One of the common responses to my “Tear Down These Walls” post is that people are afraid the new artist/fan model is only sustainable for artists who have already built a huge fan-base under the traditional entertainment industry model. People who are already famous. I don’t think this is true. First of all, there are already success stories of content-creators who have thrived in the new model without any major prior success from the traditional content distribution system. But I also think that this perception is a result of where we are in the timeline of transition. The new model of artist/fan interaction is, after all, a new model. Of course the artists who already have big engaged fan-bases are best suited to use this new model, and of course most of the artists who already have big fan-bases managed to build those relationships in the old system. That too will change.
But the simpler response to this criticism is just to highlight some artists who have already found success with the new model without the benefit of large fan-bases built on the back of traditional media. (And I’m ignoring the incredibly successful artists that used online popularity to build a foothold in the traditional media system, such as Justin Bieber and Soulja Boy and Carly Rae Jepson and let’s be honest almost every other big new pop or hip-hop artist.)
So here are some people who used online and non-traditional media to build strong artist/fan relationships and who used these relationships to build successful pipelines for creating and distributing art and entertainment.
As Wikipedia says, Coulton is “an American singer-songwriter, known for his songs about geek culture and his use of the Internet to draw fans.” He was a computer programmer who started creating his own music in 2003. Coulton has released his music under the very friendly Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license which lead to a lot of early podcasts using his music. As Coulton’s popular online built, he was approached to make the song “Still Alive” for the end-credits of the popular video-game Portal.
In 2011 Coulton revealed that he was making $500,000 a year from his music, without having a traditional record label contract. It’s fair to assume that his earnings have increased in 2012.
Freddie Wong (aka FreddieW) joined YouTube in 2006. The competitive Guitar Hero player and video-game junkie started creating and sharing wacky VFX-heavy video-game inspired videos. He currently has 3.4m subscribers on YouTube and his videos have over 675m views. In 2011, Freddie tried to raise $75,000 on Kickstarter to fund a more ambitious online video series called Video Game High School. He ended up raising $273,726.
Burlew was a Dungeons and Dragons geek growing up. He attended Pratt Institute for a degree in Illustration, and ended up with a job doing elementary school textbook design and layout. I guess technically that’s a job in the old media system, but it’s not much of a foothold. In 2003, Burlew decided to add a stick figure comic to his personal website Giant In The Playground. This web-comic grew to be “The Order of the Stick.”
After selling self-published “The Order Of The Stick” books from his website for a few years, he ran out of copies of the original book. This year, Burley decided to try to raise some money to fund a reprint. He set a target of $57,750 which was the minimum needed for a second print run. When the Kickstarter campaign closed, Burley had raised $1,254,120.
In 1998, Holkins and Krahulik started a web-comic called Penny Arcade. It is incredibly popular. It’s hard for me to explain the level of cross-media popularity and impact attained by Penny Arcade in a short paragraph, so I recommend checking out the long Wikipedia entry for Penny Arcade for some more context.
I saved the biggest for last. Notch is the pseudonym for video-game developer Markus Alexej Persson. Notch is currently one of the biggest celebrities in the video-game community. Back in 2009, Notch was just another programmer working for a video-game development company. However, all that changed when Notch released a tech demo for a personal gaming project called Minecraft. This was a game he created, promoted, and marketed himself. He has now built a small company around the game, and remains vehemently independent. As of today, 6.8 million people have purchased the PC/Mac version of Minecraft. The game is available for computers, and has versions available for XBox 360 and iOS. Minecraft has earned well north of $50m for Notch and his company Mojang. All of this without using any traditional video-game distribution systems until after earning more than $20m in revenue from direct sales to fans.
Minecraft has very transparent sales figures. In the last 24-hours, direct sales of Minecraft resulted in over $360,000 in revenue.
The power, influence, control, and yes, money, that Notch gets from Minecraft vastly outstrips what would be possible if he developed and released Minecraft through the traditional channels. Although, let’s be honest, the traditional channels never would have made a game like Minecraft in the first place.
Perhaps you notice a pattern here (besides the unfortunate pattern that all the people I listed are men). These success stories are primarily people who are creating content that appeals to gamers. As I mentioned in my prior post, I believe that this new model is currently more successful in the world of gamers because gamers are already highly engaged with finding, purchasing, and consuming content online. Gamers are the early-adopters of the new model of artist/fan interaction. There are also plenty of robust alternative distribution, marketing, and publicity platforms for independent game developers and for people making content that appeals to gamers. I think that other audiences are a few years behind on this timeline, but we’re going to start to see these success stories rolling out across more types of content as more and more people become engaged online.
This is where we’re going.
Of course, this list would look totally different if I started talking about self-publishing e-book authors… But that’s another post.