Last week I took a trip to Graz, a university town in southern Austria, to congratulate its fine residents for their most reasonable decision to remove my governor’s name from their local soccer stadium. Just playing. But seriously, listen to Act One of This American Life #398 and just try to tell me that you wouldn’t remove Schwarzenegger’s name from your own local stadium.
In fact I was in Graz for their 2010 Creative Industries Convention, which proclaimed grandly that we would design the creative societies of the future. For the uninitiated, there is a whole world out there that believes that hip, young people with Apple laptops will invent a new 21st century economy to replace all those lost manufacturing jobs headed for China, Bangladesh, and Mexico. In 2000 BusinessWeek dedicated an entire special double issue to show how “the Industrial Economy is giving way to the Creative Economy.” Two years later and Richard Florida published his bestselling book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which argued that those cities that could attract said young, hip people with Apple laptops would fare best in the 21st century.
In an entertaining response to this breathless celebration of the so-called creative class, Matthew Crawford raises his eyebrows at Florida’s claim that an $8-an-hour earning employee at Best Buy is representative of an economic and social paradigm shift:
In fact, most of us young, hip, creatives toting our Apple laptops around have grown quite accustomed to earning a salary that just barely competes with working at Best Buy. “In the Creative Economy, the most important intellectual property isn’t software or music or movies,” claimed Peter Coy in Business Week back in 2000. “It’s the stuff inside employees’ heads.” That sounds nice, but I know the people who come up with the best and most creative ideas and they don’t make any money. The lawyers, bankers, and administrators, meanwhile, are all still well off.
So just how does a creative person with a great idea make enough money to support herself? In the 20th century you needed the right connections. If you wanted to produce a book, album, film, or art exhibit you needed to know someone at a publishing house, record label, movie studio, or art gallery. Today you just need to find somewhere between 200 and 1,000 people who really believe in you. Kevin Kelly calls these people your “1,000 True Fans“:
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.
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.
But first let’s step back into the 20th century: Let’s say you were fortunate enough to make the necessary connections with the publishing house or the record label. Then these corporations would give you an advance to fund your creative work in exchange for the rights to what you create. They pay you money so that you can take time off and write that book, but what you end up creating is no longer yours – they retain the rights and are able to control who can use and re-use it.
Today artists are increasingly tapping into their networks of “true fans” (which often include family members, but also sometimes complete strangers) to fund their creative endeavors. This means that 1) they retain the rights to what they produce and 2) talented people without the right connections are still able to enter the creative field.
A couple months ago I was in Istanbul with Andrew Fitzgerald from Current. He’s one of these guys who has managed to build up a frightening list of 165,000 Twitter followers. (That, for the record, is greater than the population of Flagstaff, Arizona.) But, as talented of a tweeter as he may be, what Andrew has always wanted to do is publish a book. Here, I’ll let him explain:
Andrew used Kickstarter, a crowd-funding platform to find enough support to help build buzz and cover the costs of printing copies of his first novel. He was only looking for a modest $1,000, which he reached in just 24 hours, but by now 78 different people have pledged $2,500. In return, Andrew is involving his supporters in a collaborative storytelling effort. Depending on the size of their donation they can contribute adjectives, nouns, sentences, characters, or even settings to a series of stories that Andrew will be publishing over the next few weeks. You can already check out his first story, “The Cannonball Run“, and its many contributions from his supporters.
The strategy of involving your supporters in your creative work was also used by Romanian blogger Mihai who I wrote about back in November. To fund his motorcycle journey to Mongolia he divided the trip up into segments of 500 kilometers and sold each segment of storytelling for 50 EUR. Forty three people signed on “instantly” and Mihai had 2,150 euros in his pocket. Throughout his trip he stopped by cybercafes every 500 kilometers and penned public letters to each of his 43 supporters. “Dear Gili,” begins his first post just 500 kilometers from his hometown as he rode toward Ukraine.
SellaBand is probably the most well known crowdfunding platform. Bands looking to record and distribute a studio album create a project page asking their fans to pledge around $50,000 to cover the costs of producing a full length professional studio album. Aryn Michelle is a singer-songwriter from Dallas, Texas who is using SellaBand to raise enough money to produce her next album. She only has 137 followers on Twitter, but she’s already managed to raise $36,110 – 72% of her goal. 314 fans have agreed to make a donation of at least $10. That money has already been taken from their PayPal accounts, but if Michelle isn’t able to raise all $50,000 then all of the pledged money will be returned to the users. They only pay if the album is actually produced. And in return they get a CD of the album, a digital download, and even their share of 20% of the revenue that Michelle might end up making if the album becomes popular. SellaBand users have already invested over $3 million in independent artists, but now some big name acts including Public Enemy are also using the site so that they can hold onto the rights of the music they end up producing.
I met Pim Betist who came up with the idea for SellaBand a couple years ago at Ars Electronica. He told me that he was happy with the success of SellaBand, but his real dream was to create a similar platform for African musicians who haven’t been able to break into the world music scene. That site – Africa Unsigned – launched just a few months ago. Unfortunately the pledges haven’t been pouring in. So far the leading group is BCUC, an eclectic soul and hip-hop group from South Africa. I actually really like their sound a lot (check out their tracks “Journey” and “Native Minds”). But with just $566 of $10,000 pledged, it doesn’t seem likely that their fans are going to put them in a recording studio any time soon.
Journalists are also using crowdfunding to finance their reporting. I have already written about Spot.us a lot in the past so I won’t repeat myself here, but there are some really great pieces over there that deserve to be investigated and are just a few dollars short of their goals.
So far all that turn-of-the-century punditry claiming that young creatives would become the new industrialists of the 21st century has turned out to be just that: punditry. Mostly creative types are doing what they do because they love it and they’re just getting by financially with for-the-man consulting work, and often by working evenings at bars and restaurants. The good news is that anyone with enough talent and ambition to attract 1,000 ‘true fans’ can make it work. It has opened up the prospect of creative production far beyond just the usual circles in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Hollywood. The bad news is that building and sustaining a network of 1,000 true fans who are willing to not just pay attention to what you do, but pay money for it, is more difficult and exhausting than anyone had imagined.