How moving to a patronage model can help you escape music industry exploitation


Connecting to Your Audience

To talk about the patronage model, we need to talk about its major misconception.

When we think about an artist asking their audience for support directly, our minds turn to services like Kickstarter where the pitch revolves around fans supporting a potential future project like an album.

Unfortunately this doesn’t actually work, because in today’s digital age we have so much content freely flowing into our lives that it’s essentially ubiquitous. This has directly devalued the concept of paying directly for a project.

By the way, the fact that we call it ‘content’ and not ‘art’ speaks to this truth! We’re not collectively referring to the material artists are creating as ‘music’ or ‘essays’ or ‘films’.

We’re calling it ‘content’ that is being put in our ‘feeds’.

When an artist kickstarts a new album or puts their latest essay behind a paywall, we as an audience aren’t particularly compelled. After all, every album comes to Spotify eventually and every essay can be converted into a Twitter thread. No one is so desperate to listen to a new song or read an article that they want to pay for it. They can just open Spotify or Twitter or TikTok or Instagram, find ‘content’ that fills all of their free time, and feel satisfied.

So, doesn’t that make patronage a non-starter? It does if you attempt to build it around paywalling your ‘content’, but the reality is that healthy patronage models aren’t about building paywalls at all! Instead, patronage is a way to cultivate a community of what we’ll call ‘True Fans’.

At the beginning of the social media era, Kevin Kelly wrote an essay called 1,000 True Fans. If you haven’t heard of Kelly, he was the founding editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and has been an elder statesman in the world of technology for a long while. What I love about him is that he isn’t very intrigued by the passing fads of tech, instead much more interested in the way that the world will evolve because of what he calls ‘inevitable’ changes that are brought forth by our increasingly digital world.

Something that Kevin Kelly feels confident about in regards to the music industry is that the bond between the artist and their audience will grow stronger over time. Because our world is growing increasingly interconnected, artists can use the internet (and their social media platforms) to find their fans.

This may sound simple, but it has not always been the case!

If you were someone who loved fountain pens in the 1960s, the only chance you had of being paid for that passion was working in a fountain pen shop or writing for something like ‘Fountain Pen Monthly’. The world simply couldn’t sustain a ton of hobbyists all profiting off the same hobby, so it was either find the singular profitable instance or find another line of work.

Today, if that’s your passion, you can create a fountain pen podcast! You can run a fountain pen blog! You can create an Instagram where you do nothing but review the latest and greatest fountain pens! If you can find 1,000 people who absolutely love your work, they can provide you with a stable income — and because the world is so large, there’s no limiting factor on how many fountain pen podcasts can exist! Hundreds of people can create hundreds of fountain pen podcasts, all with their own subcultures and audiences, and as long as they reach a sustainable number of fans, they can become a sustainable form of income. You just need to find your “true fans”.

Kevin Kelly defines a ‘true fan’ as “a fan that will buy anything you produce,” the ones that “will drive 200 miles to see you sing” or “buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book.” He continues to say this: “As far as I can tell there is nothing — no product, no idea, no desire — without a fan base on the internet. Every thing made, or thought of, can interest at least one person in a million — it’s a low bar. Yet if even only one out of million people were interested, that’s potentially 7,000 people on the planet. That means that any 1-in-a-million appeal can find 1,000 true fans. The trick is to practically find those fans, or more accurately, to have them find you.”

Patronage isn’t intended to capture your entire audience base. It’s intended to capture the most dedicated members who your work has resonated so deeply with that they are looking for a method of supporting you directly. Think about how many fans you have, and then think about the small fraction of ‘_true_’ fans. It’s a much smaller number — 10% or 5%. That’s your patronage base.

Kelly used the number 1,000 because he estimates that most artists with a committed audience could find a way to get 1,000 people to contribute $100 a year, or ~$8 a month. That would be $100,000 a year, which for many artists would be a healthy living. But that number isn’t set in stone. Many artists happily use the patronage model to bring in a small amount of income from a much smaller base. Others make more! That $8 a month isn’t a set number either, which we’ll get into later. The great news is that as technology continues to develop, an artist’s ability to connect with fans will only grow deeper. In fact, the essay was recently updated to be ‘_100_ True Fans’!

The digital age has made patronage more viable than ever, which is why I call this the ‘_new_’ patron age. Kelly writes about this truth succinctly, saying that fans and patrons have been together forever, but that “the benefits of modern retailing meant that most creators in the last century did not have direct contact with consumers,” and that the internet “…permits creators to maintain relationships, so that the customer can become a fan, and so that the creator keeps the total amount of payment, which reduces the number of fans needed.”

This level of connection built on knowing your audience is another reason why patronage is a wonderful and worthwhile pursuit. As of right now, you as as artist don’t have any way to directly interact with fans. The closest you have to that is your social media accounts, which explicitly do everything they can to keep you from owning the relationship with your audience. This is because they don’t want you to leave their platform, and so they try and create a level of ‘lock-in’ which keeps you from being able to escape. Of course, you as an artist are once again put at a disadvantage because of this. If you build your entire audience on Instagram and Instagram shuts down, how can you reconnect with your audience?

The rising stars of TikTok almost found this out the hard way recently during the standoff between the app and the United States government. With TikTok being threatened with closure, the in-app celebrities began trying to diversify their audience, telling their followers to find them on other platforms like Twitter or TikTok-clones such as Triller. Fortunately for them, TikTok remains standing (as of now), but the celebrities of dead platforms like Vine weren’t so lucky, many of whom lost their entire audience overnight.

Many artists have grown wise to this, recognizing that it’s important to find a way to ‘own’ the connection to their audience. Nipsey Hussle said that “When you say ‘follow me on Twitter’, and you get 10 million people to follow you — you just leveraged your influence to add value to an app that you have no ownership in.” So to subvert this and ensure ownership, he formed a clothing brand called Marathon in order to directly gain access to his audience’s contact information and create 1-to-1 relationships.

Patronage can be the vehicle to owning your audience — and the great news is that you don’t have to leave behind all your other models of revenue (or social platforms like Instagram) in order to pursue it. To reference Kevin Kelly once more, he said that “The mathematics of 1,000 true fans is not a binary choice. You don’t have to go this route to the exclusion of another. Many creators, including myself, will use direct relations with super fans in addition to mainstream intermediaries. I have been published by several big-time New York publishers. I have self-published. And I have used Kickstarter to publish to my true fans. I chose each format depending on the content and my aim. But in every case, cultivating my true fans enriches the route I choose.“

So, patronage isn’t about paywalling content.

It isn’t about blocking yourself off from other revenue models.

It’s about creating meaningful connections with the people who your art has already resonated with.

PART FIVE // Practical Steps Towards Patronage >>>