March 5, 2008

Personal essay: Regarding the "magic middle" of the independent arts.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Kevin Kelly's '1,000 True Fans' theory
Image courtesy Kevin Kelly.

There's an interesting article that came out this week from Kevin Kelly, one of the people who helped launch Wired magazine back in 1993 (and thanks to Boing Boing, by the way, for first bringing the article to my attention), that's had me doing a lot of thinking recently, especially concerning some subjects I've already spent a lot of time thinking about. Because the point of Kelly's article is that we now live in an age where it's easier than ever for an independent artist to be able to make a working living from their artistic work; that if you simply generate a thousand "true fans," for example, each of whom spend $100 a year on your projects (or in other words, one day's wages for the average bartender, secretary or bookstore employee), that's a total income of $100,000 a year. And even if you subtract a whopping $20,000 of that to pay for the expenses of your career for that year (plane tickets, hotel rooms, conference and convention fees, publishing costs, distribution costs, marketing, etc etc), that's still an annual profit/income of $80,000, an amount off which almost all independent artists and small artistic groups could easily thrive. (Granted, there are a lot of ifs, ands and buts that come with this proposition; but more on that in a bit.)

This has then had me thinking recently of Dave Sifry's theory about the "magic middle" of bloggers, something he first came up with in 2006, when he was the head of blog-aggregation site Technorati; basically, what that site's data was telling them was that only the top 1,000 most popular blogs on the planet were generating the vast majority of links and discussion, but that the next 150,000 blogs after that were generating the lion's share of audience members and respect when it came to specific subjects. Or in even simpler terms; sure, there are a zillion people a day who stop by Boing Boing to read about all kinds of interesting funny subjects, but many more people are turning to (for example) Tony Walsh's blog Clickable Culture when they want to know the latest specifically about Massively Multiplayer Online projects and games. And what's even more, Technorati's data was showing them that it doesn't take that much to be within this realm of influence, either; in fact, as few as 20 other blogs around the planet linking to you was enough in 2006 to put your site within this "magic middle" of popularity.

All of this, then, has had me thinking of yet another subject that I've spent some time contemplating in the past; that the longer I run CCLaP now, and the more I go investigate cool independent artists and artistic groups to feature here, the more I'm realizing just what an overwhelming amount of such people and groups now have between 25,000 and 100,000 dedicated daily fans, just hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of artists and groups now around the world. (Take the CCLaP site itself, for example; after only nine months of being open, it's averaging around 12,000 unique visitors a month, and 2,000 unique visitors a day, numbers that I am extremely happy with.) This is utterly astounding, I think, an audience number my friends and I would've killed for in the '80s, back when the only way to distribute underground artistic material was through xeroxed zines and crappy punk shows in dilapidated warehouses. Having 25,000 people who come by your site each day is more than enough, I think, to start reasonably shoot for that 1,000 "true fans" that Kelly talks about; and seriously, take it from me, you just have no freaking idea how many artists and artistic groups now have at least this number of dedicated fans, people stopping by blogs and MySpace pages and other online presences every single day.

Of course, this gets us into the thing I mentioned earlier, the thing that Kelly makes clear in his article as well, that it's important to acknowledge what makes for a "true fan," so that you actually can reasonably expect $100 a year in revenue from them; he makes a clear difference, for example, between such people and the much larger crowd of "lesser fans" (an insulting term, I know, but one that at least works in this case), those people who are happy to interact with you as long as everything is free, and hell, might just buy a CD or a book from you once a year or so, or come see you live if you ever perform in their city. In order to actually make a living as an independent artist, Kelly argues, you need to "convert" at least a thousand of these lesser fans into true ones; and the way you do that is by having as direct a relationship with them as possible, so as to get them to purchase your merchandise directly from you, so as to create as much profit from each sale as possible and not have to rely so much on large amounts of sales.

The benefits? Well, for a big one, Kelly rightly points out that an artist never needs to generate a single "hit" in order to make a working living this way; that they can devote their entire career to obscure, personal, experimental work, in fact, as long as they can find a thousand "true fans" who share this vision they are presenting. For another, you're not forced to have a creative "team," each of whom are getting paid through percentages of your profits; no more having to fork over 10 percent of all your pay to an agent, another 10 percent to a publicist. But let's not forget, though, that you also need to produce enough excuses for your true fans to spend $100 a year in the first place; that can mean either a plethora of actual products and events (like is the case with a touring and recording musician, for example, or an entire arts organization), or it can mean numerous special projects that generate significantly more revenue (handmade "art books," deluxe boxed editions of CDs, personal dinners with fans while on tour).

There's something much bigger to be said about all of this, I'm sure of it; something about how the Information Age really is producing a lot more creative and personal time in our lives than we realize, how we are becoming a society where the line between "artists" and "patrons" is rapidly blurring, where almost everyone has more opportunities in their lives now to not only consume more art but to create it on a part-time basis themselves. For now, though, I think there's an entirely valid and realistic way for artists and small organizations to take advantage of all these rapid changes; as Kelly points out in his astute essay on the subject, if your goal is to simply never work a crappy day job again, it's more realistic than ever to try to make a go of it as a working artist, simply by appealing directly to your fans instead of the endless middle muddle of "The Industry." As always, I encourage you to chime in with your own thoughts in the comments below, and especially if any of you have any success stories to share from the world of the independent arts.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:25 PM, March 5, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | Design | Literature | Movies | Photography |