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


Practical Steps Towards Patronage

So! The music industry is bad, record labels are complicated, content doesn’t sell, connecting with your audience is key, and — most importantly — patronage is a viable path forward.

How do you actually do it?

Let’s break that down.

Plenty of artists have found success using one of the world’s largest patronage platforms, Patreon.

Patreon has tens of millions of users and around a million active campaigns. Just looking at public data alone (as many Patreon users keep their numbers private) there are over a hundred thousand accounts that have resulted in over 1.5 billion dollars in revenue.

Though there are some accounts that have made a gigantic amount of money, it’s important to note that there are a ton of small accounts that are making supplemental income every month. For these smaller accounts, the amount of money made may not be enough to live off of, but the connection that those artists are making with a handful of fans can still be extremely fulfilling.

There are other spaces beyond Patreon where the patronage model has been working, and one of the most popular is in the world of video game streaming. Streamers are directly supported by their audience on platforms like Twitch, and the only thing that the audience gets in return is the ability to see fewer advertisements. The reason this works is because it’s not about what the subscriber gains, but is instead about the bond created between an artist and a patron when a transaction occurs.

Many streamers develop a very real relationship with their audience. They show up every day and the audience establishes a particular rhythm where they see (and interact with) the streamer. Where one generation had Saturday morning cartoons, this new generation has Fortnite-playing streamer Ninja, and because their relationship with him is so consistent, people are happy to pay him money (a lot of money) to allow him to continue playing — in public!

None of Ninja’s material is paywalled.

Yet he’s directly supported by his audience.

This reinforces the reality that the patronage model isn’t about a group of subscribers gaining access to locked-away content. Instead, it’s about a group of committed fans feeling happy to support an artist making the art they love. Are there perks sometimes? Sure! But it’s not about the perks. It’s about the level of connection that a patron-artist relationship can provide.

Let’s take a closer look at some examples.

One of my favorite artists using the patronage model is photographer and storyteller Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York, who has over 20,000 contributors to his Patreon. In return for their money, he gives them access to…basically nothing! There’s a blog sharing some behind-the-scenes material that may or may not be updated. It doesn’t matter. The patrons of Humans of New York are true fans, and true fans can completely change the dynamic for an artist. In Brandon’s example, it’s paying big time. The minimum amount one can donate to the Humans of New York Patreon is $1.50, and I would imagine the average amount is much higher. If everyone is ‘only’ contributing $1.50, that’s puts him at over $30,000 a month, but in all likelihood it’s much, much higher. If the average subscription is something like $8 (as Kevin Kelly suggests is possible), that’s over $160,000 in monthly subscriptions. It’s going to keep Humans of New York running for a long, long time.

Jacob Collier is using Patreon to help fund his music, and he has over 1,000 patrons subscribed at a minimum amount of $5 a month. $5,000 may not sound like an earth-shattering amount of money (and it may be much more, we can’t say for sure), but knowing that you as an artist have a consistent income directly coming from your audience can be massively rewarding, especially when other opportunities like touring dry up.

Jacob Collier gives his true fans access to ‘Logic breakdowns’ where he shows the behind-the-scenes process of making his songs and interactive events like a monthly livestream. Again, the ‘content’ doesn’t matter. His Logic breakdowns are also available on Youtube, and I guarantee that 1,000 people aren’t showing up to every livestream event he does. People are paying Jacob money directly because they love his work, Djesse, and they want to support his art.

One more example, and this is one of my favorite artists, Craig Mod. A writer and photographer, Craig Mod is known for his beautiful photos of rural Japan. Mod has created a ‘Special Projects’ membership program that has hundreds of committed members contributing at least $10 a month. Though he hasn’t revealed how much he’s making on a monthly basis, he’s stated that this patronage covers “costs of living, travel expenses, and equipment.” He’s getting paid directly to do what he loves.

The fact that patronage relationships aren’t about content should come as a major relief for many artists. It’s not an additional workflow that you have to add to your creative process! It’s not about adding something else to your plate. It’s about defining a new audience who you can open up a new area of your life to.

Every artist has creative work that feels too vulnerable to share with the world. But for artists, especially those who are making work that they know meaningfully impacts people’s lives, there’s a desire for deeper levels of connection and communion. Unfortunately, because of the way that social media works today it’s impossible to share vulnerable ideas without worrying about backlash. Though many of your most ardent fans are following along with the best of intentions, there are people who aren’t your fans who are also watching. This makes true vulnerability hard. What a patronage relationship does is provide you with a subset of your audience that you can immediately go deep with. You know they’re your supporters. You know they care! This is where you put your most intimate work.

Take some time and consider what you want to contribute to your audience. Memberships and subscriptions can work in a variety of ways, but in best practice they simply give patrons insight into what’s happening within the artist’s process. Where traditionally art is whatever is released as the end of a cycle, the patronage model provides numerous points throughout the cycle of a project to provide insight or access into what’s being done. That’s art worth sharing with true fans.

