In the pantheon of thoughtful approaches to art and fandom, Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans essay stands out. In Kelly’s words:
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.
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. 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.
We wholly believe in this — Kickstarter is essentially a hub of interactions between creators and their true fans, after all. It removes the barrier between artist and fan (and, more broadly, producer and consumer), creating the possibility for an exchange that’s more fulfilling, efficient, and emotionally resonant than anything mass-production affords us. What mattered more: the quality of In/Rainbows’ music or that Radiohead went directly to true fans (creating new ones in the process) to release it?
It’s a provocative theory that we all want to believe. It sounds so simple, so weirdly doable when all we ever hear is how internet killed the art star and that your iTunes library can and will be held against you in a court of law. There’s no way it could possibly be true, right?
Based on data from the first three months of Kickstarter’s existence, it looks like there’s more than something to it. To date, if a project manages to get to 25% of its funding goal, it has a 94% success rate. Here’s a visual to illustrate that. The X axis represents percentage funded, the Y axis shows the percentage of projects that have reached that level:
We had assumed there would be some threshold where a project’s chances would dramatically increase, but only 25%? How can it be so low?
There are a number of factors at play, including public validation (this video comes to mind) and old-fashioned momentum. But more than that it’s the True Fans: if the groundwork has been laid and a direct relationship has been built, your fans will assure you of that 94% success rate. Here’s Kelly again:
This small circle of diehard fans, which can provide you with a living, is surrounded by concentric circles of Lesser Fans. These folks will not purchase everything you do, and may not seek out direct contact, but they will buy much of what you produce. The processes you develop to feed your True Fans will also nurture Lesser Fans. As you acquire new True Fans, you can also add many more Lesser Fans. If you keep going, you may indeed end up with millions of fans and reach a hit.
If asked — and that’s a big key — True Fans are workhorses. There is a clear motivation to spread the word (not just fandom; social capital, too), and there is no greater pleasure than converting someone to your cause. And so, as Kelly says, True Fans attract Lesser Fans who, if all goes as planned, assimilate into True Fandom. Like the Borg.
And Kelly actually suggests that something like our 25% raised/94% success might occur:
[The number of true fans needed] does not explode, but rises gently and in proportion. Lastly, the actual number may vary depending on the media. Maybe it is 500 True Fans for a painter and 5,000 True Fans for a videomaker. The numbers must surely vary around the world. But in fact the actual number is not critical, because it cannot be determined except by attempting it. Once you are in that mode, the actual number will become evident. That will be the True Fan number that works for you. My formula may be off by an order of magnitude, but even so, its far less than a million.
From the beginning, we’ve encouraged creators to tap into their networks as much as possible: there’s clearly a desire from audiences for greater interaction, more access, a more intimate relationship. Twitter has demonstrated that. And so what Kickstarter does is answer the next part of that question: once you have your 10 or 100 or 1,000 or even 1,000,000 True Fans, what comes next?
You allow them a seat at the table. You invite them to become your patrons. You give them an opportunity to have an impact and it’s not just your story anymore, it’s theirs too. And that’s the kind of success that lasts.