The One True Fan Theory

Wu-Tang Clan, pictured in 2019 (credit: press)

The following blog comes from music journalist and Popjustice Editor Peter Robinson (pictured inset). Robinson’s article originally appeared in the Q3 2020 edition of quarterly magazine Music Business UK, which is available to buy via subscription through here.

In 2008, Wired’s Kevin Kelly floated an idea that would become influential throughout the music industry and beyond.

In 1,000 True Fans he defined a true fan 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.”

If you could make $100 profit from each of these fans, it would allow you to ‘make a living’ to the tune of $100k a year.

This was all written before streaming saved the music industry and alternatives to streaming saved musicians from streaming, but in February this year Li Jin, a board observer at email subscription site Substack “focused on early-stage consumer investments”, refined the idea further.

Rather than getting $100 from a thousand fans, Jin suggested that $1,000 from a hundred would do the trick.

Her thinking makes sense: it seems wholly possible that of those 1,000 true fans Kelly proposed in 2008, one in 10 likely would have either a relationship with your work far exceeding the intensity of the remaining 90% or, failing that, simply far more money than sense.

“I’d like to propose we reduce the number of fans even further, to precisely one.”

Jin proposed a key difference in how to approach this new fanbase of 100 people. She suggested that while the Kelly model required the creator to start with product and for contributions to be fuelled by a fan’s sense of “altruism or fandom”, the $1,000-a-year offering should start with identifying the fan’s needs, and for their $1,000 contribution to be motivated by “self-interest”, which could mean exclusive access.

This still sounds like a lot of admin, so I’d like to propose we reduce the number of fans even further, to precisely one.

Most decent radio presenters accept that broadcasting as if you’re talking to just one person is the best way to create intimacy on the airwaves, and that phrases like “how’s everyone doing today?” (shit, thanks, there’s a global pandemic) should be swerved in favour of “how are you doing today?”, and I’ve used italics there to highlight the difference in the two sentences, rather than to suggest all DJs adopt the manner of a Friends cast member, although if you regularly listen to commercial radio you’ll be aware that most of them are doing that already.

If you’re a musician, I’d like to invite you to swap your aspirations of millions, thousands, hundreds or even dozens of lowercase fans for something very different: a desire to find and serve your one, true, capital-f Fan.

Obviously market research has worked around this principle for a while, with consultants drawing littles picture and saying, “Oh, this is Janet, she has two kids and enjoys karate, she is who will be buying your new electricity tariff,” or whatever. Meetings for the next 18 months will be punctuated by pained howls of “WHAT ABOUT JANET!!!”

This is how we end up with TV channels called things like Dave. And obviously the idea is that ‘Janet’ is actually thousands of people, but that’s not what I’m proposing here. I’m not going to finish this column by saying, “Hey, once you’ve defined your fan, your proposition will be so incredible that thousands more will come!!”

“I’m not going to promise you won’t end up living in a shed at the bottom of a despot’s garden.”

That might well be true, but that’s not the point. I’m talking one fan. Can you handle that challenge? And considering my proposal is basically modern day patronage, can you Handel it?

Your thoughts may already be wandering in the direction of Wu-Tang Clan’s seventh album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which was released in an edition of one in 2015.

Now, fair enough, that album ended up being purchased by a disgraced former pharmaceutical executive who’s currently in prison, and I’m not going to promise that either you or someone else reading this won’t end up living in a little shed at the bottom of a despot’s garden, but I’d invite you to weigh up the ethical pros and cons of this scenario against having to perform a canapé-fuelled media showcase or audition for a label. Also: free rent.

Where to find your sponsor? Well, consider this: any song that’s ever charted is surely at least one person’s favourite-ever song, and, with more millionaires in the world than ever before, there’s a strong chance that person has loads of cash. This is true even if you happen to create the worst song ever recorded, and by that I specifically mean BodyRockers’ I Like The Way, which was Prince William and Kate Middleton’s favourite song, and they’re loaded, thus proving my point.

The beauty of this One True Fan model is that you don’t need to be any good in any objective or measurable way, you just need to be the right artist for the right person. Your search for a sponsor may involve putting together a PDF and a PowerPoint and it may involve a laser pointer. Do not fear these tools; embrace them.

There are plenty of other benefits to all this. I appreciate the decimation of the live music scene is a contentious topic at the moment, but if there’s one silver lining, other than social distancing ensuring that Rita Ora may now be able to pull off a sold out stadium tour, it’s that you won’t be expected to play to an empty venue.

If your Fan does want to experience a full live show, they’ll have to fill the rest of the venue with paid extras. In theory this is no worse than an artist/manager coaching in a load of their mates when an A&R’s on the guestlist, and I’d suggest the transaction is in fact a lot less morally troublesome.

“Your search for a sponsor may involve putting together a PDF and a PowerPoint and it may involve a laser pointer. Do not fear these tools; embrace them.”

Also: no trolling on social media. Think of the mental health benefits! Nor, without the need to attract more followers, will there be any imperative to demean yourself on new, wildly inappropriate social platforms, which is good news for the 98% of artists who’d rather lose a limb than open yet another management email subject-lined ‘Idea for a new TikTok’.

The only (?) potential problem in this plan is that if you do by chance happen to be any good, other people may also want to become your fan. Say you’re required to perform a three-song set at the grand opening of a kitchen extension belonging to your Fan, the billionaire founder of a white goods manufacturer (quite literally, a fridge magnate).

What if one of the invited dignitaries wants to hear one of your songs again, or is interested in buying a T-shirt? This will require a difficult conversation with your Fan. They may wish to share you, but I feel you should resist. That would demolish the simplicity and beauty of the whole arrangement.

Alternatively, you could approach it like the lovechild of Bryan Adams and everything said by a bassist in Melody Maker during the mid-1990s: “Everything I do I do it for you, and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus.”

I can’t take credit for this idea, by the way. Morrissey obviously twigged many years ago, and has been doing his best to hit the target ever since.

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q3 2020) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK (pictured), which is out now.

MBUK is available via an annual subscription through here.

All physical subscribers will receive a complimentary digital edition with each issue.Music Business Worldwide

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