At a very uncertain time for musicians amidst a pandemic that has cut off their main sources of income, namely live shows, and a pathetic new government scheme that makes working self employed ‘unviable’ for many artists. Indeed many musicians, crew and those who work in music are already losing their jobs or giving up, which is very worrying for the future of culture in this country. A growing number of acts are now looking to fan funding platforms, fan clubs and Patreon as a way to possibly fund their art and forge closer relationships with their audience.
Launched in 2013, Patreon bills itself a platform that allows fans an opportunity to support the ongoing creative career of a musician by pledging small amounts per month (say the price of a cup of coffee) on their desired tiers, in exchange for rewards. These can include early access to new music, live streams, Q & A sessions, podcasts and more.
Artists are able to build their Patreon list and a fan-funded income stream with monthly payouts. So, Patreon is a subscription service to your favourite artists. A bit like a combination of Netflix, Youtube, crowd funding platform and fan club.
Patreon was designed by musician Jack Conte from the duo Pomplamoose. Conte saw a major need for a network that not only allowed “creative types to build real, sustainable relationships with their communities, but that also allowed them the security of a reliable income. He saw that many musicians were finding popularity on YouTube, but that they weren’t able to harness that popularity and turn it into dependable income. Their videos were garnering millions of views, and they worked hard to nurture lasting relationships with their fanbase, only to receive a cheque for a couple of hundred dollars from AdSense every now and then.”
They found that on Youtube and other similar platforms that the payouts weren’t proportionate to the amount of work put in and the engagement they’d earned. Thus Patreon emerged as a new more artist-centric platform, a way for musicians to continue serving their fans directly, keep creating at their current pace, and receive monthly payments from those who want to support their careers on an ongoing basis. In some ways, Patreon may be a peek into the future with the direct artist to fan models set to rise. Artists establishing a connection with their audience with regular content, videos and special privileges delivered to their fans in exchange for a few pounds per month. However it may not suit every artist; some artists don’t like to record multiple videos, some artists prefer to take their time, or they may wish to be more mysterious. Also, whether fans are willing to sponsor artists in this way in the long term is an open question for this and other artist-curated platforms.
There is cost for using Patreon too which means its not for every artist and not every artist can afford to use it. There are three membership tiers. Patreon Lite, pro and premium. Patreon Lite roughly takes a 10% of everything you earn all told. According to the Verge: “Patreon Lite takes the same financial cut as Patreon’s existing service: a flat 5 percent fee, plus the cost of payment processing. Pro and Premium are more expensive: Pro has an 8 percent commission, and Premium has a 12 percent one, with a minimum fee of $300 per month. Importantly, however, these changes don’t apply to existing users. People who started using Patreon before the split — a group Patreon refers to as “founding creators” — will be automatically enrolled in Pro at their old 5 percent rate. They also won’t be affected by a new way of calculating payment processing fees, although they can choose to opt into that system.”
Patreon Pro includes all of the features Patreon has now, plus a couple of new options. Members can attend workshops with successful creators, and there’s a new tool for offering limited-time backer bonuses. Lite provides Patreon’s basic service: creators can start a campaign with a homepage on Patreon’s site, and backers can pledge recurring donations. But creators can’t set up pledge tiers with special perks, and they won’t get features like sophisticated analytics. Conte says that around 20 percent of users already ignore the tiers. “They just want to quickly set something up,” he says. It’s a little bit more like the casual “tip jar” platform Ko-Fi, which supports monthly donations but without the complex perk system.”
“The Premium tier, by contrast, gives users a close relationship with Patreon. It’s designed for larger campaigns. It would take $2,500 per month in pledges to make a 12 percent commission reach Premium’s minimum fee, or over $3,000 for founding patrons, who can get a cheaper 9 percent rate. Premium subscribers will get access to a system for shipping merchandise as well as a dedicated manager who can work with their campaign. A handful of creators already have managers, but Patreon is scaling the option up, although it’s still limiting the number of Premium subscriptions. “It’s a person who’s dealing with you full time, and that’s really expensive.”
