back to article Can 1,000 fans replace the music business?

Californian technology utopian Kevin Kelly says we don't need a music business. Artists can cut record labels, collection societies and distributors out of the loop, he reckons - they only need "One Thousand True Fans”. Economist Will Page picks through Kevin’s rule-of-thumb argument - and finds the math doesn't add up. …


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  1. Jez Caudle

    Nice article

    and the arguments are well made, but it seems there is a problem with your keyboard. It would appear that the "s" key doesn't work after pressing the "h" key. For example we keep seeing the word "math" with the "s" at the end missing.

  2. david

    I think he's not thinking outside the box...

    You like the band, you send a suscription to their offshore account.

    For contributors the music is free to download, concessionary rates or advance ticket releases at live gigs, a badge to impress your mates and a newsletter once a year. A package of exclusives (if you want the media you can have it with a nice jewel case and (personalised) label if you like, pay for the media not the content)

    No PRS etc royalty organisation creaming off their bit. Hardly any admin. No worries about sharing because the punters have already paid. All the freeloaders are potential new subscribers so they can get the exclusives.

    I bet it would work for the kid's stuff, but that's where the money is.

    Does rely on a track record (oops accidental pun) to say that the band won't just disappear in cloud of smoke and white powder as soon as the subs start rolling in.

    So it might need someone like a manager who takes a % and keeps the kids in line. And a bit of an infrastructure to deliver the goods. I might call it the music industry...

    Hmmmm...I seem to have disappeared up my own paradigm...I might have to go for a lie down.

    I wanted the black helos because Sony are probably watching...and planning...

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. Dave Bell

    Missing the point?

    I'm not a musician myself, but I have written lyrics for published songs. I am on the fringes of the business.

    And, however much this may be a personal view, I'm inclined to be wary of the opinions of somebody who works for one of the organisations which collects fees on behalf of artists. I know people who have given a live performance, entirely of their own work, words and music, and the venue has still had to pay a fee to one of the collection agencies.

    Yes, there are problems in how to be sure who is owed what for a performance but, just as with the DRM technology, it seems that the small people get squeezed out.

    This all feels like an argument for the big guys, when the 1000 fan argument looks a lot more plausible from the other end of the scale. It bypasses the big record labels, and their predatory contracts. It bypasses all the collection systems which tend to lose the small guys in sampling errors.

    And it takes advantage of all the 20th Century technology which lets somebody make and sell stuff without huge indivdual investment.

    You want tour tshirts? Put them on CafePress.

    A book?

    CDs? Lots of people make them, and short-run pressed CDs are not so dreadfully expensive..

    And places such as YouTube are the new publicity medium.

    No, a thousand fans may not be enough. Don't give up the day job. There are operating costs. But you're not having to support the legendary extravagances of the big music labels.

    And, frankly, if you have the sort of passion for music that points you in this direction, you're not going to give up just because you need a day job to put food on the table. Where's the room for passion in economic theory?

  5. Laurent_Z

    "Can 1,000 fans replace the music business?"

    Oh yes, they can.

    Moving a lot of hot air isn't so hard that a thousands fans aren't up to the task.

    I know. /me coat.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Can Freetards count? Or even read?

    @Mark - did you even bother to read the article? Kevin Kelly says only 1,000 "true fans" ie fanatics are needed. No more no less.

    You say that really means 6000. So in other words, the author is at fault for not responding to an imaginary article that Kevin Kelly didn't write!

    (Paris - because like Freetards, she can't read or count either).

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "You like the band, you send a suscription to their offshore account."

    In the World of Freetards (WoF) that's more like "You like the band, you download their music for free".

  8. censored

    It doesn't add up...

    I know a lot of fantastic musicians in my local music scene. Some of them are in the best bands I've ever heard.

    How do they get the 1000 fans, without marketing, management, advertising etc? It's all well and good puttin gout singles/iTunes releases (indeed, some of them do) and it's even better if it's the best record of the year. But unless you get radio play, no-one knows it exists. And you only get that with an army of pluggers, with people who have contacts. Which means even if record companies stop being the conduit for releases, they'll still exist as entities with money to spend on promotion.

    Without it, a musician is just one of a million with undiscoverable myspace pages.

    I have enough trouble following my own local scene, it's impossible to discover the best band I've never heard in Leeds, Glasgow, Reykjavik or Moscow! Someone has to get the word out and tell me about them, and those people will never, ever do it for nothing.

