Published Nov 05, 2020The pandemic has ground touring to a halt and streaming services have failed to put money into artists' pockets. Could subscription platforms be the new way for musicians to earn a living from their work?
While other creators such as podcasters have enthusiastically embraced Patreon (successful shows like The Last Podcast on the Left and Doughboys easily earn five figures per month), musicians haven't been quite so quick to adopt the subscription model. That's beginning to change, however; Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer and M.I.A. are among the notable acts now using Patreon to release exclusive material directly to their fans.
So what's with musicians' apparent hesitation to try subscription services?
"This way of working — posting music online and asking fans to subscribe to it for a monthly fee, very much like a newspaper subscription — is totally contrary to the mythical idea of the effortlessly talented, reckless, rock star archetype," observes Wolf Parade member Spencer Krug, who has just shy of 1,300 subscribers on his Patreon (as of press time). "It takes the mask off and has the musician looking directly into the eyes of the listener, asking for cash in exchange for their songs."
Or, putting it more simply, he says: "It's not cool."
Jasamine White-Gluz, who runs a Patreon page for her Montreal shoegaze band No Joy, concurs. "As the artist, you hope you handle the creative side and a label can handle selling it for you," she tells Exclaim! "A subscription service can feel like a really vulnerable thing where you are now doing the selling and putting a price on things you may have not tied monetary value to before — like handwritten lyrics or a meet-and-greet."
Both Krug and White-Gluz use the word "begging" when discussing the awkwardness of asking followers directly for cash. And yet there's no question that they're giving fans their money's worth: Krug releases a new piano song every month for a rate as low as $1 (or $5 to watch his bimonthly livestreams), while White-Gluz shares her works-in-progress and even offers feedback on fans' creative projects.
Unlike the crowdfunding model, which allows bands to raise money via platforms like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, there's no speculation or investment involved in a subscription. It's a simple transaction: pay the monthly fee, get the product.
"I think there is something punk about the model," says Krug. "It connects the musician directly with their audience, allows for honest and uncensored conversations between the two, and largely cuts out the traditional music industry. There are no labels, managers, streaming portals, distributors."
Instead of the boom-bust rhythm of old-school album cycles — when bands invested all of their money and creative energy into making an album, then reaped the rewards during the subsequent tour — Patreon turns the business of making music into something resembling a traditional job. There are monthly deadlines and a regular paycheque.
According to Krug, "In earlier years, if I didn't feel like making music one day, I could put it off until later. But that didn't mean the music I made the following day was any better, it just meant I had the privilege of waiting around to be 'inspired,' which is just another way to say I could afford to be lazy."
Patreon's monthly billing cycle puts pressure on musicians to churn out material on-schedule. Krug sees this as a "healthy challenge" that promotes "sustainably creativity," while White-Gluz uses it as an opportunity to explore raw ideas with a captive audience. "Sometimes, doing self-promotional [social media] posts can feel like screaming into the void, but, on Patreon, people want to hear from you, so it can be a safe space to bounce new ideas off," she says.
For all of the artistic advantages of the subscription model, it ultimately boils down to one thing: money. Mid-level indie artists who previously earned a living from touring and merch booth sales can now potentially turn to a few hundred of their most devoted fans to pay their rent. It's not "cool," and it demands near-constant creativity, but it just might make being a musician financially feasible.
"What you get out of something like Patreon is proportional to what you put in," reflects Krug. "It's hard to say, in general, if subscription-based releasing can financially replace traditional touring and royalties. For me, it basically has."