1,000 True Fans
April 24, 2008 3:30 PM   Subscribe

That is... unless you're M. Parker.
posted by tybeet at 3:59 PM on April 24, 2008

Many people are accustomed to not being moved by art because they're constantly exposed to Hotel Art or Elevator music -- technically competent but emotionally sterile work whose sole claim to greatness is that it offends the fewest people. So this expressionless art, this music, runs a rut in the mind and it is assumed to be the norm, and people pay for it if they merely like it -- even if it doesn't move them. I suspect that when people come across art that does truly move them, they're stunned and don't quite know what to do, but it seems pretty certain that "buy some more" isn't always at the top of the list of tasks to accomplish next.

I guess I'm talking more about my own perceptions as an artist than as a consumer of art.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:26 PM on April 24, 2008

when people come across art that does truly move them, they're stunned and don't quite know what to do

I think the established response is to feel vaguely uncomfortable, state "That's not art!" and then lodge a complaint. :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:13 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

the example that springs to mind for me is the bar band where each person's cut at the end of the night is maybe $50-200, except weddings which are more, and benefit shows for your band mate's medical bills, when you get nothing, except their help when you need care and have no insurance. even if you love what you do, it's a hard knock life.
posted by snofoam at 5:26 PM on April 24, 2008

i've been in bands that had at least 100 true fans. i don't think 10 times that many would have made much difference. it's still a very hard life. thanks for posting this--i ran across it before and thought about posting it. but i'm a little too down about my own music career right now to get too into it. (after 19 years of chasing that dream, you start to occasionally just feel hopeless.)
posted by saulgoodman at 5:47 PM on April 24, 2008

I just met Robert Rich a few weeks ago. He had a show with a man showing films while he played improvised, ambient music. It was extremely good. He was working with a pedal steel guitar through a rack of delays and harmonizers, and 2 or 3 keyboards and some modular synth units. It was very pretty and very mysterious music.
posted by doctor_negative at 6:04 PM on April 24, 2008

Having played around New York for years, it's very obvious what has happened.

The money has gone to two groups of anti-social, evil people: real estate speculators and the record companies. The venues are not doing well, all their money goes into rent; and the record companies have reduced and reduced the amount of money they pay to everyone except the executives (if you read "This Business of Music" they point out the expenses in the record industry are divided into 19 categories; the most expensive category is "executive salaries," the least expensive category is "artist's royalties" (just below "building, rental and property expenses").

And some of the blame goes to you self-satisfied bastards out there who are so sanctimonious about how they stick it to the man by never, ever paying for music.

If I sound bitter, I am. I've been around the scene for over 20 years and known thousands of musicians, some of them unbelievably talented. Not one of them ever really made money out of it, no matter how talented, lucky, or whatever they were, except academic people who live off grants (more power to them) - nary a one.

The most amazing drummer I ever knew, who'd been Bob Fosse's drummer for years, had two Grammies, was on literally hundreds of LPs, ended up writing computer programs for American Express and happy to get it. As he said, "No one wants to pay, these days. They don't expect to pay and they don't."

I remember seeing the Roches play a decade ago, maybe more. They had a lovely, satirical song that went something like, "In our huge mansion, bronzed men wait around our swimming pool to feed us peeled grapes." Of course, looking at their setup, literally cobbled together with gaffer's tape, made it clear that this was a sad joke.

Now, you can tour and make money, or you used to; I hear that that money's way down too, because all the money goes to Ticketmaster and Clear Channel. But that means having no life whatsoever. I intend actually to pick up in summer of 2009, if there's still any gas left, and do it (I'm not doing it this summer only because we have an opportunity to do a show on Times Square in the fall, and we're going to write and rehearse it over the summer) but just for fun, I have no illusions.

I've been told you can make money in Europe where people apparently still care about music. But it's very very hard around here.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:25 PM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

It's not just music, it's pretty much most art. Reich nails it here, I think:

I feel in retrospect like I snuck in under the collapsing framework of independent distribution, at a time where small companies could cast a medium-sized fishing net, to catch the interest of listeners who would otherwise never have known they liked this type of music.

