How Patreon is helping electronic music survive during the pandemic
Cherie Hu looks at how the paid membership platform Patreon is helping electronic artists and clubs sustain themselves, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the live events industry, and electronic music is far from unscathed. According to the latest IMS Business Report, electronic-focused festivals and clubs were under threat of losing as much as 75% of their income, or around $3.3 billion (£2.5 billion), by the end of 2020.
In the wake of this catastrophe, artists have been scrambling to find digital revenue streams that feel just as intimate — and whose revenue impact is just as direct — as in-person shows. To put it bluntly, the dominant platforms for music discovery and social media have fallen short for the majority of working artists today.
Trying to go big on audio and video platforms like Spotify, YouTube and TikTok can sometimes feel like playing the lottery, and leads to fractions of pennies in payouts per stream (if there is any payout at all) that are often delivered several months later. Meanwhile, mass-market social platforms like Facebook and Instagram make it virtually impossible for an artist or brand to reach the totality of their follower base without paying for advertising.
Amidst these shortcomings, paid memberships — the decades-old model in which fans contribute a regular fee directly to their favourite creator or brand in exchange for exclusive content and experiences — are back in vogue in the music industry. While membership is not necessarily the answer for every artist’s problems, it is one powerful approach to shaping a music career around the four-fold combination of financial stability, price flexibility, creative freedom and direct-to-fan communication — all of which are more desirable than ever, especially in a near 100% remote world.
Perhaps the best-known poster-child for the rise of paid memberships is Patreon, which was co-founded in 2013 by the independent musician Jack Conte (of Pomplamoose and Scary Pockets) in response to his own disillusionment with advertising on YouTube and social media.
In the seven years since, Patreon has facilitated total membership transactions of over $1 billion (£766 million) between more than 200,000 creators and their 6 million fans. And while many other kinds of business have suffered financially during the pandemic, Patreon has actually thrived: out of the 200,000 or so creators currently on the platform, nearly half launched their respective pages in the last six months.
The music category has grown by 200% over the past half-year (by the number of creator pages), making music one of the top two categories on Patreon for the first time in the company’s history. In September 2020, the company raised $90 million (£69 million) in venture-capital funding at a $1.2 billion (£900 million) valuation. Ronny Krieger, General Manager for Patreon Europe and former artist management consultant for Modeselektor, tells DJ Mag that there are now “thousands” of electronic artists and music organisations active on the platform. Key examples include artists, producers and DJs like M.I.A, RAC, Anamanaguchi, Zola Jesus, Noisia, KOAN Sound, Kid Koala and Kyle Watson, along with label and event brands like London’s Rhythm Section International, New York’s Nowadays, and San Francisco’s DNA Lounge.
“The fact that a lot of us are relying on these individual people to support the arts when the government won’t do it shows the power of community and how important that is”— Zola Jesus
“Having Patreon is my lifeline,” Nika Danilova, who makes music as Zola Jesus and has run her own Patreon page since July 2018, tells us over the phone from her home state, Wisconsin, USA. Danilova was three days away from leaving on a long trip to Los Angeles, New York and Berlin to record her new album, when federal and state governments imposed lockdown and travel restrictions around the pandemic. Danilova has around 700 patrons paying anywhere from $1 to $100 a month (80p to £80) in exchange for access to a wide range of benefits, including but not limited to exclusive merchandise and DJ mixes, periodic live chats and access to a private Discord server.
“I was concerned about how my patrons were doing [around the pandemic] — if I’m struggling, they’re certainly struggling — but I’m so grateful to see how many of them have stuck around after seeing what the pandemic had done to the music industry,” says Danilova. “The fact that a lot of us are relying on these individual people to support the arts when the government won’t do it shows the power of community and how important that is.”
For venues like Nowadays, making a paid membership available to concertgoers through Patreon is even more explicitly about short-term survival in the absence of government intervention. While Nowadays reopened its outdoor bar and restaurant service in July last year in accordance with New York City guidelines, the resulting revenue was far from enough to keep the venue afloat in the long term, and in January this year, it shut once again for the winter. “We haven’t paid rent to our landlord since March,” Eamon Harkin, co-founder of Nowadays and Mister Saturday Night, tells us over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, New York.
Nowadays launched its official Patreon page in March 2020 not just for serving its superfans, but also for ensuring its continued existence in the first place — “to give us a chance at fully re-opening on the other side of the pandemic,” as the venue writes in its main membership description. The page now has over 1,500 members paying $5 to $500 a month (£4 to £400) in exchange for exclusive merchandise, unlimited access to the Virtually Nowadays livestream archive, discounted or complimentary access to the first month of post-COVID in-person parties, and other benefits. The vast majority of supporters are local to New York, and the revenue covers about 40% of the venue’s monthly costs for the time being.
“That definitely exceeded my expectations, and now we’re at the point where we want to keep growing our Patreon page and make it part of our operation beyond the pandemic,” says Harkin. From the perspective of a local venue like Nowadays, a paid membership model offers both the luxury of a steady income and the built-in community that can support more creative risks in programming. “Many places in the NYC club world put too much of an emphasis on booking marquee names just so they can sell tickets, whereas we want to focus more on fostering local talent,” continues Harkin. He also plans to use the growth of the Nowadays membership to invest more money in high-quality digital media for its own sake — paralleling many other venues who are experimenting with hybrid online/offline models for their future events. “Clubs like Nowadays have historically created media only as a branding or marketing exercise to sell merch and get people through the door. Until now, it has almost never in itself been its own pillar in the operation.”