If you type in “who are the top Patreon creators” into google you will get a list including comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, Youtuber Philip De Franco and the controversial author Jordan Peterson, which shows the diversity of the creators now utilising the platform platform. Amanda Palmer “has been music’s best-known crowdfunding pioneer ever since she used Kickstarter in 2012 to raise $1.2 million for her solo album Theatre Is Evil and its accompanying tour. With nearly 25,000 backers, it became the most successful music campaign in the site’s history.” Now, as subscription models become the norm in the streaming era, the artist and member of the Dresden Dolls has shifted to Patreon to successfully fund her work.
According to billboard, up to 2018, “20,600 patrons have funded her to the tune of more than $1.58 million”. “I am good at business,” boasts Palmer “But that’s not why people are giving me money. They’re giving me money because I’m good at making music.” Since her Patreon launched on March 3rd 2015, she has used the revenue to make 56 products many of these are exclusive to her ‘patreon’ community.
“Palmer is one of 100,000 financially active creators on Patreon. The platform has seen growth since launching in 2013, the company is on track to double the number of patrons supporting members (from 1 million to 2 million) and the annual amount paid out to members (from $150 million to over $300 million) from 2017 to 2018. It’s now part of a constellation of fan-funding platforms including Kickstarter and Indiegogo — both of which continue to grow and have raised about $3.2 billion and $1.5 billion respectively for users in the past decade.”
Palmer explains why Patreon and more widely social network work for her as a conversation with her followers “I don’t think of my Patrons as strangers, and I don’t think of my million Twitter followers as strangers,” Palmer said. “I recognize people on the daily; these are people who I have a two-way conversation with. I think the way I have used social media for the last 20 years, since I started the blog, has been all about not just megaphoning my opinions, ideas and product of the week at people, but conversing. It’s a big fucking campfire. I spend a lot of time on social media also reading what people have to say, and talking with them and listening to them.”
Wyatt Jenkins, SVP of Product at Patreon, talked to Cherie Hu, on her podcast last year. He spoke about where music is placed in the Patreon model and why it should be more popular and why it isn’t yet: “So music is currently in our top five categories right now … but, honestly, I think it should be number 1 or 2, and we haven’t yet reached that tipping point. And that’s the thing that we’ll probably talk a lot more about today, in terms of what I think it’ll take to reach that tipping point.
But it is still a major category for us, and it’s growing really well. Over the past few years, music has grown about 6x in the number of creators, and about 4x in revenue. So we’re getting more musicians joining, and the revenue those musicians are making is growing and growing. TechCrunch say that Patreon’s overall creator base grew 50 percent year-over-year in 2018, i.e. only 1.5x growth, which suggests that the music category is growing much faster than the platform average.”
Jenkins explains why that despite this growth there are some issues for musicians on Patreon: “But there’s just a bunch of blockers for musicians and Patreon at the moment that we’re still working through. It’s going to open up here in the next one to three years, is sort of my prediction … but we’re right at the beginning of that.”
“I think if I had to summarize what the blocker is for musicians: all of their other revenue streams look, sound and act really differently from a membership. They’re coming from gigs, they’re coming from sales of music, touring — you know, all these other lines of revenue for musicians are these spiky, hustle-based lines of business. And Patreon’s over here saying: Hey, you can make a six-figure income by just having a close relationship with your fans, and delivering unique value to them in some form, whether it’s just them getting some backstage access to you, or them getting behind the scenes in how you made a song, or them getting some merch — you can create this other type of business.”
“Most musicians who I talk to, it’s very rarely a feature. It’s very rarely like, “oh, if Patreon did x, then I would join.” It’s usually like, “oh, wait, how would that work? Can I monetize my brand deals on Patreon?” And it’s like, no, no, no, that’s different. They try to take the model that they’re currently using, and put it on Patreon. And we have to say — so what Patreon’s job is, is to define membership for the whole world. That’s what we’re working on right now: we’re defining, what is a membership? And why do artists give a shit about it? I think that’s the biggest hurdle for us.”
“Secondarily, Patreon’s roots were that of crowdfunding. The origins of the company were very much like, “hey, I have a thing I make, and I would like funding for that thing.” And that doesn’t quite sit right with musicians … Musicians are saying, “I am a musician for life, and I don’t need funding for that — I make a thing of value, and you should become a member if you really care a lot about the thing I make of value.” That’s more the branding issue I was referring to.”