If it weren't for that brief window of exposure, I doubt I would have my "1,000 True Fans" and I would probably have kept my day job.

posted by DenOfSizer at 4:03 AM on April 25, 2008

I read this piece yesterday, linked to from BoingBoing. Over at BoingBoing, everyone is all into the whole anti-copyright thing, and this "1000 true fans" concept has really caught on with the regulars as a viable new paradigm to replace the "broken" current system by which artists and musicians earn a living. Some have gone so far as to propose that artists and musicians need to simply create their art for art's sake, rather than as a means to supporting themselves.

The bile spewed at Rich's real-world response to the "1000 true fans" idea by the Cory crowd was pretty disappointing, though predictable.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:12 AM on April 25, 2008

Thorzdad, some of us will continue to create just for the sake of our art, but it doesn't mean that we don't appreciate it when we get paid for it, too. I read the Rich piece on Kevin Kelly's blog, then went directly to Robert's piece. I wanted to see the full version of his comments. And yes, he absolutely nails it.

The kind of music that I do is very much in the same vein as Rich, John Serrie, Steve Roach, and yes, even Brian Eno an Robert Fripp ... that is to say, it is a niche market.

I give some of my music away and some of it gets put in to the Great Download For Pennies machines (really, you wouldn't believe what it's like having 100 downloads of your songs at .01 per stream ... makes you wonder if the New Model is all that much different than the Old One!), I get my monthly statements showing how much activity there was from iTunes, Rhapsody, etc., and am not ungrateful.

And judging from those statements, lupus_yonderboy is probably right: the Europeans seem to be much more supportive of this kind of music than Americans. Most of my online sales are coming form the UK and Europe and it makes me wonder if maybe I should go ... if I thought I could make enough to survive for the two of us ... for now, the day job helps to ease the sting.

These are, indeed, strange times to be doing art of any kind that strays from the norm without being created for the sake of shock.
posted by aldus_manutius at 6:25 AM on April 25, 2008

Now, you can tour and make money, or you used to

Lupus_Yonderboy: Even someone as well-known and respected as Eric Bachmann from Crooked Fingers (and formerly Archers of Loaf) has trouble making it work out these days. I'm told he recently had to stop touring with his full band because the math just didn't come out right (more money going out than coming in, basically). I don't think it had anything to do with Clear Channel or Ticket Master (I don't think he's really on that circuit anymore), though I wouldn't be surprised if the real estate pinch is making it harder to get clubs to pay out a reasonable sum. So now, Eric mostly tours solo performing acoustically, as I understand it, because it's the only way he can keep from going broke (and I heard this from a friend of mine who knows Eric really well and even played drums on one of the Crooked Fingers records).

It's depressing as hell sometimes to see how many hard-working, talented and genuinely deserving musicians just can't make it work these days. Meanwhile, an increasing proportion of the "artists" that do end up floating to the top simply pay their way up the ladder--there's been a big boon in trust fund babies and the independently wealthy basically paying for success, Paris Hilton style. I mean, if you can afford to foot the bill for producing and promoting a record yourself, and you aren't worried about having enough money to survive, and your music doesn't completely suck, it's pretty easy to become famous, if that's your only criterion for success: Just pay the promoters, pay for the advertising. But if you can't pay, and you aren't fortunate enough to find a deep-pocketed benefactor willing to pay for you, you're probably out of luck. It's rare (not impossible, but rare) that anything happens truly spontaneously anymore, even in the indie world.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:50 AM on April 25, 2008

I gave up music a long time ago and went into the theater. Then I quit that and paid my rent with cubicle jobs until I was ready to hang myself (fortunately, cubicles walls aren't high enough to allow for that). I don't know if my fiction writing qualifies as "art," but in between doing that, I make side money by writing consumer guides and things of that nature. It helps to have a spouse who's supportive of the arts and creative endeavors. I admire the musicians who stick with it despite the odds - do many of you do studio work or other jobs to keep the cash coming in?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:55 AM on April 25, 2008

I admire the musicians who stick with it despite the odds - do many of you do studio work or other jobs to keep the cash coming in?

