There aren’t many ways you can make a living out of music. If you want ‘musician’ to be your profession, you have to find a way of turning the music you make into an income. Traditionally that comes from making and releasing songs and playing live concerts. In recent years we’ve seen the ‘releasing songs’ aspect of that become less and less relevant as the world switches to streaming. As fewer and fewer people buy physical copies of releases by their favorite musicians, all performers are left with are tiny royalty payments from Spotify and services like it. That isn’t great news if even if you’re one of the most famous and popular musicians in the world. For small-to-medium-sized artists or up-and-comers, it’s a disaster.
With selling music becoming an eve more unprofitable avenue, that leaves gigs, tours, and concerts. That wasn’t really an option for anybody during 2020. Venues are closed, musicians are stuck at home, and people who rely on playing concerts to make money have been left without an income. Sadly, some of those musicians have now had to get traditional jobs and might never return to the music industry again. We’ll probably never know how many great artists we’ve lost because of all of this, and that’s a huge shame.
There is some light in the darkness, though. With traditional methods of making money either on hold or gone forever, alternatives are springing up – and one of those alternatives is Patreon. For those who haven’t come across it before, Patreon is a business and fundraising platform with a very simple and specific purpose. People subscribe to you for a fixed price, and in return for that fixed price, they receive specific goods or services from you in return. It’s been open for years and is popular with YouTube content creators, and during the past six months, we’ve seen musicians flocking to it in increasing numbers. Musicians need a significant number of paying followers to make it worthwhile, but for those who have that kind of following, might this be a way to keep bills paid and stay in the industry in the years to come?
One of the most high-profile musicians on Patreon at the moment is Amanda Palmer, who’s no stranger to this kind of thing. The former lead singer and lyricist of the Dresden Dolls once raised money for a solo album on Kickstarter but has since switched over to Patreon because she feels it gives her a better connection with her fans. They have more access to her through the platform that Patreon offers, which she says allows her to communicate with them in a more personal and intimate way. People on Patreon often ‘get to know’ their subscribers, and this personal relationship persuades fans to stick around for the long term and continue paying for that access – along with all the perks that come with it. Cult British indie-pop singer-songwriter Kate Nash has recently made the jump across to Patreon too, and already has encouraging subscriber numbers.
Because Patreon’s format is so flexible, there’s almost no limit on what musicians can offer their fans and how those goods are offered. Some musicians have one single tier for access to their platform, while others have ten or more. Some start at a single dollar a month, and others start at ten dollars. As you might expect, better rewards are offered for higher levels of payment. While there are no rules, typical things offered to fans might include demo copies of recordings, blogs, video blogs, Zoom calls, physical merchandise sent in the post, exclusive photographs, and live chat sessions. Some musicians also offer early access to new material or, in some cases, exclusive performances that aren’t available elsewhere.
It’s these constant rewards that persuade people to make regular payments rather than one-off payments which, while doubtlessly appreciated by the recipient, don’t do much good in the long term. Fans don’t necessarily want or need every perk or treat they get, but they hang around for the ones they will enjoy. It’s similar to the way that wins arrive at online slots websites. Even when an online slots game pays out twenty or thirty dollars quite regularly, this isn’t what most players stick around for. They know that if they stick with the online slots of their choice and keep putting money into it, they’re likely to get the jackpot they’re looking for in the end. Most musicians probably wouldn’t want to think of themselves as the performing arts equivalent of online slots, but it’s a fair comparison to make – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In a lot of ways, Patreon represents a way for musicians to monetize their devoted followings without doing anything that feels cheap or exploitative. While Patreon has been growing quietly during the past twelve months, OnlyFans has been making a lot more noise as it grows. There are now dozens of celebrities on OnlyFans, including some household names. The problem with the OnlyFans platform from a public relations point of view is that the public associates it with pornography even if the services being offered on it aren’t pornographic. There are so many people offering X-rated services on OnlyFans that people tend to expect the same from anyone who opens an account there and believes they’re doing it even if they’re not. For musicians who’d rather be appreciated as artists and not be associated with that kind of behavior, Patreon offers an opportunity to earn the same kind of money without any of the associated negative connotations.
Regardless of how well Patreon does or doesn’t do for the musicians who’ve signed up for it, success there is still dependant on having a following in the first place. That’s OK if you’re moderately famous or used to be famous ten years ago, but less so if you’re starting out your musical journey. Bands and performers who don’t already have fans are unlikely to make any new ones by opening a Patreon account, and so there’s still nothing to cater for those at the very bottom end of the scale. That might continue to be the case until the world reopens properly in 2021, and it’s to be hoped there are enough young musicians still playing by then to make the reopening worthwhile. In the meantime, for everybody else, there’s Patreon.