Making an honest-to-god living as a musician isn’t just hard, it’s the kind of struggle that epic tails of heroism and tragedy are born from. Living off your music is so difficult that it’s become an archetype, the starving artist, the struggling house act, that band that ‘almost’ made it big. In the information age such success has only become harder as music suddenly saturates the very air around us, a swelling sea of digital broadcasts as every person with a Casio keyboard begins producing, producing producing.

Plenty of that flood is produced and distributed for free. Services like Youtube, Myspace or Jamendo, to name a few, offer up-and-coming artists a chance to display their potential in hopes of ‘going viral,’ that sudden, inexplicable wave of flash-in-the-pan popularity. Unfortunately, such artists are rare, and even among commercially sponsored artists, such fads rarely turn into sustainable riches. In the meantime all this new information makes finding the gems amidst the wreckage that much harder. It becomes increasingly difficult for musicians to generate the kind of patronage necessary to create art as a career, particularly those musicians who elect to forgo conventional profit and give their albums away for free.

At The Technium, Kevin Kelly explores the problems associated with musical success, coining the concept of what he refers to as the 1000 True Fans. The 1000 True Fans idea suggests that (more or less) 1000 true fans, which Kelly defines as, “someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce,” will create a sufficient financial base for an artist to produce art for a living. At that stage, funding becomes reliable, and the artist need not produce hits, go viral, etc. to enjoy a respectable income. (Kelly, Kevin. “The Technium: 1,000 True Fans.” Kevin Kelly. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

There are several recent examples of the 1000 True Fans hypothesis at work. In 2007 the band Radiohead released their album In Rainbows using a pay-what-you-want format, which lasted for three months before reverting to a more traditional sales method. Despite the majority of listeners acquiring the album for free, sufficient true fans existed to push the album’s sales beyond their prior release, Hail to the Thief. A year later Nine Inch Nails released The Slip, a Creative Commons licensed album which is still available for free today. Despite being free, the album has sold over 98,000 copies at retail value, as well as achieving top 50 rankings on a variety of popular charts, including 13th on the Billboard 200. (“In Rainbows.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 10 June 2011. , “The Slip (album).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

Both bands subsequently expressed disappointment in the process, but as they are established bands these examples demonstrate the potential power of the 1000 True Fans. It’s also worth noting that these ‘comparative’ failures would, to most musicians, be considered unparalleled successes and would certainly constitute an ability to work as career musicians. The problem, of course, is developing that fan base in the first place, a problem especially difficult for artists which don’t manage to earn corporate sponsorship.

One big step in creating and maintaining such a base, Kelly points out, is finding a way to reach out and establish consistent contact with your fans. This is easy enough for those who have managed to find corporate sponsorship. At that point the industry does most of the work, work like setting up tours, advertising new albums and other kinds of public promotion. For the rest there is only the information waves, casting your works into the internet like a message in a bottle and hoping it washes up on a well populated shore. (Kelly, Kevin. “The Technium: 1,000 True Fans.” Kevin Kelly. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

This is where the incentive to use a free-use license like Creative Commons can make a difference. Precious few are going to pay money to find out whether a random artist is worth listening to. Even a few free sample songs will rarely be sufficient to convince someone they should become a true fan. Downloading and listening to an album for free, however, is considerably easier and fiscally risk-free. A collection of well mastered albums, freely available, can quickly find their way into someone’s collection, and their heart.

And to be sure, there are artists that have made this a successful model. Some, like the previously reviewed Diablo Swing Orchestra, play both sides, releasing some albums for free via Creative Commons and others for purchase only. Other acts, like a band I’ll soon be reviewing, the excellent German group Jammin’ Inc., rely on live concerts, their free albums serving as kind of a heavy handed advertising to woe fans who will regularly attend (and pay for,) the shows.

Creative Commons licensing, then, offers an alternative method by which those artists unable, or disinterested in, retaining conventional corporate sponsorship may develop the kind of devoted fans needed to commit themselves to a career as artists. Concepts like Creative Commons may, in fact, be vital in allowing such artists to distribute and advertise their work in an affordable but effective manner without being at risk of having their works simply stolen by others. It also puts the artist in greater control, with more say in how their art is (or isn’t,) used, and enjoying a greater share of any foreseeable profit for the works they’ve created. The struggle to achieve financial success as an artist may not have gotten easier, but Creative Commons helps make the struggle, and the rewards, so much more the artist’s own.