Provide your patrons with demos, live recordings, or writings-in-process. These would feel too vulnerable to share with a larger audience, but because you know that this group is committed to you and your process, this is the perfect place to share it.

Create a regular level of interaction, via email, videos, or livestreams. This does not need to be something that feels intense or draining. It could even be a single email that gets sent out in bulk to the entire group of patrons. But it doesn’t have to be!

Document the process of a project you’re working on or an event you’re a part of. This doesn’t have to be a behind-the-scenes film that requires tons of resources. It can just be little moments. Think ‘bigger than an Instagram Story’ and ‘smaller than a documentary’.

Finally, and this one I think all artists should consider: Use your patrons as a launching pad for projects you would not otherwise be able to do. This might be a physical good (like a book), an interactive experience (like a teaching intensive), or an in-person event (like a one-off show). These do not need to be free for patrons. They don’t even have to be discounted! Your patrons aren’t supporting you in order to get a ‘good deal’. They’re supporting you because they want to see you create more, and will often happily support you in another, secondary way.

When you decide on your contributions, feel free to keep them experimental. Please remember, these artistic contributions are not intended to be a permanent commitment, just like you don’t expect patrons to contribute for their lifetime. Don’t box yourself in or overcommit. No one is asking you to do either of those things.

Once you have the structure of your patronage relationship figured out, it’s time to create a pitch to share with the world.

Remember this isn’t about telling subscribers what they’ll ‘get’. No one cares! That comes later.

First, tell them why you want to explore a patronage model. Tell them how their contribution will allow you, the artist they love, to continue making more of the work that’s impacted them in the past. Tell them how it will free you from the confines that have slowed you down. Tell them about what excites you. If you had a boatload of money available to you right now and were told you could do the project of your dreams, what would you start doing? Use that energy and that mindset to write this appeal.

Then, once you’ve written this appeal, sure, tell them about what they ‘get’. If there were people who were on the fence, it will push them over.

Next, decide on if there is ‘branding’. Is this just an extension of your current persona? Or is this something that has its own name, its own identity?

Once you’ve uncovered these components, decide how much you want to charge. It can feel scary putting a price on a relationship! However, don’t sell yourself short. If you think back to the examples I used previously of people who are already using the patronage model, you might notice some variance. Craig Mod encourages artists not to add any tiers below $10. Yet others have, like Jacob Collier, who only offers a single $5 tier. Now, ask yourself: Why is Jacob Collier’s work worth only $5 when Craig Mod is charging $10? That’s when you remember, money is arbitrary! There’s no reason at all that ‘$5’ or ‘$10’ is correct. But a good word of advice from Craig Mod: It’s always possible to go lower, but it’s challenging to go higher. Whatever your gut is telling you, well, take that number and kick it up a few bucks.

Consider adding multiple tiers, but making it clear that the different tiers do not provide different levels of ‘rewards’ or access. Everyone gets the same things, don’t overcomplicate things — but, is there a few tiers to encourage people to give more? Is their a ‘lifetime’ tier that’s a single lump sum payment? Once again using Craig Mod as an example, he offers a $1,500 lifetime tier and immediately regretted charging so ‘little’ — but he realized that the benefit of this tier was seeing people commit to him so wholeheartedly. Having that type of encouragement from an audience helps you commit to moving forward.

Once you’ve figured out the details, decide where the patronage is going to live online.

As of today, there are really only two options: Create a Patreon, or use ‘Memberful’ to host a subscription on your own website. Both have their pros and cons. Patreon is more ‘sticky’ in the minds of people, who at this point have almost certainly come across the concept. You don’t have to do much explaining. People understand who you are and they understand what Patreon is. They will realize that you have a Patreon. It’s simple. That being said, Patreon is a fairly limited platform and it lacks customization.

For those that want more options (or merely more control), creating your own page on your website and using Memberful to run the backend is certainly an option. This will require more work (and someone who knows what they’re doing with computers) but it isn’t nominally that much harder than setting up an independent website in the first place. While it may ‘feel’ better to you as an artist to have it on your personal site, ask yourself if it will feel better for your audience. Instead of having the trusted platform of Patreon, you’re asking them to come to your own site. Is that better or worse? It’s up to you to decide.

Now, launch it. This patronage will never work if you don’t promote it, so it’s time to use any social platforms you have to promote this new method of artistic funding. This can definitely feel scary, and you may indeed get some backlash. The reality is, you get backlash over everything you do as an artist. This is no different. Don’t be self-deprecating. Lean into the COVID-insanity and explain that you’re experimenting with new models to make art in a sustainable manner, and you’re asking people to join you.

PART SIX // Using Your Patronage to Make Art >>>