Johnathan Coulton is a B musician who makes enough money to get by. He is not yet the Timberlake millionare, nor is he a commercialized pop idol. You’ll probably never hear of him in mainstream media, in fact – no MTV showcases, certainly no Channel V music videos. And yet he has plenty to do, and his fans are a dedicated, semi-international bunch. He does tours. His CDs find their way into the hands of those willing to listen. And, most importantly, he replies to your email.
Coulton is one of the few musicians who have found a way to make a living online. I first discovered him in late 2007, and I’ve been a firm subscriber to his feed ever since (with good cause – he does a weekly song, often with fan input). I was rummaging through my online bookmarks when I found the NYT article that introduced me to him, and it got me thinking about how his model could be applied to blooking.
1000 True Fans
Before we apply anything to anything (and get into a big shmooze fest), let’s take a look at what other people have been saying about the business model Coulton – and others like him – have been implementing. Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly has named this concept ‘1000 True Fans’, and it says this:
A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
1000 True Fans is an extension of The Long Tail, and is only logical because the Long Tail heaps benefits on chiefly two parties: individuals and content aggregators (eg: you and Amazon). Creators still don’t really benefit: if their product is bought it may do well in the long run, but only for the store that sells it. You aren’t going to make a lot of money with flops, unless you have a) a lot of them, or b) a few hits.
So 1000 True Fans leverages the Long Tail in such a way that even B artists get enough coverage and enough sales to survive. How do they do it? What is the nitty gritty of their daily lives? The NYT article gives us some insights.
Coulton earns what he calls ‘a decent middle class living’ – $3000 to $5000 a month, and he does it through CDs and digital downloads of his music on both iTunes and his own site. He gets about 3000 visitors a day, his songs are downloaded 500,000 times, and his fan base is so dedicated he’s got people doing illustrations for his weekly songs, for absolutely nothing. He sells his CDs this via contract with a virtual fulfillment house called CD Baby, which processes the credit card payment for each sale and ships it out, taking a $4 slice (much less than an actual label – this sounds a lot like Lulu and Blurb for musicians, doesn’t it?). He also makes money by offering his songs for free (the Radiohead pay-what-you-want model) with payment through donations. And it works – the Radiohead model just seems made for the Internet. Other musicians are even more ingenious: Canadian folk-pop singer Jane Siberry’s site shows the average price for songs, thus creating a subtle minimum standard for her fans and earning her more per track than if she sold through iTunes.
Applying 1000 True Fans To Writers
It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the writing and the music spheres. The NYT article throws a quick reference to us writers:
Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world.
What Coulton can do, writers can do also. Our CD Baby is Lulu, or Blurb – self publishing services that take a slice out of every sale. We can make a dollar or two through ads on our blogs and T-shirt sales, or we can be slightly more creative and do a subscription service like Fray. Our stories are open to all – we just have to remember that, like the web comic world, people want to buy what they’ve read for free online. And, most importantly, we can engage with our readers – have a chat, be a friend, like what Salinger proposes.
The only thing that remains is writing something brilliant … and finding that 1000 true fans.