How to build a fanbase and make it pay

This article originally appeared on the website of digital music distributor iMusician. I write two articles for them a month on advice for artists, new trends and the inner goings-on of the music business.

The music industry used to be controlled by a small number of very rich players. Universal Records, Sony, Warner, the now defunct EMI (merged into Universal in 2012) were the gatekeepers to a world of fast cars, fast sales and screaming fans. Thanks to the internet, that’s no longer the case. While those three major labels still have the ability to turn a nobody into a somebody, if you’re talented, savvy, prepared to work hard and be patient, there’s a way of making money by building a fanbase on your own terms – and without having to kiss goodbye to 85% of your royalties.

US rapper Spose has experienced both sides of the coin. He launched his career back in 2007 by self-releasing his debut album Preposterously Dank. It sold around 500 copies. Spose was broke, waiting tables and providing for a newborn daughter but still reinvested every spare dollar he had into his career. “If I had $300 in my bank account. I spent it on T-Shirts to sell at my concerts,” he explains.

Then the big break came. His first official single I’m Awesome got picked up by local radio (due to Spose keeping regular contact with the DJ) and “took on a life of it’s own”. It was doing well on iTunes too and suddenly Universal were on the phone. The label sent Spose a $35,000 cheque and he signed on the dotted line.

However, the deal was short-lived and ended after 11 months and 60 revisions of that elusive second single that was never released. So is his career over? Is he back to waiting tables and telling everyone who’ll listen that he once had a record deal with the biggest label in the world? No. He’s succeeding on his own terms.

While with Universal, the “crazy exposure” definitely grew the amount of people who wanted to check him out, but it didn’t help him recruit die-hard fans – the people who are willing to pay proper cash to help you sustain a living. Those people are the ones he appealed to before his record deal – “kids in local colleges that were like, ‘Damn, somebody is rapping about our life.’”

He might have near 70,000 Facebook fans, but only around 2,000 of those are willing to part with their cash, he says. And it’s enough. His latest album The Audacity came out in 2012 and sold at $10. After iTunes took a small chunk, and the cost of making the album was deducted, he made a profit of $70,000. That’s before royalties from Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube come in quarterly – his last statement was $4,200. Using a digital distributor like iMusician, he was able to get his music up on all the digital platforms for a small one-off fee. Those platforms provide around 30-40% of his income.

The model is championed by expert advisor to the creative industries Nicholas Lovell. For 15 years, Lovell has been involved in technology, media and finance. Titled The Curve, his business model is inspired by the games industry and Lovell presented the idea during a session at by:Larm festival in Oslo in February. Read on to find out how you too could sustain a long-term living from a small number of high spenders.

Earn the right to be paid for your work

Just because you’ve played a few gigs and your mum thinks you’re going to be the next Ronnie Wood/Madonna doesn’t mean you’ve earned the right to be paid for your work. It takes graft. Hard graft. Says Spose: “You have to be willing to risk just about everything and sacrifice everything – including your job – to make it. If you really want to succeed in music but work 60 hours a week and go home and go to bed, that’s not going to work.”

New and emerging acts need to accept that they must first give their work away for free, spend time making sure people are hearing it and start the slow process of building an audience online, says Lovell. “The more people that listen to your music, the more people will listen to your music. Resulting in a greater chance of converting more people to superfans,” he explains.

Give your fans a reason to return

After that relationship has been built, and a fanbase established, give them a reason to return. Give them enough free quality material that they want to come back again and again and then end up paying. Ask for an email address, not to send out endless update emails (“no-one wants a newsletter”), but to send them things they want: be it music or behind the scenes content, creating a mechanism to talk to them again on your own terms. Lovell explains: “Find that 20% in your fanbase that have the potential to turn into superfans, and take them up The Curve. Take them out of a retailer’s database, and into your own.” Spose released his first two albums for free “as a taster”. By the time the third was ready, he could charge for it and be sure his fans were willing to pay – because he’d built that trust.

Enable superfans

Test what your superfans want. In 2012, Spose started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise $25,000 to help fund his rapping career. 700 people contributed and paid $35 on average. Contribution options ranged from $5 for 20 unreleased songs, a signed poster for $20 and T-Shirts for $30. Pay $1,000 and Spose would write the fan a song about whatever they wanted, $1,500 would get them a private concert. “I put those things out there as Hail Marys and things I didn’t think would happen. Someone paid $1,500 and another gave me $1,000,” he says. While the campaign didn’t make him rich (note: always factor in postage costs), it gave him enough money to get his albums and T-Shirts re-printed.

And the final piece of advice?Work harder than you could ever imagine,” says Spose. “When I got a record deal, people were like, ‘Oh you made it,’ no I didn’t make it, I’m not set for life, there’s so much more work to do. And going independent I have to work even harder. People think music is this magical thing but it takes work and sacrifice. I try to work incessantly. Today, for example, I have a million things I’ve got to do in my personal life but I’m still going to put three or four hours in writing music. My fans might be expecting one album a year, but I want to be able to give them more.” Exceed your fans’ expectations and they’ll exceed yours.