What do fans really want?
Prarthana Sen
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May 9th, 2022

Over the past 2 years, there has been a lot of discussion around the creator economy, and the 1,000 true fans theory that enables this. Here’s a chart and a quick reminder of the essay originally written by Kevin Kelly more than a decade ago:

Essentially, it argues that creators, especially those in the ‘long tail’ no longer need traditional distribution outlets and large numbers of fans to make a living, or even be successful.

In an updated version of the original essay, Li Jin takes the model a step further by adding that in today’s passion economy, the markers for success have changed and creators can actually make money from fewer fans than ever before. Instead of a 1000 fans, 100, or in the extreme case 1 ‘true fan’ can suffice who look for meaning and purpose from high quality products.

As we started building out a.live, we spent a LOT of time thinking about what the 1000 true fans thesis meant for musicians in the creator economy. Being a team of music nerds ourselves, we completely understand the borderline obsession that people have with their favourite musicians.

For context, here’s what our founder bought last month.
For context, here’s what our founder bought last month.

Almost everybody can readily tell you who their top 3 favourites are, explain in great detail how they stumbled upon their music, and enthusiastically state what they mean to them.  In other words, musicians (and their music) are pretty obviously a ‘high recall’ fan category, and the ‘cultural capital’ of the category is also really high- three of the top four most followed Twitter accounts and 23 of the top 50 Instagram accounts are musicians.

As we spent more time thinking about this, we realised that many creator economy startups were built predicated on the question “How do we provide services for creators and increase creator revenues?”. Here’s a chart that lays out a map of some of these companies:

Creator 'support' startups
Creator 'support' startups

Somehow, all of these clubbed together as ‘support’ of the creator (in our case, musicians/artists are the creators) whereas they manifestly are not. For example, a really good way to show the power of ‘support’ is Bandcamp Fridays- they truly drive user acquisition, help artists, and make fans feel good. A real win-win. Most crowdfund campaigns or Patreon pages (for musicians) on the other hand, do not.

Instead, if you look at the creator support startups chart more closely, what these companies actually provide is a mix of motivators for fans to support artists. We can break these motivators down into intrinsic and extrinsic to understand them a bit better.

Intrinsic (doing something without any obvious external rewards)

  • Cameo (Memory)
  • Masterclass (Learning)

Extrinsic Motivators (behaviour driven by external, often tangible, rewards)

  • Kickstarter (Financial support in exchange for tangible object)
  • Patreon (financial support in exchange for exclusive content, project based work etc)
  • Ko-fi (financial support in exchange for commissioned work, services etc)

Clearly, people CARE about music (and possibly may be willing to pay money for it). We posit that musicians have short-changed themselves by not appealing to extrinsic motivators, and have leaned too hard on the intrinsic lever- but somehow, they’re not translating this care into spending money on it. This may explain why musicians are such an under-represented category in the creator economy- coming a distant fifth in Patreon’s list of lucrative content categories!

The major gap that we noticed when mapping out some of the startups looking to increase value for creators is that not many of them are articulating what a ‘true fan’ wants. How many of them are transient/one time needs (Cameo?) Which ones give recurring value (Twitch gifts? Patreon?) Which ones allow fans to consume products they like? It feels like the actual product offerings for this, especially ones that tap into an actual consumption experience, are thin on the ground.

So, we flipped our approach and matched creator tools (with some applicability to music) into a framework to understand what value they potentially create for fans (as opposed to the creator). There seem to be broadly 5 types of fans (which loosely map to the 1,000 true fans chart that opened this post), and they all place value on different types of content from artists/musicians:

'Types' of fans
'Types' of fans

1) Superfans: These are people who care deeply about the band and are really the ‘100 true fans’. Till now, what’s been available for them have been voluminous physical box sets of archival material, special editions of the music or at the most extreme, the Kings of Leon Golden Pass. These all double down on the physical world in some sense- and are therefore limited in what they provide (of course, what they provide can’t really be replicated in the digital world either). But there MUST be something that the 100 true fans want, that can only be provided at internet scale, and provides ownership, exclusivity and/or access in ways that are truly meaningful.

2) Proprietary fan: These people are primed for ownership rather than consumption. These fans who have graduated from liking songs to liking an artist- the people who buy music on Bandcamp or pay for monthly subscriptions on Patreon, or request Cameos. Besides Bandcamp, these relationships seem transient. Is there a way to deepen these, and enhance the consumption experience?

3) Tinkerers: People who would love to play with the music in some way. In the same way that Tiktok revolutionised remixing video, people would love a way to make the music their own and/or interact with it (as we’ve seen with the success of music.ally, Guitar Hero and Smule in the past).

4) Influencers: Fans who like a song/musician already, and are happy to evangelise them/make viral user generated content. Right now, people who post user generated content only get social capital in exchange for this. What if there could be more?

5) Casual fans: This is the beginning of the fan journey, and includes the people who have just heard a track or two on Spotify but can potentially be brought into the fold to actively engage with the musician (do people even know who the musician IS, on many tracks?).

Now that we (hopefully) know what fans want, what can musicians actually provide to these fans? We’ll have a look at this in the next article.

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