In the early days, there were some big musicians like Amanda Palmer who said, “this is a great model, I’m going to take it on” — so you have all those early adopters, and people that are really forward-thinking who say, you know what, this is a great model, I’m going to do it. But then you have a bunch of folks who are, like, “oh, if I do that, does that degrade the relationship with my fans? Does it make it seem like I’m asking for money?” Those are the brand issues, and we’re now in year two of a five-year process of being a world-class membership product, where — no, you’re not asking for anything, you create something of value, and your fans love getting backstage access to that thing you create. So in that sense, for musicians, it’s a next-gen fan club, you know? That’s the way we think about Patreon.”
He also makes the point that artists have to really want to engage constantly for it to work: “You know, one of the reasons Patreon doesn’t always work, by the way, is that … if you want Patreon to work, you have to like your top fans. You have to, like, want to ping them every once in a while, send them a post, say hello, jump into a chat room. And you know, a lot — not a lot, but a percentage of artists, I’d say less than a quarter, really don’t want to engage with their fans. [laughs] Like, I’m just thinking about this Jonas Brothers thing: it’s not like they are engaging with their fans. It’s just some stuff somebody made for their fans. Like, if I’m really into the Jonas Brothers, it’s not like, “Oh, cool, I get to know more about the Jonas Brothers.” No, you just get some stuff.”
We spoke to a range of artists to find out what their experiences have been using Patreon. Is it an opportunity for artists at a very difficult period where Covid has shut down the live touring circuit for the foreseeable, hit incomes and the economies across the world?
Scottish artist Randolph’s Leap tells us “I’ve been using Patreon for a short while. For a very specific purpose though: I’ve started a monthly Song Club where people sign up for £2 a month (more if they want to) and receive an unreleased recording every 4 weeks. Patreon has been totally fit for purpose in terms of what I need it to do and it’s good that you can tailor it to your own needs. The money I make from it won’t pay the bills on its own but it all adds up. I’m really humbled and grateful that people have signed up and it’s a nice way to share music and maintain creativity. There’s a lot more potential to Patreon but I wanted to keep the admin side of things quite low. If I were charging people £10 or more I’d feel obliged to generate a lot more “content”. I’m not actually all that keen on the idea of exclusivity, particularly if money is the thing that creates the exclusivity, but I’m also not into the idea of giving stuff away for free. So, for me, it’s a balancing act of providing enough of an incentive for people to join without it becoming a full-time job to maintain and manage. The majority of people who listen to my music are not members of Song Club. I’m sure a more established artist with a bigger fan base than me could make a full-time salary through private Patreon work and never release an album publicly again! But that obviously restricts the potential growth of your audience. Like most things in music, it’s a trade-off between profit and promo. My experience has been great so far though.”
Princess Maha of the female rock band The Kut told us of her positive experiences using Patreon following disappointment and losses with another crowdfunder: “I set up a Patreon account after Pledge went bust with about £10k of my album proceeds. I was really skeptical at first, but 1 year in, it’s been a source of saviour and inspiration for me (The Kut).” She enthuses “Because of the site and and a close community of Patrons, I’ve created two new demos records that didn’t exist beforehand! This month I’m doing my first ever stream too. They can join on any tier at all, or even scroll past the lot and put any custom amount. Gonna try give it more of an announcement this week, fingers crossed!”
Mathias Korn of The Burning Hell tells us about his positive experiences creatively on Patreon: “I’ve found Patreon to be an incredibly effective platform for interacting with fans of my music and writing. Besides the financial support it brings me (which is especially relevant these days) it’s become another creative outlet in its own right. I’ve even gone so far as collaborating on songwriting with my patrons. For me, it’s also very rewarding to be able to communicate with fans about the work I do on a really in-depth level, and the sense of participation it fosters is powerful. Having said all of that, it’s certainly not for everyone, and I wouldn’t advise artists to jump in without really thinking hard about whether or not you’re the sort of person that wants to share and communicate as much as the platform encourages you to do.”
He explains he doesn’t use it to fund his work he sees it as more of a creative platform: “It’s never made up a really significant part of my income, but it’s a little extra that helps. I would also caution people against thinking of it as a primary money-earner, because the nature of the platform means that patrons come and go, and change their monthly pledge amounts from time to time. Much like everything else in the music world, it isn’t stable or dependable, but if you approach it right, it’s creatively rewarding enough that the money is only part of why you end up sticking with it. For me, it’s no struggle to keep up the level of engagement or content, because on the one hand I really enjoy doing it, and on the other hand it’s up to the creator to decide what their level of engagement or content delivery will be in the first place. Some people set unreasonable goals for themselves, and then feel overwhelmed by it all, but i’ve tried to be realistic about what I’m capable of doing and sticking to that.”
