What Andrew Sullivan and Amanda Palmer have in common — a fanatical devotion to users

In many ways, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan and alternative musician Amanda Palmer couldn’t be more different: the former writes about the Obama administration and the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy, while the latter is the former lead singer of a punk band called The Dresden Dolls and sports hand-painted eyebrows, among other things. Their approach to their respective businesses, however — in both cases a very personal form of publishing — are similar in one crucial way: they succeed or fail based on how well they connect with and serve their fans. Is this the future of media?
Just a few weeks ago, Sullivan announced that he was severing his relationship with The Daily Beast and launching a standalone website, and asked for reader support in the form of a $19.99-per-year subscription. In just a matter of days, Sullivan managed to raise more than $300,000 and said recently that he has a total of almost $500,000 now — and that more than half of those who contributed to his campaign paid more than they had to (one anonymous subscriber contributed $10,000).

Fans don’t want content, they want a relationship

When I read this, the first thing that came to mind was the “pay what you want” music experiments of bands like Radiohead and Girl Talk, both of whom asked their fans to pay for songs that they could have easily downloaded for free, and got millions of dollars in response. Why did fans do this? Because they wanted to support those artists, not because they wanted music for free — just as readers who want to support Sullivan probably don’t care that they can get the content free via an RSS reader (Note: Sullivan will be discussing his new approach at our paidContent Live conference on April 17 in New York).
Amanda Palmer
The Kickstarter campaign that Amanda Palmer ran last year to raise funds for a new album and a national tour falls into the same category (as does comedian Louis CK’s method of going direct to his fans to sell a concert tour): after quitting a deal with a traditional record label, Palmer initially wanted to raise $100,000 to fund her recording. Instead, she collected 10 times that amount, or more than $1 million. And the reason why her fans wanted to donate all of that money has very little to do with their desire to get an album, or even to see her perform.
Part of what Palmer has done — in addition to detailing what she is doing with all of the money raised — is to turn what could have been a regular tour into a series of personal events. Some of those who contributed got invitations to private shows, in which Palmer would not only invite attendees to come on stage and play (something that caused some controversy because she asked for volunteers instead of paying people) and otherwise interact with her.
As she describes in a recent interview with Billboard magazine, the rise of the social web has made it much more feasible for an artist to reach out directly to his or her fans — and many of those fans are going to be willing to contribute something, regardless of whether they get a direct return or not (a theory that former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly has called “1,000 True Fans”). As Palmer puts it:

“I see everybody arguing about what the value of music should be instead of what I think the bigger conversation is — which is that music has value, it’s subjective and we’re moving to a new era where the audience is taking more responsibility for supporting artists at whatever level. My theory is that things aren’t going to pick up until people … instead of saying people should want to pay for music, I think people should want to help their artists. I really think it’s a different way of thinking.”

Connect with fans and give them a reason to contribute

Getting up-close and personal with an artist like Palmer (who at some shows allows her fans to paint her body with washable paint) may or may not be your thing, but there’s no question that it inspires devotion in a fan base. And while Andrew Sullivan doesn’t go as far as Palmer, he is obsessively interested in what his readers want and how they are reacting to what he writes. As he described in his “declaration of independence” post, one of the reasons he decided to look at reader subscriptions instead of advertising was that he wanted to deepen his relationship with his readers.

“For the first time in human history, a writer – or group of writers and editors – can instantly reach readers – even hundreds of thousands of readers across the planet – with no intermediary at all. And they can reach back. We want to create a place where readers – and readers alone – sustain the site. No bigger media companies will be subsidizing us; no venture capital will be sought to cushion our transition (unless my savings count as venture capital); and, most critically, no advertising will be getting in the way.”

One of the most common responses to both Palmer and Sullivan is that very few people can get away with making a living from their fans or readers — in other words, that the two are the “one percent” of artists or creators who can do this. But whether it’s one percent or 5 percent or more, the fact remains that the tools that allow Palmer or Sullivan to do this are more readily available than ever, thanks to platforms like Kickstarter and the TinyPass paywall system Sullivan is using — or 29th Street Publishing, which allows writers to create their own mini-magazines.
Will this allow every writer to do what Sullivan is doing, or every artist to do what Palmer is doing? No. But their example (and others such as Jonathan Coulton) show that as Mike Masnick of Techdirt puts it, when an artist connects with their fans and gives them a reason to buy or contribute, they will almost always do so. All that’s required is that you have something valuable to offer — and that you are as fanatical about your devotion to those fans as Palmer and Sullivan and Louis CK are.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Christian Scholz and Andres Rodriguez