  9. Chris Miller

    "could of opted for"?

    Write out 100 times: "could have opted for"

    Mines the black cap with the square top and tassel, thanks.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Who pays the studio fees? Who buys the instruments? They are expensive you know.

    This scheme may work for a simple guitar band (and I doubt even that) but anything more complex it is highly unlikely to work, the money just isn't there: It's the kickstarting of careers that record labels do that just isn't possilbe in a system like this. How do you get 1000 fans if you can't afford studio fees or instruments?

    Oh and if anyone bothers to reply to this, don't site the Arctic Monkeys (etc.) because they got their record deal via youtube and you heard of them after they got a recording contract.

  11. Mark

    Re: "math"

    The americans can only do one sum.


    PS Paytards can't do ANY sums. Just subtractions.

  12. Paul Talbot

    ...and the negative comments come pouring....

    Typical. Someone suggests a new, optimistic business model for the music industry and we get a "slightly missing the point" article with "freetards lol" comments.

    Here's the thing. The original Kevin Kelly idea was about 1000 *true* fans. Not "someone who might buy the Cd when it's out if I like it". True fans. People who live, breath and love the music. People who evangelise the music to everyone they know, post blog, YouTube and forum articles about their music, buy concert tickets obsessively and wear the T-shirt as a second skin. Yes, it's difficult to get these fans, but the point of the original article was that if you concentrate on getting these fans rather than the 100,000 casual fans that the traditional music business tries to get, you'll be better off long term.

    If a musician can cultivate these fans, 1000 is enough to sustain a living over the long term due to the promotional value to otherwise disinterested 3rd parties and directly generated revenue. Maybe Kelly is a little optimistic about the $100 per fan, but the fan promotion does make up for it.

    I wish more people would see the opportunities with these kinds of ideas. Instead all we seem to get are comments from the likes of "censored" and Fraser above - "wah! the bands I know use the same promotional tactics as 100,000 other bands" (differentiate yourself, dumbasses) or "wah! recording music is expensive and I haven't got the imagination to work out how to do it without a record contract advance".

  13. Shabble

    Making a living

    I'm a novelist (unpublished) and I make a living by working a nine-to-five job. This is true for the vast majority of novelists... even the ones who write lots of books before getting a proper writing career. A great many of the really good books you've read will have been written by part time or amature authors. Hopefully, I will become a published author... but look at the sums, if I write a book every three years as a hobby over a remaining working lifespan of thirty years, that's ten books. How many novelists do you know who have written ten really good books you couldn't live without?

    My feeling is that the music industry has become like a Communist command economy where the politicians have conspired to protect out-dated, inefficient organisations on the basis that they create jobs and increases national productivity. Compare the big selling artists of the seventies with the big selling artists of this decade and tell me there is even a quater of the creativity today as there was back then, and this despite the huge increases in income seen in the industry over the last three decades. Protectionism kills creativity - and that is what we are seeing now in the music industry.

    Look at it this way; as the back catalogue of music grows, the amount of money made from old music as a proportion of the income of the record industry grows. Thus, the importance of new music decreases whilst the importance of controlling old music grows. Because governments like tax revenue and jobs, they pass laws to help the companies protect the income derived from old music. This sets up a feedback mechanism whereby the investment in exploiting old music is more rewarding than the investment in new music. By perpetuating old music through sampling, through producing a continuous stream of 'best of' albums, and through regenerating old musical styles the industries keep up sales without needing to innovate, and the low innovation level of modern music simply pushes up the value of old music. As the typical music listener becomes used to the sounds from years past, they start to actively seek out the new music that sounds like the old music and this stifles novelty.

    The only way to break this cycle is to kill off the right of companies to make money from old music. There are many industries that manage to survive simply by the direct pay-off from investing in new ideas, and there is no reason why music should be any different. New musical movements come through grass-roots creative movements, not from record label employees, and forcing comanies to discover new musical movements rather than perpatuate old ones would create a huge explosion in innovation. That would then remove the moral justification for P2P file sharing, would increase access to old music (whilst simultaneously devaluing it), and would give control of the industry to the talented musicians rather than the professional musicians. Would you rather have the choice between the albums of a hundred sound-alike artists or ten genuinely creative artists? Perhaps that's the choice we have to make.