Scottish independent label Fox Food Records explains their experience: “I wouldn’t say I had a negative experience with Patreon – it is more around it requiring dedication and time in order to build up and continue to engage patrons. In this world we live in labels and artists have a growing list of “things” to keep up with (social media, PR, bandcamp, distro etc) and from my point of view, running the label in my spare time it was just something else that required a lot more time that what I could afford it.”
American music journalist Miranda Reinert recently wrote about her experience as a Patreon user supporting artists without gigs: “I’ve been a Patreon supporter of a podcast network that makes my favorite podcast called “Tom and Jeff Watch Batman” (among others, but that one’s my favorite) for a long time and of GoldFlakePaint for almost as long. I’ve always kind of associated Patreon with YouTubers, especially smaller YouTubers who don’t make much off ad revenue, or podcasts or certain kinds of websites avoiding ad revenue. Put simply, I’ve always associated it with capital-C Content Creators but, at the start of quarantine times when every band I’ve ever liked started doing live streams instead of tours, Kevin Devine announced his Patreon.”
She continues, explaining how artists she follows have used Patreon to interact with fans in a environment where the pandemic has meant the live circuit is currently shut down for the foreseeable: “I’m sure musicians have been on Patreon since long before Kevin created his in April, but that was the first one I was aware of within the sphere of heavy touring musicians I typically am a fan of. My boyfriend subscribed and got a crewneck alongside a handwritten lyric sheet.
I personally subscribed to Foxing’s Patreon not too long after, a decision spurred by their announcement video teasing a cover of West Coast by Coconut Records. I believe Foxing is America’s best band so it was an easy choice to subscribe.
From a fan perspective, Patreon makes a lot of sense. I like listening to Conor Murphy and Eric Hudson play their songs. I like their fun covers. I like supporting one of my favorite bands monetarily. I never really considered what the artist benefit in doing it was, outside of the obvious, much needed monetary boost.
Then, toward the end of the first Foxing live stream, Conor Murphy said he wasn’t sure how long he could keep doing the band if they couldn’t play shows or interact with people but talking to fans on their patron Discord and hearing from a community of their fans changed that outlook.”
“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing live or if we’re at home playing into a computer, as long as you’re on the other end of the computer really that’s what matters most” – Conor Murphy
I guess I’ve thought about that a lot, especially as I talk to people who either are currently or typically work in music about what they’ve lost or had to change.”
The artist Tim Arnold talks about how he used Patreon to forge a closer creative relationship and dialogue with his fans, when social media often makes feedback casual and inconsistent, Patreon has deepened the interaction and made it a creative process in itself: “I joined Patreon this year and like many independent artists, it began out of necessity. However, it soon became something much more important than simply finding a way to fund my albums, films and events. I think those of us who write, create and conceptualise with a craft outside the mainstream, it becomes normal to guess what people think about our work. Unless you’re on tour all of the time, you never really know what people think or feel because you’re not in the space with them when they’re experiencing what you’ve made. Audiences see posts and newsletters in their own time and environment, and the nature of the fast world we live in now means feedback is getting rarer.
He continues: “It puts an artist into an imaginary relationship with the people we’re creating for. You end up in a feedback loop of wild guesses and assumptions about how people might receive your work. But when someone pledges money to you once a month, you’ve been validated. Your work has been validated. The hours, days, months and years of honing your craft is something other people want you to keep doing. Which is why they’re willing to pay for it along with other monthly energy bills.”
“Music is another energy that people need. For artists working mostly remotely to their audience, the couple of pounds or dollars every month helps us to produce the content, but it also helps lift the soul. Since I joined Patreon, I’ve been nurturing authentic relationships with real people. The video for my latest single ‘Another Record That Changed My Life’ was made entirely with patrons and followers. That energy of creation has resulted in a different kind of feedback loop where artist and audience participate and contribute together to make something that means something to each of us.”
