In the recent debates about how the business model for musicians and other creative artists is changing, one of the commonly repeated ideas is that you no longer have to reach a mass audience in order to make money — instead, you just need a small group of devoted fans.
Musician Ryan Leslie told me he’s been pursuing that idea since he left his label Universal in 2010 — something he framed as an attempt to take ownership of his relationship with his fans.
“I decided to go completely direct-to-consumer — not because I needed more money, but because I actually had a genine curiosity about who, on a precision level, was supporting my music,” he said.
That access to consumer data is one of the big selling points behind Gumroad, a startup that allows creators to sell directly to fans. The Gumroad folks were actually the ones who put me in touch with Leslie to discuss a Gumroad-powered promotion that he launched today — the sale of 10 “limited edition scarves,” costing $400 each.
Those scarves doubled as VIP tickets to Leslie’s upcoming New Year’s Eve concert in Vienna, Austria, where he said he’ll be performing his new album MZRT for the first time. And they sold out in less than an hour — it may have helped that Gumroad was one of the launch partners for Twitter’s “buy” button, and fans could could buy the scarves directly from the tweet.
Why scarves? Well, I asked Leslie and he talked about how they represent the journey that he’s taken from growing up in a working class family to Harvard to a successful music career, complete with trips to Fashion Week. His fans, he said, may have “big dreams”, even if they “may or may not be able to get that Fashion Week invitation,” and those scarves suggest they might be able to fulfill those dreams. (It probably seems a little less random when you recall that Leslie also offers apparel through his #Renegades fan club.)
Selling 10 $400 scarves is cool, but it’s only part of Leslie’s broader strategy, one that he said has brought him $400,000 in direct-to-consumer sales, plus $1.6 million in touring revenue since he went independent. (So the truism about musicians making most of their money from touring is holding true in this case …)
“My crusade is to actually figure out what’s the algorithm, the minimum number of people that you need to create a sustainable business,” he said.
The classic number is “1,000 true fans,” a term coined by Kevin Kelly. In our conversation, Leslie was more likely to refer to “10,000 or 20,000 people,” though he also mentioned Disruptive Media clients who were able to turn virtually all of their fans, even if they were only 150 of them, into paying customers.
Leslie also suggested one benefit that I hadn’t thought of when it comes to depending on a relatively small group of fans — it frees you up to experiment, because even if you alienate your existing fans, finding another 1,000 (or even 10,000 or 20,000) is a lot less daunting than trying to maintain a “massively huge” fanbase. In Leslie’s case, he said it allowed him to move away from the R&B that he’d focused on while with a major label to create “a fairly progressive rap album.”