope for - a fan that takes pride in both the full experience and consumption of your art.

Converting pride into a return on investment will take at least ten years.

The reality of 1,000 true fans beyond the joy of garnering fans is knowing what to do once you know you have a fan, while continually growing as an artist.

The Mountain Goats are not just any band making any kind of music. You can bet that their album ‘Sunset Tree’ will end up on multiple “Top 100” albums of the last decade, and the band is regularly revered by music critics worldwide ranging from Pitchfork to Spin.com.

Last week, The Mountain Goats (now on 4ad), promoted their new release by way of a performance on the Colbert Report.  And none of this happened overnight. Not even close. Darnielle has been building relationships with his fans for more than 12 years, and their overt appreciation of his art is the result of a pure connection built on respect. John Darnielle, with more talent in his eyelash than most people have in their entire bodies, respects his fans. Here are 5 ways John Darnielle has built one of the greatest indie success stories of all time, based on talent, fans & genuine connections:

1. Communicate With Fans As If They Are Friends
In the mid-90s, Darnielle played extremely small venues (coffee shops, pizza joints) and stayed after the show to sit with anyone who enjoyed the show. “When a connection was made, he took their address and wrote a letter to every single person,” explains Matthew. He loves this story, and with reason: this is actually how Darnielle met his wife. Matthew knows the story inside-out and continues to tell it with a smile, “her name is Lalitree, and the song about her is called ‘02-75’ because that was her Post Office Box number.”  Darnielle communicates directly with fans electronically today by posting on the popular forum at The Mountain Goats website.  At one point he asked his fans what kind of merchandise they wanted. The forum exploded with fan suggestions and The Mountain Goats delivered: the next tour had a Mountain Goats reusable grocery sack for sale as merchandise. The grocery sack sold out.

2. Make Music Available
The Mountain Goats release an album about every 2 years, but between full album releases, fans are inundated with singles & EPs. John Darnielle has released multiple singles & EPs unexpectedly on the forum, with donations accepted but not required. In addition, Darnielle requests on the forum that fans do not steal. Matthew reports he has “always paid, always. I have to, why wouldn’t I?”

3. Make Limited Edition Physical Product: Take Advantage Of 1K Runs!
Once able, it is wise to invest in physical product to sell on the road and online. The Mountain Goats have released split EPs with Kaki King & John Vanderslice on limited edition vinyl.  A limited vinyl edition of The Mountain Goats album Satanic Messiah was released only at indie retail, with a catch: 666 copies only. The most recent Mountain Goats album, The Life Of The World To Come (released last Tuesday) has a similar limited edition purple vinyl release, this time 777 copies. Matthew owns #740 and explained, “Some people on the forum have 3 copies.” Fans did not know which indie retail store would carry the vinyl, so they had to seek it out. Matthew found his at Rasputin music in downtown San Francisco.

4. Your Fans Are Smart, All 1,000 Of Them
If it’s not you on Twitter, your fans will know. If it’s not you on the forum, your fans will know. If it’s bad music that isn’t finished, your fans will know. If you are writing form letters, your fans will know. To build a connection with fans and harvest a relationship, it is important to remember that your fans are as smart as you, they demand the same quality art that you demand of yourself. They are growing with you, aging as you age, over about 12 years, to enable your career as a full time musician making a decent living.


Reader Comments (13)

Please Note: the Mountain Goats fan's name was changed for purposes of privacy.

October 14 | Unregistered Commentercorey denis

Ain't that the whole truth about life in general... what Ariel is describing is how to form a relationship with anyone for the long-term ....and particularly if you want to be genuine...hey but music is a big part of everyone's life and generally you remember episodes during the journey by the music that was played at the time...so to really connect with the band and the fan is the essence...

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterJames

I also appreciated what Tom Silverman said at the New Music Seminar about the 1,000 True Fans being only the tip of the fan base pyramid. There will be true fans, active fans, passive fans and potential fans as well. The goal of course is to draw as many fans up to the top of the pyramid as possible, but breaking it down into different tiers should help artists to manage how they approach their different types of fans.

This is also important when addressing those who don't believe that 1,000 true fans can truly drive enough revenue to support an artist or band. Those 1,000 fans are the core, but they're not the only ones spending money on the band. There are likely many, many more who may be less committed but stil purchase records or go to a performance here or there.

Take the Mountain Goats for example - the publicity they get from this post is likely to cause at least a few people to check them out. Most of them may not become super fans, but they might download a couple of tracks or even a couple of albums to see what the buzz is about.

October 15 | Unregistered Commenterrefe

My usual curmudgeonly disagreements:

1. Trent Reznor proved "1,000 fans" overnight? I don't think so. He proved that a million dollar marketing campaign and 50,000 fans worked. Reznor successfully used his image and technology to create an engaging experience for his fans. But was that engaging experience with HIM? No, it was with the IDEA of NIN. Personal contact with fans is always good, but a fun concept which fans can make their own (and thus forget that its just a branding experience) will get the word out faster, and be more artistically interesting.

2. Plan on taking 12 years to make it? You should really take a look at the average ages of musicians who perform on #4 Nielsen rated late night shows. With all respect to the Mountain Goats (a fantastic musical enterprise), the music industry often moves faster than that.

Now, I'm not saying that the 1,000 fans model doesn't work, but I am saying that its overrated. More precisely, the idea of making personal contact and interaction with fans as a means to monetary success in music is overrated. As an artist, being INTERESTING beats being AVAILABLE any day. I have never met any of my favorite musicians, even though I'd like to. But I've spent money on them. I will continue to spend money on them. And I will do so without the expectation that they retweet me.

How many people who bought the radiohead in rainbows box set ever got an email from Thom?

