Artists just can’t seem to win these days. If a streaming service like Spotify isn’t pulling most of the profit from the songs, then chances are iTunes is doing the same exact thing, or maybe it’s Tidal, Apple Music, whatever. Or perhaps the artist is releasing music on Bandcamp where a total of 10 people, if you’re lucky, will listen to the album, but that’s better than a record label treating the artist like a puppet to suit their needs, right? Don’t forget the good old illegal downloads as well– kids are still more willing to convert a Youtube video into an awful quality mp3 file before paying a buck to support an artist. There’s a reason behind the “starving artist” stereotype, and that’s due to the limited methods for distributing creative content not at the expense of the artist (I’m talking about you, bloodthirsty music execs).
That is, until artists discovered the power of crowdfunding. Platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon have drastically changed the way artists connect with their fans, creating a synergy with fan bases that was missing via traditional listening channels.
Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, a dark cabaret/alt-rock duo, achieved a degree of mainstream success in the early 2000s, and actually opened for Nine Inch Nails in 2005. But after being signed by Warner’s Roadrunner Records, Amanda quickly wanted to free herself from the reigns of the major label. She stated, “I, like many artists, fundamentally detest being told what to do by others… that’s why most of us became musicians to begin with.” After a fall-out and digital wilderness, Amanda Palmer began a Kickstarter for her own album a decade later and was able to crowdfund a whopping $1.2 million dollars.
Amanda’s story is pretty extraordinary and by no means the norm for most artists, but it alludes to the power of connecting with an online fanbase. The role of social media in this process is also important to highlight, since for crowdfunding to be effective you need the audience to be engaged online. And what better way to do that than to spread the message via Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, etc?
In case you haven’t heard of Patreon, its basis is similar to Kickstarter but fans pledge their support per piece of work or per month instead of funding a big project like an album. As a result, creators are able to get paid regularly and hopefully be full-time artists. As of January 2016, more than 17,000 artists, ranging from musicians to photographers to webcomic creators, joined Patreon. And although Patreon takes a 5% commission of pledges to support its function, the platform clearly respects artists and seeks to empower them. One of my favorite creators, 8-bitfiction, takes screenshots from old NES games, runs them through Microsoft Paint, and then adds “sappy, somber, sordid, stirring and sometimes silly text.”
Not every artists seeks to be the next Andy Warhol or Adele, and that’s perfectly alright. Utilizing platforms like Patreon will allow artists do what they love in a capacity that they’re comfortable with, and in many instances it allows ideas to be brought to fruition that would have been stifled otherwise by real life commitments.
Jack Conte, the creator of Patreon, actually got his start as a Youtube sensation in 2008 playing a variety of instruments and creating “videosongs.” As Conte sought to release an album, he realized there was no winning in attempting to monetize on his creative talents. That’s how Patreon was born. Conte said,
“There are now tens of thousands of content creators on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of subscribers each, some of them with millions each. Why aren’t these people making a living doing that?”
Sure, popular Youtubers could get quite a bit of income by accepting money from advertisements, but that seems sort of inauthentic in today’s day and age. Connecting with fans directly is a much better approach, in my opinion.
In the words of Amanda Palmer,
“There’s this mass of middle class musicians out there using Kickstarter, using Patreon, doing small tours, not hiring publicists, never getting any ink in any paper, but gathering their community around them enough to maintain a sustainable existence.”
I don’t believe Patreon is the silver bullet for the music industry, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. I think there’s a ceiling in terms of how popular any project can get on Kickstarter or Patreon before the artist needs a team of people to support its growth, and that’s where artist to manager/publicist/booking agent relationships get tricky and you see the exploitation start to occur. But if one thing is for sure, artists need to be paid a livable wage that values creativity on par with any other professional skill-set.