Of true fans and superfans: the rise of an alternative business model to copyright

One of the commonest arguments from supporters of copyright is that creators need to be rewarded and that copyright is the only realistic way of doing that. The first statement may be true, but the second certainly isn’t. As Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available) notes, most art was created without copyright, when the dominant way of rewarding creators was patronage – from royalty, nobility, the church etc. Indeed, nearly all of the greatest works of art were produced under this system, not under copyright.

It’s true that it is no longer possible to depend on these outdated institutions to sustain a large-scale modern creative ecosystem, but the good news is we don’t have to. The rise of the Internet means that not only can anyone become a patron, sending money to their favourite creators, but that collectively that support can amount to serious sums of money. The first person to articulate this Internet-based approach was Kevin Kelly, in his 2008 essay “1000 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.

It’s taken a while, but the music industry in particular is finally waking up to the potential of this approach. For example a 2023 post on MusicBusiness Worldwide, with the title “15% of the general population in the US are ‘superfans.’ Here’s what that means for the music business” reported that the incidence of superfans was probably even higher in some groups, for example among customers of Universal Music Group (UMG):

Speaking on UMG’s Q1 earnings call, Michael Nash, UMG’s EVP and Chief Digital Officer, indicated that an “artist-centric” model would look to increase revenue flow from “superfans” – or in other words, individuals who are willing to pay more for subscriptions in exchange for additional content.

“Our consumer research says that among [music streaming] subscribers, about 30% are superfans of one or more of our artists,” said Nash.

In January of this year, the head of UMG, Sir Lucian Grainge gave another signal that superfans were a key component of the company’s future strategy: “The next focus of our strategy will be to grow the pie for all artists, by strengthening the artist-fan relationship through superfan experiences and products.” Spotify, too, is joining the superfan fan club, writing that “we’re looking forward to a future of superfan clubs”. UMG started implementing its superfan strategy just a few weeks later. MusicBusiness Worldwide reported it was joining a move to create a new superfan destination:

A press release issued by Universal Music Group today stated that the NTWRK consortium’s acquisition of [the youth-orientated media platform] Complex will “create a new destination for ‘superfan’ culture that will define the future of commerce, digital media, and music”.

Here’s why leading music industry players are so interested in the superfan idea:

In Goldman’s latest Music In The Air report, it claimed that if 20% of paid streaming subscribers today could be categorized as ‘superfans’ and, furthermore, if these ‘superfans’ were willing to spend double what a non-superfan spends on digital music each year, it implies a $4.2 billion (currently untapped) annual revenue opportunity for the record industry.

For the music industry, then, it’s about making even more money from their customers – no surprise there. But this validation of the true fans/superfans idea goes well beyond that. By acknowledging the power and value of the relationship between creators and their most enthusiastic supporters, the music companies are also providing a huge hint to artists that there’s a better way than the unbalanced and unfair deals they currently sign up to. When it comes to making a decent living from creativity, what matters is not using heavy-handed enforcement of copyright law to make people pay, but building on the unique and natural connection between creators and their true fans, who want to pay.

Featured image by Antonio Mette.

Follow me @glynmoody on Mastodon and on Bluesky.

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