In the past 14 years, music industry revenues plummeted from $14.3 billion to $7 billion. People listen to more music than ever, but they do it on platforms like Spotify and Pandora, which pay artists fractions of pennies per play. Things aren’t much better on YouTube, where ad revenues for creators continues to drop. With little monetary incentive, some worry that musicians will simply stop creating altogether. Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne went so far to say, “The Internet will suck all creative content out of the world.”
Is the state of affairs for musicians really so dire?
Not according to Pomplamoose singer Jack Conte. Last year with $2.1 million in funding, he launched Patreon, a platform where musicians, writers, cartoonists and other creators can solicit donations for their work. What makes Patreon a little different than Kickstarter and Indiegogo is that users subscribe to creators, paying them monthly for as long as they wish. Creators can offer small rewards for donations, but the focus is less on rewards and more on supporting artists for its own sake.
I understand if your heart doesn’t jump at the idea of yet another crowdfunding platform that also happens to be yet another startup trying to save the music industry. These things are everywhere. What should excite you, however, is that after nine months Patreon actually works.
The average donation across the site is $8 per month, Conte tells Pando. “I thought people would be willing to give a $1 or maybe $2 for each,” Conte said. One indie game critic makes $2,500 an article. There’s a web comic artist who makes nearly $8000 a month. For Patreon’s part, Conte says it sees nearly 2 million pageviews a month.
Of course with 30,000 patrons funding 10,000 creators, that’s only $24 a month per creator. Like in any industry where creativity is currency, not everyone’s a winner. It’s telling, however, that performers like Peter Hollens, Scott Bradlee, and Conte himself say they make ten to twenty times more from Patreon donors than they do from YouTube. These artists’ followings are significant but not massive, proving that the “pay-what-you-want” model has potential beyond mega-acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails.
“People actually want to help, and they value the creative works of these creators more than advertisers.”
This idea drives Patreon’s entire philosophy. Advertisers will never pay artists a fair amount for their music. Neither will tech companies like Spotify or Pandora. Conte thinks fans might, however. The music industry today reminds him of the 18th and 19th centuries before artists made money off physical products (sheet music, notwithstanding).
“Physical product of music has only been around for 80 years,” Conte says. “Beethoven’s 5th was created because some patrons gave him money,” Conte said. As a reward, two of the prominent patrons got their name printed in the program. “It was the first Kickstarter project,” Conte jokes.
Today, Patreon launched new artist pages that prominently display the amount of money a creator has made. To Conte, this is a far more important metric than “views.”
“‘Views,’ we believe, is an arbitrary metric,” Conte says. “If a million views won’t pay my PG&E bill, why do I care? ‘Views’ has turned out to be a meaningless gamification tactic that leaves creators in a race with no finish line.” In a way, he’s right. Depending on the ad inventory available, YouTube may only monetize hundreds of views on a video that’s been watched thousands of times.
Despite Conte’s distaste for how little Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube pay creators, he’s not about to remove his songs like Thom Yorke or write searing blog posts like Cracker’s David Lowery. Instead, he takes a more pragmatic approach.
“My fans ask me to put my stuff on Spotify,” he said. “They listen by platform, not by artist, and if you’re not on their platform then they won’t listen to you.”
Not all musicians are comfortable with being so beholden to tech platforms for their success. But there’s nothing wrong with relying on Spotify or Pandora for audience-building. It’s downright essential. Relying on them for money, however, is a losing battle.
There’s no one answer to artists’ monetization woes. If patronage works, it will still need to be part of a diverse scheme that includes ad revenue, licensing to films and television shows, concerts, and even those tiny Spotify royalties. Because in 2014, musicians need every dime they can get.