Home Success in the Long Tail Depends on “True Fans”

Success in the Long Tail Depends on “True Fans”

The always interesting Kevin Kelly published a long post yesterday detailing how any artist — musical or otherwise — can make money operating in the long tail. His idea centers around finding 1,000 “true fans,” which he defines as people who will do anything to support what you do. Once you’ve acquired your following of true fans, says Kelly, making a living is doable.

“They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

This is interesting given the Nine Inch Nails release. As commenter Shannon Clark pointed out, very quickly the limited edition signed $300 “super deluxe” package of the new NIN album sold out. While clearly Trent Reznor is working with more than 1,000 true fans at this point (especially considering the “super deluxe” edition was limited 2,500 copies), the same concept is at play. Because his true fans came through for him, whatever else happens, Reznor will likely profit from the Ghosts experiment.

But how hard it is to find those true fans? Reznor had the benefit of a long career backed by major labels that help push his music out to a wide audience. There is an interesting debate raging in the comments of yesterday’s NIN post about whether any artist has ever gone from obscurity to mainstream success without help from a major label. Of course, Kelly says mainstream success isn’t necessary, with work you can connect on a more local, personal level with your true fans.

I’ve actually seen this happen up close with a friend of mine who plays music in a rather obscure genre. By doing things like playing free house shows, blogging on MySpace and Facebook, having email and IM conversations with fans, inviting fans to help in the process by doing things like copying CDs and designing case inserts, etc. he has made sure he stays connected to his true fans. The fan base he has cultivated, albeit small by record label standards, ensures that there are enough people who will buy every new CD he puts out and come to his shows and drop $30 on t-shirts and stickers that he can continue to pay his bills.

This is also essentially the same theory employed by music startup Sellaband (our coverage). The web site implores music acts to generate $50,000 from “believers” — usually in the form of $10 donations from 5,000 true fans. Any band that reaches that goal gets studio time to record a full album and distribution via the site and other retail channels.

Kelly’s blueprint for long tail success works because he is talking about goods that you sell directly to your fans. Alex Iskold wrote last year how that blueprint won’t work in the blogosphere. Because most blogging is ad supported, and because advertising is based on volume, a small number of true fans won’t cut it.

However, though Kelly’s argument may not apply to those looking to make money directly from blogging, blogging is probably a good way to make connections with and create a base of true fans. So even though you can’t make money directly in the long tail of blogging, as Iskold said, perhaps you can use blogging in the long tail to cultivate a base of fans to make money via other methods (i.e., by selling books or booking speaking engagements).

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