  14. Bryce Prewitt

    Bands like Rocket from the Crypt and Local H prove his point.

    Can a thousand fans sustain a band? If the band is smart, you bet. It doesn't matter the complexity of the recording or the amount of personnel in the band; that's a red herring. The only thing which matters is how wisely you spend your money and at this point, the largest expense any band faces at the moment is the cost of gasoline which is easily off-set by poster, sticker and album sales at the show which are very high margin.

    Once again, any other point made by anyone is simply a red herring, trying to distract away from the fact that they either missed or out-right ignored the "1,000 fans" statement. The point here isn't that you can be a famous, rich rockstar off a thousand people; it's that you can survive solely off making music with a thousand fans. Studio fees have bottomed out; every good musician should have all the gear he needs before he tours (or make due). If you need some quick cash you record an EP and sell it as a "limited release" on the road.

    Radio play and marketing are often the two most cited benefits of having a label and distribution. Yet all the bands on Swami Records (run by John Reis of Rocket from the Crypt), Touch and Go, Sympathy for the Record Industry and numerous other small labels have managed to survive without big label money and distribution. Some of these bands are more famous over in Europe than they ever could be in the States, and I guarantee they received no promotion or radio play. Dan Sartain even had an interview on German television; here he can hardly get gigs at real venues!

    So, again, I think people need to pull their heads out of their asses and stop creating such ridiculous straw-mans: This guy isn't saying that getting those 1,000 fans would be easy, or that you'll be living like a Prince once you do. He's simply saying probably one of the most reasonable statements ever said about independent bands: find your niche, find your fanbase, treat them well and you won't ever have to work again. You might have to work harder than a big label band, release more music, come up with more creative t-shirts and knick-knacks and push them at your shows, but it is do-able. If you do those things, though, I guarantee you won't only have a thousand fans following you as word of mouth is still the greatest promotional tool any band has at their disposal.

    Reverend Horton Heat are a prime example of this. They never stop touring, they know what pleases their fanbase and they never stop giving it to 'em.

    Is his math probably a little off? Yeah, really, it is. Who gives a band a hundred bucks a year? But like most assertions, he's exaggerating to make a point. If your band is good enough to have a thousand "true" fans then you bet that there'll probably be a few thousand more that are just your fair-weather fans. "Oh, so and so is in town? Haven't seen them in a couple of years. I should get a t-shirt and a poster. They have a new album out and it's cheaper than at cd shops? Awesome! I'll pick one up." What do most musicians, nay, artists who are willing to put this much effort into their passion of choice consider "making a living?" I'd bet you every instrument I own that "enough money to pay rent, support the bands I like and eat better food than Ramen" will probably be your response.

    Guess what? You can do that now working a part time (30 hours or so) job at minimum wage if you live with roommates and shirk a lot of the supposed "luxuries" that, really, most artists couldn't care less about anyway so it's quite amusing (and wrong) to say that a hard-working band with a thousand fans couldn't do it. Then again, this is a tech website, so I can't imagine there are a lot of knowledgeable musicians here...

    I have a lot of respect for the commentators on this site but I have to respectfully disagree with your analysis of his comments, Will. You are completely right to point out that most internet tools can be used only for promotion, although I will say that many bands have had success with linking eMusic and iTunes (and even using the snocap tools) on their myspace or facebook profiles. I think you sort of missed the point and, as I've said before, are applying rules that really only have any right being applied to major label signed bands. Independent bands are free of many of the restrictions larger bands are; they don't have as large a percentage of ticket fees taken away by the venue or ticketing agency; minus overhead, merch is almost pure profit; managers cost less; etc.

    Aside from this nitpicking I agree with a large majority of your points. Are most bands cut out for it? Not really. Are most bands smart enough to manage their money intelligently? Not really, but the Butthole Surfers proved in the 80s, without any hits under their belt, that you can buy a house, live in it and convert it into a record studio to keep band costs down if you choose. The Presidents of the United States of America had their hit and invested the cash into the same; a house with a modern studio in it, and as such keep their overhead very, very low. So, it is doable. But, I think your perceptions are exactly what they are: that of an economist coming from an agency which probably has little interaction with bands which Kevin Kelly's theories are aimed at.

    If someone is more willing to work in a factory than tough it out in the industry trenches then I'd say they were never in it for the long haul anyway. Punk as a whole proves that Kevin Kelly's theory can work, easy.