I'm a programmer/analyst and IT consultant working for a small software development company.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:13 AM on April 25, 2008

I'm a software engineer for a Famous Non-Evil Search Engine. I would have seriously tried to make a go for it in music if I'd rationally thought I'd had a 10% chance of succeeding. In fact, I'm attempting to parlay some of my savings into raising my musical profile with the hope I can at least tour Europe sometimes.

People who say that musicians should do it for the love of it make me sick. That's the very reason that there isn't twice the output from me, but worse, that's the reason that we don't hear any new music from tons of musicians much better musicians who've simply given up. We have to eat, some people have to feed their kids; a lot of talented musicians aren't a single person such as myself with a reasonable income who can afford to play.

(By the way: if you live in New York, and are a double- or triple-threat musician/circus act/actor/beat programmer/synth programmer etc., let me know. I do have a nice show going up in September, and I do pay, a little, even for some rehearsals, and hopefully more when we actually make money, something I think might be possible in this case...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:21 AM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

The thing is, people are making a living off a thousand true fans. Look at the creators of web comics like XKCD, Penny Arcade, Questionable Content and several dozen others. Look at Ask A ninja and Lonelygirl 15. Hell, look at Fark, Something Awful, and Homestar Runner.

Musicians can't really use this model because their only revenue sources are based in old business models (albums and live shows) which are controlled by top heavy corporations that suck most of the money out. New media pioneers can do this if they can carve a new niche out for themselves.
posted by clockworkjoe at 10:45 AM on April 25, 2008

clockworkjoe, I think it might be possible for a musician to survive the way people like the Penny Arcade guys or XKCD do, but depending on the type of music you do, some of the costs can be a lot higher than a webcomic.

It is possible to record a song or an album cheaply, but if you want good microphones or a producer's help, the costs can rise really fast.
posted by drezdn at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2008

It is possible to record a song or an album cheaply, but if you want good microphones or a producer's help, the costs can rise really fast.

augmenting drezdn's point: also, gear breaks, wears out and gets stolen (especially if you're touring heavily). if you need a new mic or a new mic pre, you'll shell out easily a few hundred bucks--and that's just for one component of the crazy-quilt of a system you have to have to make a decent-sounding recording.

the barriers to entry on the home recording front have gone down significantly over the last couple of decades (I'd say a decent computer-based project studio can be set up for a little more than a grand now, but it won't be an ideal set-up, so you'll have to work twice as hard to get the results you want), but it's still not chump change. and many artists really aren't technically-inclined enough or don't otherwise have the right kinds of skills to produce their own recordings.

plus, musical instruments themselves are quite expensive (especially drums--just a good pair of high-hats can set you back 200--300 bucks), and you need those, too.

and after going broke buying and maintaining all that stuff, once you finally finish your full-length recording, promoting it is a completely different art. sure, you can tour your ass off playing for gas money or post your stuff around online for free (hint: everyone else has already thought of that, so it's hard to get anyone to notice you, whether your stuff is actually good or not), but doing mail-outs to radio and the music press costs money--lots of it, because you have to cast a wide net if you want any real chance of getting through to somebody--and usually if you aren't working with a reputable independent promotion company, you're stuff is just going to end up on the slush heap anyway. on the other hand, if you are working with a reputable promoter, it's going to cost you--as much as tens of thousands for a couple of months of full-scale national press/radio promotion.

and all this just barely scratches the surface of what it takes to release/successfully market a record.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

plus, musical instruments themselves are quite expensive

Yeah, I went to price a double bass last year and said forget it. It wasn't even that expensive as far as they go, about $2,000, I think, but I don't have an extra $2,000. Money like that goes to doctor and dentist bills (this was before we had insurance with less than a $5,000 deductible). That and I'd need lessons to get back up to speed, a bigger car to haul it, etc.

I'd be interested to know how a musician could balance practice time, getting gigs, and reaching out to 1,000 people on a constant basis. I get mailing lists and blogs, but it takes time to do those things, sounds like they'd need an assistant just to manage that aspect.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 12:52 PM on April 25, 2008

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