by Melody Walker
It was May of 2014 when I first heard about a new crowdfunding platform called Patreon. It took some research to wrap my head around exactly how it worked (this video helps) but after talking with a friend who had successfully launched her own Patreon page I decided this would be a great way to test out new songs and connect with my closest fans (all while adding a bit of cushion to my tenuous monthly finances). I resolved that if I was going to do this, I would need to stick with it for at least a whole year. I'm now 15 months in, and I wanted to share a few things I learned in my first year as a Patreon "creator"…
1. Education of potential subscribers is the first (and ongoing) challenge.
Most of the world is only just now (5 years in) starting to understand and trust Kickstarter and basic crowdfunding platforms. Patreon is 2 years old and is a new concept for a lot of people. Any time you are asking folks for money on the internets, you'll need to do a damn good job explaining how it's safe and awesome for them to do so. Patreon is a little confusing with it's "per-creation" or "per-month" subscriber styles and I found that people trusted the monthly subscription idea more than per-creation (perhaps fearing I might be short on rent and publish ten new songs in one month). I'm still not convinced that many of my fans know what the heck it is, but it's on me to keep informing them without coming across like a door-to-door salesman.
2. Only a (very) small subset of your fans will be even remotely interested.
When I think about how I interact with bands I like, I can see clearly that I have wildly different commitment levels to each group. Some artists I will drop everything to go see every time they come through town, some I actually follow and interact with on social media, and some of them, well, maybe I just kind of like that one song. Patreon is not for your looky-loo type fans. A lot of fans prefer only polished material. They like studio albums but not live ones, they like music videos but couldn't care less about your video tour diary. These types of fans will likely be uninterested in the idea of hearing totally raw, unfiltered new music you just dorkily sang into your webcam. And that's okay. Just don't expect everyone to fall all over themselves to sign up - only your handful of most devoted fans will want in.
3. Even then… only some of your Patrons will actually check out the creations!
This one really surprised me. If my stats are correct, only about 1/4 of my patrons actually watch a video of a new song. I'd be offended if I didn't realize that I end up doing the exact same thing with a friend of mine that I subscribe to on Patreon. I probably watch one in four of her videos, and I'll do it in spurts, almost never right when she releases a new video. (She has since corroborated that her total stats are about the same for her patron pool.) Maybe it's a little depressing, but it's also a reminder that it's the process here that counts. I've been doing Patreon for over a year and now I have over an album's worth of finished new songs to show for it. Plus people paid me to do it, because they believe in me and my songs. Turns out they don't even need to hear the songs to get a kick out of supporting what I'm doing, and hey, I guess I'm cool with that.
4. It's incredibly intimate.
I knew I wanted to challenge myself to stop being so precious about new songs and just share them as soon as I write them, but what I forgot is how raw a new song can be when it is fresh. None of those things are there yet that can carry a slightly mediocre song - great phrasing, dynamics, interesting instrumental backup, production, etc - so all that's left is the skeleton of a brand new song that doesn't quite know how it fits in the world just yet… coming through a musician that isn't quite sure yet how to play or sing it to it's full potential. Maybe it's sort of endearing to fans, but it's scary as hell for me. I usually try to lean into the things that scare me, so it has been a valuable exercise, I just wouldn't recommend it for the faint of heart.
5. It's hard to deliver on deadline.
I have my Patreon page set as a monthly subscription with the promise that I will finish and post at least one new song (either as a video or a multi-track recording) per month. I always do, but I've been a little late about half the months so far. Being a touring musician it is tough to get a few moments alone to start, finish, and learn to present a new song, and then get a good take of it on video and upload it to the internets. I like that having a Patreon is exactly the kind of accountability I need to finish things, but it's still a race to the deadline every time. Still, thank goodness for that deadline (even as it flies right by) since I might never say a song is done if it didn't exist. What's that saying? You never finish a song, you just decide to stop working on it?
6. It's like having a part-time job.
There are Patreon creators easily making their entire rent each month by making new art. I'm not one of them (I bring home about $180 a month after Patreon's cut). More importantly, though, my goal in starting this whole Patreon thing was to get me writing and finishing songs like it's my job, and it is totally working. One song a month may not sound like much, but that's the fruit of me starting several new songs, working on ongoing ideas, and trying to find just one each month that is ready to be finished. It has absolutely increased my productivity overall and I feel a sense of personal obligation to this intimate group of fans that lights a cozy little fire under my ass.
7. It's kind of liberating.
Having a small, exclusive outlet for my songwriting is sort of freeing because it creates this safe, middle zone in which to share my new work publicly - but not officially and not to everyone. I can try things that are all over the map, writing electropop, world-fusion or pop country songs without risking looking like a schizophrenic mess to the whole wide world. I can also experiment with learning new audio and video production skills in a low-pressure setting. The reality of making these videos and tracks every single month, regardless of where I am on the road, or whether i got to take a shower or put on makeup, or whether i got to warm up my voice, gives most of the videos an "#iwokeuplikethis" realness that ultimately, bit by bit, nurtures my self-acceptance.
So, in conclusion, I'll say this. Patreon can be a lot of things for artists: a paycheck, a time clock, a focus group, an attentive fan club, an accountability system, a self-esteem engine, a think tank, a tribe and even a primary outlet for your art - but none of those are a sure thing - and setting up a fancy newfangled crowdfunding profile doesn't entitle you to a damn thing. The only guarantee is that making art is its own reward. At its heart, Patreon is a simply a tool that facilitates this practice. I'm sticking with it. :)