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A Different Kind of Freedom? Artists on Patreon's Role in Music

Monday, 22 March 2021 Written by Sam Sleight

Photo: Employed to Serve

It couldn’t be a tougher time to be an artist. Though a return to something approaching normality is apparently in sight, the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic are inevitably going to echo through economic and social structures for years to come. The arts and entertainment industries will be hit hard.

Further venue closures are on potentially the horizon, taking with them fertile ground for future scenes. And, per a recent inquiry by the UK government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS], streaming now accounts for more than half of the global music industry’s revenue, with concerns over the amount of money making its way to artists biting down hard. As such, musicians from all walks of life are left with very few options to keep their creative endeavours afloat.

If Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan and Shakira (and Neil Young, and Blondie, you get the picture) are in a position where selling their song rights is more viable than relying on future streaming revenue, what chance do artists without global adoration on their side have?

There are options for musicians to support themselves outside of touring, but they are few and far between. One antidote might be the tiered membership service Patreon. Established in 2013, the platform serves as a middleman of sorts to allow fans to fund their favourite creatives in a significant way and see tangible rewards in the form of exclusive content, behind-the-scenes looks and interactive communities. 

Alongside its YouTubers and podcasters, musicians and bands have also been testing the waters for some time, with everyone from rap legend Talib Kweli to UK metallers While She Sleeps on board. The only limit on what is on offer is the respective artist’s imagination and how much they are willing to share.

It’s a simple idea that has caught on to the extent that CEO Jack Conte announced a valuation of $1.2 billion for Patreon in September 2020. We spoke to several artists about their experiences moving to the platform, whether it can help to shore up the music industry, and whether they see any longevity in the model.

Justine Jones and Sammy Urwin // Employed to Serve

The beloved Woking collective Employed to Serve are among the most exciting metal bands in the UK, standing as a cornerstone of an exciting scene. With three acclaimed LPs under their belt (their second record ‘The Warmth of a Dying Sun’ was Kerrang!’s album of 2017) and a growing fanbase, they turned to Patreon at the tail end of 2020. Vocalist Justine Jones and guitarist Sammy Urwin described the move to the platform as a necessity due to “the change in music consumption.”

Jones: “The coronavirus has changed the musical landscape massively, as well as environment being a factor. There’s only so many band t-shirts and merch items you can buy and there’s only x amount of vinyl colours. Once you’ve spent all that money and then can’t go and pay to support [a band] at a show there’s a huge gap in income. [Patreon] is something we wanted to try, though we weren’t always comfortable with it. You ask a lot from fans anyway, but I think now that there is no way of touring it is needed as a leg up.”

Urwin: “We were getting frustrated with the creation of assets like guitar playthroughs and behind the scenes looks being wasted on Instagram. They’re up for two seconds and thanks to the algorithms not that many people see them, so we thought ‘where can we put all this stuff for the die-hard fans of the band?’ We thought that Patreon was so good for the people who are hugely invested in us, and social media can be left to the promotional side of album cycles.” 

Jones: “Social media is so far reaching that you don’t feel you can have a personal connection with your audience. [Patreon is] more like a club, and sometimes people can’t afford things like shirts due to postage costs, so a fiver is more manageable.”

Shawna Potter // War on Women and But Her Lyrics… Podcast

This community element is integral to so many artists and their livelihoods. Shawna Potter, vocalist with Baltimore hardcore band War on Women, has a dedicated Patreon for the But Her Lyrics… podcast, in which she speaks with her bandmates, plus activists and scholars, about the deeper meaning behind the songs on the band’s latest album, ‘Wonderful Hell’. 

Potter: “It’s helped me provide some insight to people that…give a shit. I think the cool thing about Patreon is that the listener can hear the show, comment on the post with any other questions they might have and there is a connection. We can keep the conversation going. I really try to keep the audience in mind when answering these questions and almost pre-empt, ‘What would they be asking if we were at shows?’”

Nicholas Sadler // Daughters

For Nicholas Sadler of Rhode Island’s leading noise-meets-no-wave punk band Daughters, the world was turned upside down before Covid. The release of the band’s fourth album, ‘You Won’t Get What You Want’ saw them shunted into another echelon of artistic success. Moving to Patreon in August of 2020 was yet another shift in their career and finding the balance between expectation and satisfaction is at the heart of our discussion.

Sadler: “It seems pretty antithetical to my view of what we’re doing. Just as a group it’s very much a new territory for us. [Patreon’s] something I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of on my own, but it’s come to light because of the attention we suddenly have. I still view us as a group that’s meant to be hiding under a rock.

“[The aim is] to make it as transparent and human as possible, but I don’t like to show people how to play our music. [It belongs] to the band and the other members. I don’t want to reveal the magic trick because then people will lose interest, folding these tricks into their own bands. Daughters is not the thing I thought anyone would ever be looking at, so now I feel a little…well, writing this new record feels an awful lot like someone’s looking over my shoulder at all times now. I’ve never had that with music and I’ve never wanted to share the techniques behind my music. I’ve been reluctant to even talk about guitar pedals.” 

Mike Schleibaum // Darkest Hour

Mike Schleibaum of melodic death metal stalwarts Darkest Hour has eight albums and almost three decades of active musicianship under his belt. Having seen the industry and the metal scene in their halcyon days of profitability in the 1990s, he believes that there is a balance to be struck between old structures and new ventures. But, despite him and his motley crew joining the platform at the beginning of 2020, he is less than optimistic about Patreon’s longevity.

Schleibaum: “[Patreon is] a different kind of freedom. It’s access. Before, we had creative freedom, but we had to partner with labels for funding for distribution and what have you, and I’m not saying we’re never going to release through a label, but now the Patreon gives us the opportunity to do something unique. This is not easy. You have to be the perfect storm of committed and organised along with having the right basic ingredients: content, an established fanbase who are open to new things etc. And you have to be the right sort of person [to handle it].” 

Schleibaum is adamant as he rounds out the interview: “[Patreon] is not going to replace anything. As a person that has been in a band for 26 years, I can tell you nothing is permanent. The only thing you can rely on is change. This should be the title of the article: Patreon will end.”

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