Or, how to be a true fan.
One of my earliest musical obsessions was a South African band called Tree63. I remember listening to the radio when I first heard their song “Look What You’ve Done”. I was blown away by the ethereal guitar sounds and the powerful lyrics. I had to know the name of that song, and who had written it.
I was surprised (and delighted!) again when, a few weeks or months later, I was over at my friend Jacob’s house, and saw their debut album while flipping through his CD case. “Look What You’ve Done” was the third track. I immediately wanted to listen to it, and begged him to tape a copy for me. He was a bit unwilling at first (I think he was taken aback by my enthusiasm), but he finally relented.
On the drive home from his house, I listened to the tape he made me, over and over again. I was entranced, overwhelmed that this kind of music could exist. What followed was a 15-year love affair that continues even to this day. Although Tree63 is a Christian rock/worship band, and I am no longer a believer, their music still speaks to me, and sounds unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.
I eventually bought my own copy of their debut, as well as many more albums. When the frontman, John, put out a solo record, I bought that too. The band recently came back from a multi-year hiatus, and I picked up a copy of their reunion album as a gift for my sister.
I’m what you would call a true fan. And as we all know from Kevin Kelly’s seminal article, 1,000 of us is about what you need to make a living as a creative. Yet this all started with an illegal, poor-quality taped copy of Tree63’s music.
There was a time when I had no scruples about copying music (or PC games, or movies). I don’t think I understood anything about copyright or the legality of what I was doing. I just knew that I could rip any CD and copy any tape, so I did.
At some point, as I learned more about the music industry, and especially the indie music scene, I started to realize that there were people—regular people just trying to make a living—working hard to make this music that I was listening to for free.
At some point after my naïveté had worn off, my friend John asked me to make him a copy of a CD we had just listened to in the car. I told him I wouldn’t copy it, but I’d be glad to buy him a copy. He brushed me off, annoyed that I wouldn’t just burn him a copy. I patiently (and snobbishly) explained that it was important to support the artists who were making this music, that it wasn’t right to deprive them of their honest wages.
As annoying as I sounded back then, I still believe in that basic principle. The worker is worthy of his wages. If we want to see the artists we love continue to make great art, we have to be willing to vote for them with our dollars. It’s not cheap to make a record. I myself have spent thousands of dollars making a six-track EP no one has even heard of. It can cost tens of thousands to pay session musicians, producers, mixing and mastering engineers, distribution costs, graphic designers and more.
I’ve heard writers talk about how they spend hundreds or thousands of dollars each year paying for copies of their own books, as well as postage, in order to send them out to people they hope will connect with their work. Being a successful creative is not a cheap way to live. Most artists just hope they’ll make a decent living this year. It’s not about “getting huge”, it’s about putting dinner on the table and gas in the car.
It’s also about impact. The writers, musicians, filmmakers and other people who have touched my life in a meaningful way are very dear to me. It is not a burden, but a privilege to support these brave souls. That’s why I subscribe to the Making Sense podcast, have begun to buy my books at the indie bookstore (which definitely costs more than Amazon, but is so worth it), and support the small businesses I love.
We need these people. We need them to keep doing their thing, for the love of it—not having to worry about money. They need us to give a damn, and support their work. And although money is something we all need, we can show our appreciation in more personal ways, like simply writing a note to someone we admire, and whose work has been valuable to us.
I do this all the time now. When I receive an email newsletter that I really love, I write back and thank the person who sent it. I try to connect with them as a human being. I know it can be hard sometimes, to keep going, to continue creating when times get tough. We all need a little encouragement. We need to know someone cares.
So preorder your friend’s book. Buy the hardcover version, which will net her a higher royalty. Subscribe to the paid version of that newsletter you read. Hell, subscribe to the New York Times (they’re constantly begging me for money, and they still do real journalism). Back the Indiegogo your local vegan doughnut shop is running (I actually did that one). Contribute to your favorite podcast on Patreon.
Give back to those who have formed you, given you hope, and brought meaning to your life. Show them your love and support. Send them a note of encouragement. Make their day. This isn’t just good for them, it can also be a joy for you. Receiving a personal email response from someone you’ve followed for years, but never contacted before, can be very meaningful.
I’m asking you to try it and see where it gets you. Expressing your enthusiasm and gratitude (being a fan!) is a lot of fun.