October 15 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

... now just imagine if they had.

October 15 | Unregistered Commenterrefe

Heh, point taken.

Of course there is no reason NOT to do all you can to create a closer relationship with your fans. I just think that the monetary benefits of doing so begin to hit diminishing returns.

Part of my frustration is that, when talking about fan outreach, too many lovey-dovey phrases get thrown around that confuse Marketing with genuine fan interaction. I'm sorry, but just because trent reznor created his own social network website for sharing and remixing his music does not make HIM closer with his fans. It was an absurdly cool thing to do, of course, but it makes his BRAND more tangible for the fans.

This is an important distinction, because artists need to focus on making sure that their art is what is communicated in these personal interactions, not their "selves." If artists are not framing these little communiques within a larger concept that is reminiscent of their music, people will tune out.

But don't take my word for it. Look who succeeds in music. Everyone networks. The most interesting brands attract the most rabid fans.

October 15 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

I think the other Justin makes an excellent point.

Nobody I know who voted for Obama bought merch from him, shook his hand, or got him to sign their tits. Branding is a powerful force, but fortunately, few musicians understand it.

October 15 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Actually Obama signed my tits. Twice.

October 15 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

I totally agree with Corey Denis's three key points. Having been in music industry for years in my experience these fundamentals have not changed. Remember:
1. Run your career like a business
2. Quality Matters.
3. All careers take time

Today's music producers, artists, bands and content creators must focus on getting fans 'attention' and keeping it for as long as possible. You need to energize that fan base and one of the best ways to do this is to feed them a continuous stream of stimulating content. NOT FOR A MONTH OR TWO!! The great thing now is you have a mass of online tools to help you!

It takes time (years) but the benefits of having this kind of interest and love for your fans is what its all about.

October 17 | Registered Commenterkevin j

@jason and all who are talking about NIN/ Radiohead - all interesting points. i think Ariel's point in her portion of the article was that because of NIN and Radiohead, the industry opened it's business models to more fan-based online marketing (not giant banner ads). All of these are valid points, and it's time to move on and discuss other examples. Most of these examples have taken much longer to reach the industry news circuit. In the case of NIN, the 10 -12 year rule still applies. And now that i think about it....I know a *real* NIN superfan. He's been a fan for about 15 years and has spent at least $1,000 over the last 2 years on the new surge of all things NIN. I qualify as a NIN superfan and i was psyched to see Trent twittered today for the first time since July to wish Pretty Hate Machine a happy 20th bday. I don't know him, but i just called him "Trent." Trent has been keeping a blog for quite some time. some "big" bands do it, and some don't have to. All of these are valid points. There are different financial brackets of artists, with different fiduciary needs & plans. It's valid to presume that not all artists want to interact with fans. However, using social media certainly fills the need for satisfying a new model with accessible marketing and opportunities to help fans connect (feel...) to the music. Because in the end it's about the music. Be assured: the music is not lost in the true fan model, it is underscored by the periodical-like engagement between the music and the fans. Fans are now your subscribers.

re: 10 - 12 years to "make it" - I'd love it if the average time were shorter, but unfortunately to have a successful career in the music industry you can't count on any rapid rewards, and then you may find that 10 years later, they are much easier to come by

@kevinj thx!

October 21 | Unregistered Commentercorey denis

@other justin ;)

i agree with your point about the confusion between marketing, having a strategy and "connecting to fans" - i do not advise artists or bands or even labels to do any of this without strategy and full understanding about how the tools they choose will (or could) work to create an engagement between fan and music. There will be many buzz words dropped about how to "connect bands and fans" but ultimately without strategy, it's virtually meaningless, or, if nothing else, a much greater risk, almost equal to the risks of the original flawed business models in the "old" music industry.

October 21 | Unregistered Commentercorey denis

I think the "Three Rules" are dead on, and barring "the other" Justin's cogent caveats, I think the 1k True Fans, model is a viable way to start and sustain a music career, aside from this: it might be damnably difficult to turn one's life into a marketable story, and beyond tiring to have to be so danged interesting all the time. Some groups depend as much on an air of mystery and/or suspense as the Mountain Goats seem to thrive on fan interaction. The pyramid aspect is also an important consideration, but there's another, in that many of the most rabid and loyal fans will likely desert, at the point (if and) when the band breaks through to a larger audience-early adopters are rabid because they need to feel special, which is hard to do when you're suddenly one of the four million who bought your favorite band's fifth album. Sad thing, that, but undoubtedly a nice problem to have, though it may be very helpful at that point to have the ultra-limited edition vinyl so those particular fans can have a way to feel superior to the 'rank-and-file' new fans. I have to admit I'd prefer to treat all my fans the same, and creating artificial scarcity like Beanie Babies feels more than a little bogus as a way to treat fans that are as 'smart' as me.

October 21 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

I completely agree with these points...defining your target audience and really winning over the die hard fans creates a fervor that erupts and attracts new fans (even those outside the target audience or niche).

For my band, The Slants, we've been able to create a die-hard following of fans in the anime convention world. In the last two years, we've worked with over 50 conventions. Many people wonder why do so: well, the reason is that it allows us to perform for tens of thousands of people at a time and make enough money to support the band on tour (playing mid-size venues across the country doesn't always pay the bills). Our most enthusiastic fans spill over to the real world too and it inspires fans to dirve up to 12 hours straight just to see our shows - then blog about it, tell their friends, etc.

Follow that number one rule: treat your music like a business. There are thousands of other artists out there offering a similiar product (music), what are you doing to differentiate your craft? What are you doing to promote yourself as a unique brand? And following advice of communicating with your fans: What are you doing to retain your best customers?

October 23 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Tam

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