Trent Reznor and the Theory of “True Fans”

Josh Catone
Josh Catone
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In March, Kevin Kelly published a long post on his blog detailing his theory that to survive as a long-tail content producer you have to cultivate 1,000 “true fans.” Trent Reznor, the musical legend at the helm of Nine Inch Nails, is hardly a long-tail content creator — you kind of have to forgo that moniker when you have had four platinum albums in the US, and two that have peaked at #1 on the charts. But even so, Reznor has come to embody Kelly’s true fans theory since his split with Interscope Records last year. According to Kelly’s theory, in order to succeed in the long tail, you have to gather about 1,000 true fans (the number varies depending on what sort of content you’re creating — it may be more for an author than for a musician, for example). True fans are people who will do anything to own a piece of your creations.
They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.
Once you have that group of core supporters, you can make a living creating and selling directly to them, says Kelly. Earlier this year, Reznor released his first album since splitting with a major label, Ghosts I-IV, independently via the Internet. The first part of the album Reznor gave away as a free download, with the full album available as a $5 download, a $10 double CD, or even more expensive “deluxe” packages that included things like vinyl copies, signed art prints, and Blu-Ray discs. The “deluxe” packages were aimed squarely at Reznor’s true fans and sold out in short order, earning the artist at least $750,000 in the first three days. Not too shabby. Later, Reznor gave another album away completely for free
under a Creative Commons license and asked fans to remix it. Clearly, Reznor wasn’t going to make money from this second new album’s release, but it was definitely a good way to please his core group of fans and build awareness about his music and 2008 tour. (There’s a lot of value in awareness, and Reznor knows this.) According to Mike Masnick of Techdirt, innovative album releases isn’t the only way that Trent Reznor has been cultivating his true fan user base. Prior to leaving Interscope he would hide USB keys in the bathrooms at his shows with songs from his new album on them. Lucky fans who found the thumb drives would generally upload the songs to the Internet, which helped build buzz for the new album. More recently, Reznor has been hiding concert tickets around Los Angeles and then putting up clues and coordinates on his web site and letting fans race to find them. (Which brings to mind images of a goth version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
.) Certainly, Reznor had a lot of help from the labels along the way in establishing himself and building up those core fans. So it’s hard to say that there is no longer a place for the labels (a topic we’ll explore more in depth in a future post). However, since parting with Interscope, Reznor has become sort of a poster child for Kevin Kelly’s true fans theory, and he’s continued to innovate new ways to connect with his true fans and grow their ranks, and done so with much success. The lesson here, though, is that Reznor’s blueprint can work for any content creators that exist in the long tail. From music to novel writing to web applications, if your goal is to make a living from your craft, it may be possible to do so by cultivating a group of “true fans.” Image via Jennaphoenix.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Theory of True Fans

What is the concept of “1000 True Fans” and how does it apply to artists like Trent Reznor?

The “1000 True Fans” theory, coined by Kevin Kelly, suggests that an artist, creator, or entrepreneur only needs 1000 true fans to make a living. These fans are so dedicated that they will purchase anything the artist produces. Trent Reznor, the lead vocalist of Nine Inch Nails, is a prime example of this theory. He has a dedicated fan base that supports his music, merchandise, and concerts, providing him with a sustainable income.

How can an artist cultivate “True Fans”?

Cultivating true fans requires a deep connection between the artist and the audience. This can be achieved through consistent engagement, sharing personal stories, and creating unique, high-quality content. Social media platforms can be instrumental in building this relationship.

What are the benefits of having “True Fans”?

True fans provide a stable income source as they are likely to buy every new product the artist releases. They also act as brand ambassadors, spreading the word about the artist’s work, which can lead to acquiring new fans.

How does the “1000 True Fans” theory differ from traditional marketing strategies?

Traditional marketing strategies often focus on reaching a broad audience, while the “1000 True Fans” theory emphasizes depth over breadth. The goal is to build a strong, loyal fan base rather than a large, casual one.

Can the “1000 True Fans” theory be applied to businesses outside the music industry?

Absolutely. The theory can be applied to any business that relies on a loyal customer base. This includes authors, designers, podcasters, and even small businesses.

How can an artist identify their “True Fans”?

True fans are those who are deeply engaged with the artist’s work. They regularly interact with the artist’s content, attend events, and purchase products. Artists can identify them through their engagement levels on social media and other platforms.

How does the digital age influence the “1000 True Fans” theory?

The digital age has made it easier for artists to connect with fans worldwide. Through social media and online platforms, artists can engage with their fans, share their work, and sell their products directly to them.

What challenges might an artist face when trying to build a base of “True Fans”?

Building a base of true fans requires time, effort, and consistency. Artists may face challenges in creating unique, high-quality content regularly and engaging with fans on a personal level.

How can an artist maintain their base of “True Fans”?

Maintaining a base of true fans requires continuous engagement and consistent delivery of high-quality content. Artists should also be responsive to their fans’ feedback and show appreciation for their support.

What role does authenticity play in the “1000 True Fans” theory?

Authenticity is crucial in the “1000 True Fans” theory. Fans are drawn to artists who are genuine and relatable. Authenticity helps build trust and loyalty, turning casual fans into true fans.