Moving beyond dysfunctional copyright: true fans, and a new middle class for the creator economy

It’s easy pointing out that copyright is deeply dysfunctional: there are new examples of the profound mismatch between this 18th-century law and 21st-century creativity coming to light every day. Much harder is devising alternatives that are not niche solutions, but which have a wide applicability. One of the first people to do this was Kevin Kelly. Back in 2008, he came up with the idea of “1,000 True Fans“:

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.

The great thing about the true fan idea is that it makes many of copyright’s unhelpful obsessions irrelevant. There are copies of your work circulating freely on the Internet – who cares? Your true fans will still pay you, because they love your work, and they want you to create more. Unlike people who download stuff for free with no intention of ever giving back, true fans know that creators must get paid in some way, or they will stop creating. True fans don’t want that to happen, and are happy to pay again and again; think of it as a kind of subscription to a person’s creativity.

The good news is that recent developments in the online world, notably the increasing pervasiveness and importance of digital creative material in many people’s lives, means that it is even easier for creators to make a living thanks to true fans:

As the Passion Economy grows, more people are monetizing what they love. The global adoption of social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, the mainstreaming of the influencer model, and the rise of new creator tools has shifted the threshold for success. I believe that creators need to amass only 100 True Fans – not 1,000 – paying them $1,000 a year, not $100. Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.

That’s the view of Li Jin, founder and Managing Partner at Atelier, an early-stage venture capital firm. A recent profile in the New York Times described her as the “investor guru for online creators”. Her post about the new true fans goes into more details about how creators can try to apply the idea to their own work, and is well-worth reading. Another piece by Jin, in the Harvard Business Review, looks at things slightly differently. She notes that there is a serious imbalance in the world of online creativity: those at the top make huge amounts of money, while the vast majority – the so-called “long tail – barely scrape by:

for content platforms, the move to digital content hasn’t been correlated with a burgeoning long tail: the top creators are massively successful, while long-tail creators are barely getting by. On Spotify, for instance, the top 43,000 artists — roughly 1.4% of those on the platform — pull in 90% of royalties and make, on average, $22,395 per artist per quarter. The rest of its 3 million creators, or 98.6% of its artists, made just $36 per artist per quarter.

She suggests that the creator economy needs a middle class, which may not earn as much as the digital superstars, but which gets by quite comfortably. The rest of her article offers ten strategies for nurturing such a creative middle class. It’s great to see people exploring new ideas in this way, as well as offering practical steps that creators can take to avoid the manifest problems of outdated copyright approaches, and to receive a fair remuneration for their work.

Featured image by Tuomas Vitikainen.

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