What Kickstarter Shows Us About Making a Living as an Artist

Posted on April 15, 2013

I’ve been watching Kickstarter again lately, as my old “investments” have started delivering and people who interest me are unveiling new projects for their fans to peruse and fund. Kickstarter has always been a topic of never-ending fascination to me for a variety of reasons but, right now, I find it most interesting because it seems to offer high-quality data about what it takes to make a living as an artist…which, turns out, isn’t a lot.

That’s right. While looking at celebrity creatives who sell millions of whatever they make can seem intimidating and unobtainable, Kickstarter is proving that an obtainable few hundred people can provide an artist with a living wage.

A little background: In 2008, Wired’s Kevin Kelly wrote about the 1,000 True Fans concept, saying that if you could garner 1,000 fans who were willing to spend a day’s wages (averaged at USD $100 for simplicity’s sake), you could gross USD $100,000/year. The post made the rounds and, before long, nay-saying creatives mounted a case against the 1,000 True Fans theory. It would be another year before Kickstarter launched…I wonder what the reaction would have been like had the platform been around then.

Regardless of critique, Kelly’s theory was grounded on a solid economic theory which companies like Yahoo, Amazon, and Google were taking advantage of at the time–the long tail, a term from statistics popularly used to describe a market distribution where demand is not concentrated in a few dominant products. In practice, a long-tail market means a retailer’s path to maximum profit is selling a little of a lot of products. Kelly rightly recognized that many one person businesses would fall under long-tail economics…this is certainly true of art, which is very individual. Even smash-hit artists with platinum (million-selling) albums have only done business with 0.72% of the working U.S. population, or 0.32% of the total U.S. population. That even titans of the creative industry have such a limited (in context) impact should actually give the smaller artists hope, since it means there is plenty of unfulfilled demand in the long tail of art.

Fast-forward to 2013, a time where Kickstarter has grown into a vibrant marketplace renowned for funding ideas big and small, and for being the de-facto first stop for small, independent creatives seeking to fund their projects. This possibly makes Kickstarter into one of the biggest long-tail laboratories on the web today! And the good news is that things are looking good for the little guy.

I feel like a lot of noise has been made about some of the big numbers people have been racking up on Kickstarter, but I have not seen much noise made about how many people those numbers came from, which can be surprisingly (and pleasingly) low. The first time I noticed this was on Daniel B. Young’s skateboard Kickstarter in March 2012, which raised a solid USD $43,217. By this time, numbers like these were not unusual on Kickstarter…what caught my attention was how many people it took to get that much money: 291.

I’m going to let that sink in for a second: Two hundred and ninety one people raised forty-three thousand, two-hundred and seventeen American dollars.

To put that into perspective, consider that the median personal income in the United States was USD $30,221 in 2011. Less than three hundred people were able to raise enough money to give one person almost a year-and-a-half’s worth of income at the median rate.

I want to be clear, I understand it’s not that simple. Daniel was fundraising for a laser engraver, which isn’t cheap, so he wouldn’t be able live off the money from the Kickstarter. Also, Daniel received an average of USD $148.51 per person, a price consistent with the premium skateboards he makes, but a number most Kickstarters wouldn’t be able to hit. But, nonetheless, it’s impressive that raising this much money from so few people was possible at all.

But, as Kickstarter matures, I keep seeing similar numbers and ratios. The latest Kickstarter where I’ve noticed the power of small groups is the Cloud Factory’s Kickstarter, which goes to fund a new long-form webcomic from the oh-so-talented Alexandra “Lexxy” Douglass. Within two hours of launching her Kickstarter, Lexxy had already hit her goal of USD $7,500, which she planned on using to pay rewards, and give herself some financial breathing room to devote more of her time to Cloud Factory. By the time I saw her Kickstarter campaign a few hours later, that number had ballooned to about USD $20,437–about $5,000 shy of the median yearly income for single women in 2011. As of this writing, Lexxy has raised USD $38,981 (about $3,000 more than the male median yearly income in the U.S. in 2011) from 724 backers…and she will undoubtedly get more.

What struck me is that only 355 people had donated at that point, at an average rate of USD $57.57. Even now, at 724, the average donation rate is at USD $53.84. These numbers are very special to me precisely because they are not very special at all! People spend $50-60 on things all the time, from videogames to fancy dinners to clothes. Also, 355 people is not an insurmountable amount of people. If you consider that the average Facebook user has about 190 friends, it means the average indie artist is already halfway to knowing enough people to make a living on their own, without even considering the artist’s extended friends-of-friends word-of-mouth network…though, if my experience serves for anything, I’d venture to guess the average artist that is about ready to Kickstart a project has many more followers than that.

And that’s just the potential to make ends meet as a creative, let alone do well for yourself. Aaron Diaz’ “The Tomorrow Girl” Kickstarter pulled in over half a million dollars from 7,565 backers, at an average rate of USD $70.72 per backer…probably enough to let him do pretty much whatever he wants (creatively speaking) for the next five years which, I would presume, probably includes making more money. 7,500 backers may seem intimidating, it’s most definitely achievable through the democratized mass-media platforms (Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, et al) available to creatives on the internet, and $70 per backer is on the high end, but not really unusual in day-to-day life for the average American. In other words, yes, you can make a living–a killing, even–as an independent artist and, no, it does not take millions of sales or fans or followers to do it. The data from real Kickstarters says so.

I hope this post opens the eyes of creative people everywhere to the opportunities available to them in the long tail. America and the world is still recovering from the effects of a hit-driven culture, which thinks only multi-million-selling mega-hits are worth the time of day. This mode of thinking comes from the broadcast/agency era, which built its business around hits, and being niche was not considered a desirable trait. I believe this still discourages artists, who simply couldn’t (and may still not) see the in-between area that Kickstarter is only now starting to reveal. Today, the internet, social media, and Kickstarter make niche okay…maybe even preferable. Sure, you may not make millions upon millions of dollars, but you’ll enjoy a devoted fan-base you can actually interact with, and being able to make a couple years’ living in a month’s time from a few hundred people is probably life-altering enough for most people. So, I hope you’ll go forth and create, knowing that all it takes is a few hundred fans and one successful Kickstarter campaign to follow your passion full-time.

I’m happy to discuss these ideas more in the comments, or on Twitter, Google+, and any social media outlet you prefer in the “Contact Me” section.