One important distinction between many musicians’ membership experiences and, say, a vinyl club like VNYL or Vinyl Me, Please, lies in the kind of product that’s delivered. In a vinyl club, the brand delivers a select number of finished creative projects to fans in the form of records for consumption; the core of the consumption experience is the end product of the music itself.
In contrast, with an artist membership on Patreon, it’s possible and quite common that the main benefits for members have nothing to do with the actual end product of the music, and more to do with going behind the scenes in the artist’s creative process, or peeling back the layers on the artist’s personality and perspective on creativity.
“What Patreon or membership in general allows you to do as an artist is take all the time in the world you need to create something, and monetise that process of creating,” says Krieger. “It can be so open-ended to the point where you don’t even need an end product... we’ve never really had that [possibility] in music before.” In this vein, the fan is paying for ongoing access to the artist’s mind as much as they might be paying for any tangible outcome.
One example of an artist who has leveraged this paradigm of process-as-product on Patreon is André Anjos, who makes music as RAC. Anjos had announced his tour on 11th March, the same day the NBA decided to suspend its season; he made the first post on his Patreon page just 10 days later. Today, Anjos has around 200 patrons who pay between $3 and $100 a month (£2 to £80) in exchange for access to dozens of exclusive remixes, demos and B-sides, as well as patron-exclusive livestreams and vinyl records.
“I love having an outlet for this kind of music that’s never going to get officially released,” RAC, who was already looking to decrease his reliance on touring for income, tells DJ Mag. “For official releases, I like to keep the quality up to the highest standard, but there is an audience for this stuff that isn’t perfectly manicured or curated. Fans like to hear the process and the human side of it. I love hearing their feedback and it’s fun for me too.”
Importantly, Patreon wasn’t always this buzzy among the electronic music community. When the company opened its Berlin office in February 2020, “membership and direct-to-fan monetisation was not part of the strategies for most electronic artists,” Krieger tells us. “We were at ADE [Amsterdam Dance Event] last year, and almost no one knew about Patreon or membership. Even though musicians likely have some kind of subscription themselves to a service like Spotify or Netflix, they never considered a similar model for their own work.”
The reasons for this historical gap in adoption of Patreon and other membership models might be equal parts technological and cultural. For one, there’s the element of artists’ egos getting in the way of asking for direct fan support, as well as the discomfort that many artists have with interacting with fans often and openly enough to make a monthly membership feel worthwhile.
“Having a Patreon page has forced me as an artist to be more vulnerable and honest about the situation that I’m in, that we’re all in,” says Danilova. “I can no longer hide behind my art like I did in the past. It does take a bit of humility to engage one-on-one with fans in a more personal way. I find that to be something that makes Patreon more rewarding for me personally, but not everyone can handle that level of interaction with people who support what they do.”
In the age of over-abundant music streaming options, there’s also the potential stigma that comes with hiding tracks behind a paywall (remember when streaming exclusives were a thing?). In August, electronic artist Medasin learned about this stigma the hard way when he announced on Twitter that he would release all of his future music exclusively on Patreon moving forward, a special reward for his “real fans”. The original tweet, which has since been deleted, was immediately polarising, eliciting both voices of support and encouragement from fans and pushback on Twitter and Reddit from critics.
“My intention [with Patreon]... was to try to change the way music is perceived when it’s released,” Medasin tells us on the phone from his home in Dallas, Texas. “Good music is a very inflated currency right now, and you can see this most easily in the producer community. It’s exponentially easier to make a hot beat on a laptop in 2020 than it was in 2015. The experience of listening to music today is also cheaper.
“A conversation then needs to be had — OK, if you’re complaining about a service like Spotify not paying enough, then how much do you think good music is really worth right now? But when I saw the pushback, I realised that as long as things like Spotify still exist, offering this mass well of incredible music for not that much money, it’s going to be really hard to pull [that model] off.”
For now, Medasin is exploring other options, like Bandcamp, that can help maintain a sense of exclusivity around a record without necessarily being as alienating to fans or sacrificing exposure. That said, a sense of exclusivity and closed intimacy can still be a plus in the context of memberships that prioritise a specific community experience for fans, defined by a set of shared geographies, interests, values and/or ideals. This is especially the case for independent venues like Nowadays and local artists who came up in specific music scenes — and almost feels contrary to the streaming-fuelled industry hamster wheel that views speed and scale alone as the ultimate markers of success for the contemporary artist.
“Not to get all philosophical, but it does get to the question of: Why do you create art?” asks RAC. “Is it to reach millions of people? Maybe, but I’m tired of the rat race of fighting over pennies on Spotify, and those might just be casual listens on a Spotify playlist. I now have an outlet of people who like my music and what I do, and who are essentially paying customers. I can work for them, and even if it’s a smaller group, that’s way more interesting and maybe more meaningful.”