    You wouldn't have much of an article if you simply said "Well, he's one of those freetards (which he is), but he does have a point, even if it takes a lot more work than he thinks," now would you?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    1000 true paytards

    I like this article, it isn't perfect and I am deeply suspicious of anything from someone who's day job is in PRS - doubly so if they include a small cred. boast / advert at the end of the article. But I liked it anyway.

    I don't like the 1000 paytards article - it masks a deep misunderstanding of what being a 'true fan' is by attempting to blind the reader with wide-eyed naivety2.0 and all this horseshit about a 'long flowing glittery tail'. To be a salivating, slack-jawed putative 'true fan' is to be inflicted with a minor mental disorder, where the life and actions of a distant personality become disproportionately important to another. The idea of making a living from these poor people is fairly unethical - though many people have no problem making unethical money, while actively seeking them out and writing a business plan around them is downright despicable.

  16. Les Matthew


    "How do they get the 1000 fans, without marketing, management, advertising etc?"

    "Without it, a musician is just one of a million with undiscoverable myspace pages."

    I don't know about anywhere else in the world but in the UK we used to have this thing called "The Transit Van".

    Maybe the idea of actually getting up off your arse and slogging it round the country doing gigs is a bit too much for today's budding musicians/performers. Do they all expect instant success with mega sales and stadium concerts straight off the bat?

  17. b166er

    New business model

    How about, from this day forth, all bands realise that they also need a member with the tools to sell them. When I was younger, my mates all formed a band, but as is so often the case, ego crashed the party. They were fantastic musicians and had an excellent background musically, but there was no direction, no-one was managing the band.

    Maybe the day will come, where the band manager is a member of the band, and as important as the lead singer/guitarist. Some people specialise in making music, and some specialise in making money. New bands just need to marry the 2 from the outset. If a group of friends can get together and form a band, then surely they are going to know a friend who can manage them?

    It was your comment, Michael, that brought that home. Why are bands feeling they 'need' the music industry? It's not some dark art you know.

    Good bands will always go somewhere, bands like Oasis started playing pubs etc, the crowds stayed and gained in size, Oasis started playing bigger gigs and then a music industry employee spotted them and voila. What would have happened if the music industry employee had never spotted them? Would Oasis suddenly have become crap and started attracting less fans? Of course not.

    It's that point, the one where the music industry employee(extortionist pimp) walks up to the band and says 'I'll make you famous' that needs redefining.

    Back to the old ways, see a great band, with a strong fanbase and great music. Invest a little for a reasonable return. Get a business start-up loan, put a couple of ads on the goggle-box/radio, sponsor yourselves to go on Jonathan Ross.

    I'm surprised all the VC's who threw money at the internet, haven't had a stab at it yet. Take the music industry on at it's own game.

    Better still, bands that have already made it big time, and who naturally have an ear for music, sponsor other up and coming artists, for a reasonable slice.

    It's all guesswork on my behalf, I confess. But really, how much to run a national promotional campaign? Radio, few telly ads etc. Can't be THAT much, surely, have you seen the crap that gets advertised all day long on the TV?

    If you got the lions share of the return from a successful promotion, you could invest more in a larger promotion. That's exactly what the music industry does, except they keep the lions share for the risk they took in bringing you to market and to cover their losses on unsuccessful promotions.

    If you went to the bank manager and said, 'We get 500 paying customers, three nights a week but need some money to expand our business', wouldn't he/she lend you the money to promote yourselves? (fill me in here, if that's unlikely, and why)

    If you take the risk yourselves, YOU get the lions share. But if you know you're good enough, and you're filling halls all over the country, where's the risk?

  18. David Gjester

    Most budding musicians prefer fame over Fortune ....

    If they could be arsed to do the real work, is one of the many pieces of good advice they could be reading. To many kids watch American idol and think everyone in the cue actually gets to play in front of the judges.

  19. W


    The Reg article is both false and pointless. Bryce Prewitt, Paul Talbot, Shabble & Les Matthew have comprehensively proved as much in their 4 consecutive posts. Plenty of people make a living from music without receiving big advances from the #1-chasing quantity-over-quality record companies.