Siobhan Wilson meanwhile found Patreon a safer and more accessible space than other platforms: “I run a Patreon and you can subscribe from as little as three pounds a month up to fifteen and I do podcasts on it an I do live streamed shows, and some random stuff lockdown has been quite boring so the content can …The best thing about my fanspace on Patreon is that you can choose what your tiers are. So I have been getting quite frustrated the last two or three years with quite a lot of elements of social media, like Twitter and Instagram because all I get is scam messages. They feel like a hell zone, when you are already in lockdown and you are in isolation and just putting stuff on Twitter feels like you have to perform. It’s fine if its pre recorded content, but its this element on performing in real time… So Patreon is a much safer space, people are on there because they really like your music and they actually log into the show in real time, pay three pounds. To me that was the closest I could get for a real gig. When you look at Patreon you are going to find every artist has a unique way of using it tailored to them, like if someone is bothering you, you can remove them. If someone asks you about a t-shirt you can make it for them. So its really accessible.”
Patreon isn’t the only option and as a platform it takes a cut, and as we have seen with Spotify do we really need another tech company monetizing creativity an driving more and more content? Michael Turner of the American label Happy Happy Birthday To Me points out: “ I don’t understand that world, it just feel it’s another middle-man doing a skimming .001 off a pence/penny type scheme.”
So why not cut out the middleman? Not every artist has the following to sustain a Patreon like Amanda Palmer does, or can find the time to run their own admin, and produce a constant stream of rewards on top of writing and recording music. Indeed some talk of “Patreon burnout” its a model that doesn’t work for everyone, especially for emerging acts a label can help them with things like promotion, record manufacture and distribution. So some artists and labels are using their own fan funding models to create a mutually beneficial exchange with fans.
Ian Smith of the Last Night in Glasgow label who run their own model for funding their releases, points out that there are issues with Patreon, that there is a disconnect in its network that inhibits artists ability to be found and funded on the network. They rely on artists and those using the platform to bring patrons on board, so it might suit artists with a fanbase but what about everyone else? “There are major problems with Patreon, it isn’t a functional search engine. Its basically an escrow service. You can’t find interests to fund. They don’t bring funders and creators together they give creators a place to bring funders.”
In contrast he explains how his own labels model works. “First off – we don’t run monthly memberships generally. We do allow folks to join via Patreon but the reality is that 5 bucks a month doesnt really help a business with sizeable outlays, so 99% of our patrons join annually up front. All that money goes into the running of the model, there isn’t a percentage hived off to fund the fundraising as there would be through Patreon or Kickstarter. With us you are buying membership to a club for a year – a club that sends you lots of records and CDs but more so a club that lets you interact directly with lots of artists and other patrons. The community element of LNFG is hugely important. This isn’t about funding one potter or one cartoonist, this is about funding a social enterprise. You give us 66 quid and we will give you at least 7 records and shed loads of other items. Because, pre-covid, we also ran gigs, these events would be a place to meet up and enhance the community. We have always worked closely with local shops and labels and we collaborate with everyone we can. We want to show how a socialist enterprise can benefit everyone.”
Sarah Lay of the label Reckless Yes explains how their membership scheme works. “This is our first year and for a one-off fee subscribers get a copy of everything we release in a calendar year. This pot of money is split between those releases to offset costs, meaning we recoup lower for our artists than in standard deals, profits on sales are split 50/50 and we can return more money to them faster while also scaling their release. We don’t take a cut of Bandcamp digital downloads so this money always remains with the artist and try to keep our streaming percentage as low as we can. More than this it’s built a community of music fans who trust us as curators of a roster, and are ready to support independent artists, discover something new and spread the word. This community has been a huge lift to moral over the last few months as well as a financial safety net for our artists.
“It’s also helped us begin building a strong network of independent labels who believe in collaboration not competition, and who want to do the most they possibly can for their artists. We’ve worked with Last Night From Glasgow (on a joint membership), Gringo Records, Hell Hath No Fury, Trapped Animal and Amateur Pop Incorporated. Each have their own roster and their own communities but are supporting each other to aid discovery and bring greater support and opportunities for our artists and releases. This set up of membership at each label works now but we’re aware it will have to adapt as more take this route and fans have to choose where to put their money. Working together is going to be key. We really believe collaboration and standing together to disrupt and drive change is the way forward as independents.”
