Musicians Kevin Moore (Chroma Key, OSI), Joe Reilly (JOLLY), Julien Gaullier (Spleen Arcana), and Yossi Sassi (Orphaned Land) comment on a new way of connecting with fans and distributing music.
Music distribution seems to be in utter chaos at the moment.
It all used to be so simple. Find a record label, get signed, and let them all take care of it.
Until it wasn’t that simple anymore. Opportunities have increased: over the past couple of decades the price (in money as well as blood, sweat, and tears) of creating physical music recordings, and then digital recordings, has gone considerably down, resulting in every local musician being able to pass out pressed CDs after coffee shop Open Mic Nights and out of the back of their trucks at NAMM shows.
Unfortunately, the music business has changed as well. In 2016, musical stars in the 1st Tier like Adele and Taylor Swift manage to make millions, but many would be surprised at how successful you need to be to land Tier 1, and how difficult it can be even for those in Tier 2 (let alone 3 and 4). It’s tough to be in the 99%.
Consider the early 2015 revelation that Devin Townsend’s brother, a sheet metal fabrication worker, gets a heftier salary than he does.
With a fractured, increasingly niche-driven market online, I’ve been predicting the return of the Village Musician – a musician who hones his/her craft for a small group of devoted fans who have direct access to him/her. That’s where music really started in pre-modern times. Is that where it’s going? Enter Patreon.
I didn’t pay this site much attention until I noticed one of my favorite artists, Kevin Moore, using Patreon to launch Chroma Key after a decade-or-so absence (he has of course been releasing music in OSI in the meantime). Unable to contain my enthusiasm, I chose to pledge the full amount to show my still-raging love for Chroma Key. I’m not sure I have the money in the budget. I guess we’ll see.
Briefly, Patreon is a way for fans to pledge actual money to musicians as they release their work. Instead of releasing full albums all at once, musicians record music along the way and money-pledging fans get an intimate look at the process, more direct access to the musicians, and other various perks (such as bonus downloads). Patreon is not limited to musicians; it’s geared toward “content creators” of all kinds (e.g., podcasters, YouTubers, comic strip artists).
While non-prog musicians like Walk Off the Earth and Pentatonix have built the most impressive numbers of pledgers, there are a few progressive-influenced artists that have used the site, to varying degrees of success. I reached out to a few of them to discuss Patreon and where the music industry is going. The following quotes are from private correspondence with these artists.
“My Patreon page is fairly new, and doesn’t play a large role at the moment,” said Yossi Sassi, former guitarist of Orphaned Land who is using Patreon as he continues on a solo career. “Still, I take feedback from my top patrons, and give them an early glimpse on future materials, which I never had before, except for very few and related people.” While Sassi admits that he isn’t quite sure whether Patreon itself is a sustainable model, he is convinced that direct contact with fans will be essential in the future: “Not sure about the sustainability of the platform. I am convinced that artist-fan relationships should be more interdependent. Followers realize today more than ever before, that their favorite artists can not pursue high level results without their support. I think we’ll see new models, new platforms, soon.”
These sentiments were echoed by Joe Reilly, the keyboardist of New York City’s JOLLY. “It’s incredibly important to me that this way of doing things connects us with our fans on a personal level. Honestly, it’s always felt this way in general, from the days of messaging with fans on MySpace, to staying at our fans’ apartments and houses on tour. The other stuff, the record label, booking agents, publishing contracts, always just felt like distracting noise.” JOLLY has recently made a hard push to make at least minimum wage doing their music by using Patreon, and by their estimates this would mean $6066/song. Currently, JOLLY has 417 patrons who have pledged a little over $2000 a song.
“We all work other jobs to make enough income,” Reilly told me.
I wondered whether Patreon changes the relationship of the fans to the songs, or the artists to the songwriting process. To this question, I got mixed responses.
Joe Reilly told me, “I don’t see the Patreon model affecting how we write music too much, especially given that the songs we have prepared to release (Family I + II) are generally written. However, I think there’s more pressure when every song has its own “release,” and that they’re not all bunched together on an album. The stakes on each song are higher. Also, now we’ll hear what fans have to say about each song as it’s recorded and released, so we have more flexibility if we want to change direction with certain songs as we go along.”
French prog musician Julien Gaullier (Spleen Arcana) seemed to express a different view. For him, releasing songs one at a time is less appealing because it changes the impact of the full album: “It’s hard to know what listeners want – why they become your patron. I didn’t want to release new music because it means that when I release my album officially, Patreon fans would already knew the music which is a bit disappointing I suppose.”
Overall, Gaullier expressed having less luck with Patreon. “I signed up to the site very early because I am a fan of Patreon’s creator and musician Jack Conte, and when he talked about it, I instantly joined Patreon because the idea is great…I don’t use it anymore to be honest. I released one song and the music I got from this release helped me to promote my second album but I’m not sure it’s the right platform for me. Most of the artists of Patreon are very good at doing YouTube videos, you know, they talk about their projects, their music, what they do, and people love videos. I’ve never done any videos of that kind.” Gaullier also said that coming up with pledge rewards is more difficult for a musician: “I also think that you have to offer great rewards on Patreon (and other platforms of the same kind), and I’m not good at this [either]. You know, I just have my music to offer and I don’t have the budget to offer great merchandising or whatever.”
And what about the musician that inspired this post to begin with, Kevin Moore? “Definitely feels too early to come to any conclusions about the Patreon approach and how it will influence my music. I know Spotify isn’t the answer 🙂 ,” Kevin told me.
He did send me a link to an interesting article that hypothesizes that a musician may need 1000 true, core fans to make a living making music. On this theory, the “long tail” of half-fans or people vaguely aware of a musician aren’t going to really generate the revenue necessary to keep a musician going.
It seems like an idealistic concept, and right now Kevin has just over 300 patrons. Will Patreon be the new home for digital village musicians around the world? I guess we’ll watch what happens.
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