    The "truly independent musician" vs "quick buck superstar" argument within the music business has little to do with the p2p issue. No-one is arguing that some musicians do it "for the love of it" (and a 'minimum wage') and some do it to get paid (by consent of those who willingly subsidise their MTV cribs idols). One could suggest that the "truly independent musician" will be independent of p2p happenings and not suffer from music sharing because of some inherent honesty in the fans. Whereas the "quick buck superstar" will be heavily succeptible to the free p2p setup. Then, presumably, the industry develops into a utopian meritocracy in the end. Except of course, it won't. The utopian meritocracy will not arrive.

    There will always be "minimum wage musicians" who do it because they love it and because enough people respect what they do.

    There will always be "MTV cribs idols" because there will always be and and some do it to get paid and because enough people want to buy into it.

    Like it or not, Rocket from the Crypt and J-Lo have as much legitimacy as the other. Difference is, J-Lo is a lower risk proposition because it's easier to package and sell "her" or find an identikit replacement. Of course, "her" is a brand, and includes all the perfumes, calendars and other deals in between. The record companies might not see a direct return on all of these deals but they add to the star quality of the brand. As has been made abundantly clear, RftC types exist on the basis of loyalty and sweat. T-shirt sales where possible at gigs and online, yeah. But not worldwide perfume and calendar sales. And remember, for every superstar in existence, there are hundreds of bands too.

    No-one can seriously suggest that gigging relentlessly should be the *only permitted* way to make a living from music. Good luck to you if you don't need to. Well done. You win. Though most musicians will realise that it's a fine (and more often than not, necessary) way to bolster (and maintain) your fanbase.

    With that in mind, let's go back to basics and re-focus on the 5 key questions the music industry needs to ba asking:

    Q1) Is it legitimate for Rocket from the Crypt or J-Lo to make money from selling data (mp3, pdf, cd format or otherwise).

    A1) Of course. Why wouldn't it be? Unless copyright laws change dramatically, that's a fair transaction.

    Q2) Whether we like it or not, the logical conclusion to free p2p sharing is that 1 copy is sold and distributed for free to everyone else. The only reason to buy music via download at the moment is in order to make what is effectively a volountary donation because downloaded music is not generally available for a fair price. Fair coment?

    A2) Yup. The pricing of music downloads is a nonsense, when compared to what you get when you buy a cd.

    Q3) If we get our act together and reduce the price of legit download sites to more accurately reflect the cost of the product in question, would sales rise and p2p use drop?

    A3) That is surely the case.

    Q4) Job done?

    A4) Not quite. Some folk will never be satisfied that a download of an album costs less than £5 on the day of release.

    Q5) So how are we gonna punish the dirty cheapskates who distribute our copyrighted material, fair price or not?

    A5) Certainly not by knackering up the data you're selling with hidden digital time bombs, etc. And not by criminalising legit fans either. How about thinking about things a little differently? Try thinking like a fan. How about properly sorting out the software side? iTunes and WMP are kinda ok for some purposes, but couldn't we have something so much better? Give us a well priced, coherent and seamless integration between home and mobile devices. If you ensure it's a totally flexible digital experience that adds value to the music and improves on the rigid limitations of the cd format (rather than holding the customer to ransom on price) then you'll have less need to worry about protect your ip. Otherwise, I'll just keep buying £5 cds from Amazon Marketplace or from gigs. Conscience clear for me. Bank balance less for you.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Er Shabble...

    "amature authors"

    I think I have discovered why you haven't been published.

  21. Steve Roper

    To all those who are using the word "Freetard"

    I'm getting really sick of the do-gooders who seem to be suddenly infesting El Reg with their holier-than-thou moralising by using this idiotic word.

    I hope you have NEVER once taped a show off TV or a song off the radio. I hope you have NEVER once downloaded a song from the internet without paying for it. I hope you have NEVER once hired a CD from your library or a movie from the video store and made a copy. I hope you have NEVER once borrowed a book, tape, record, CD, video, or DVD off a friend to read, listen to or watch. I hope you have NEVER once tried to get something for nothing in your whole life.

    Because if you have EVER done any of these things, then you are a fucking two-faced hypocrite and should shut the fuck up. And get off El Reg.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down


    A lot of people think that writing on the internet justifies using stupid made-up words. Just a few of the ball-shatteringly moronic examples that leap to mind: "pwned", "freetard", "fanbois", "lol" etc etc.

    The Internet : Celebrating the Stupid, Braindead and Laughably Poor Language Skills of Web Mongoloids.

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