We have a couple of 2020 memberships left on vinyl, CD or digital, and we’ll open 2021 membership at the start of October. Our info here: https://recklessyes.com/become-reckless-yes-member/“
Scottish artist Carla J Easton who just released her excellent new electro pop album Weirdo, explains how she set up her own fan club to suit her own needs “I’d decided to do a fan club after reading an article about it in December last year. I’d often considered the Patreon model but didn’t want to overwhelm myself by having to constantly keep producing content for each month (as well as being a musician, I work part time and am in the middle of producing a documentary). I thought a fan club option would be easier for me to manage but also meant fans could do a one off payment at a slightly higher cost and in return get something really special for it.
So I set up three tiers – Dreamers On The Run (£20), Super Dreamers On The Run (£40) and Dreamers United (£70). Each tier has different items for joining up and gets more exclusive and limited the more money you spend when joining my fan club. It took me about a month to price it all and launch via my website and newsletter. I haven’t really pushed it since the initial launch (which actually blew me away and quickly covered the costs for producing the maximum amount of items needed as well as turning a profit).” Carla explains how she avoided the pressures of Patreon by creating her own model “It has been wonderful communicating with everyone without having the ‘burnout’ of having to constantly produce content.”
“I feel confident that the EPs, polaroids, badges and vinyl are to a standard of quality that I would normally put out commercially (soundwise anyway – glueing together polaroids and cd covers takes a lot of time!). I’d definitely do another fan club next year (especially as that’s looking more likely due to live music industry situation right now) but switch it about differently. “
Artists have turned to online shows during the lockdown, some have tried to monetize them, most notably Laura Marling and Nick Cave sold tickets for large YouTube events. Carla has gone one stage further with Zoom tours, she tells us: “2 of my fan club tiers were meant to include an intimate gig setting which has obviously not been able to happen prior to my new album coming out. Instead I did some Zoom tours with support slots from Lemon Drink, Malka and Honeyblood and those memberships got free access to that (though non fan club members could purchase an e ticket). It’s important for me to let my fan club members know that the money from my fan club goes towards producing music and sustaining that. With the way 2020 has shaped up to be, the money from my fan club has helped to cover costs of getting a home recording studio set up to allow me to keep writing and recording from home (which has been invaluable as I have been able to co write and record with Si Liddel from Frabbits and the demos we created have just lead to us receiving funding from Creative Scotland to produce full length album together) and additionally pay for PR costs (which I’ve never done before and I am on a not for profit label that has no marketing budget). The PR costs are helping push my music to radio as a means to generate income from royalties later in the year (as I can’t play live) and has also meant my album has already sold out of vinyl pre orders a month before release, again generating more income for me as an artist.
As a music buyer and audience member myself, I wanted to set up a fan club that would be something that I would join if I loved that artist. I think fans are becoming more and more aware that artists need their support in order to keep their heads above the water in a streaming age. I have had people buy my vinyl or cassettes etc and never bothered with the download code for the digital files but know that buying physically they are supporting me. Additionally Bandcamp days have been wonderful and helped cover rent shortfalls and I often find that my audience pays more than the asking price (even for digital).”
In a world in crisis, that’s facing up to the implications of Covid-19 that have affected musicians ability to tour and earn, as well as promote their releases, not to mention the threat to live venues and record labels. The rise of Patreon and other fan funding models gives labels and some artists the chance to not only (hopefully) fund their work but create a deeper and lasting dialogue with their fans. It won’t be for every artist not every act wants to run their own administration and fulfill the pressures of producing continuous content. Patreon is ultimately just a platform that is monetizing their offering, so those who have turned to their own models are ensuring more of the finances are kept by them to invest in costs, with Bandcamp Fridays where their fees are waived each month have been particularly popular during the pandemic, new models that forge a closer relationship between artist and fan are positive but take work to build and sustain.
Not every fan can afford to subscribe to every fan club but if just a fraction of an audience does it can snowball. But for a small fee each month fans can gain access to more music, videos and merch and a behind the scenes updates. The independence it gifts some artists and the engagement is more deep rooted than just a like or a retweet, or putting a song on a playlist, the chance to control their own destiny, curate their own audience and create a creative dialogue that may be lasting.