With album sales nowhere near what they used to be (unless your name is Taylor Swift, who probably doesn't frequent indie artist advice columns), and streaming not yet a truly viable source of income for musicians, a lot of artists are looking for new ways to distribute their work that will both reach their fans and result in some remuneration.
Three such methods that are gaining in popularity are the new fan-funding site Patreon, the concept of artist-run subscriptions, and going old school with special cassette releases. What all three of these methods of distribution have in common is that they give fans something exclusive, and they create a unique connection between the artist and the fan. Here's what else you need to know about distro's newest stars.
Patreon was created by Jack Conte, who is one half of the musical duo Pomplamoose, when he noticed his YouTube views weren't doing as much for his bottom line as he'd hoped. Rather than a one-time campaign, Patreon is a platform where fans contribute a set amount per project. For example, a fan can decide to pledge $1 per song for an artist, and that artist will get $1 every time he or she creates a song.
According to Patreon's Head of Marketing and Special Projects, Erica Costello, this cuts out quite a few, oftentimes unnecessary, people. "Literal middlemen have come between artists and their supporters for way too long," she explains. "Artists and supporters belong together!"
A few big names have been using Patreon, including the queen of crowdfunding Amanda Palmer and Ryan Leslie. That said, Costello notes artists of that notoriety aren’t necessarily who Patreon is focused on. "We're super stoked to host Amanda Palmer and Ryan [Leslie]," she says, "but we take pride in serving the creative middle class. Patreon is the primary source of income for so many singer-songwriters who were struggling to pay rent and eat food, even though millions of people watched and loved their creations on ad-based platforms like YouTube."
Patreon, at its essence, is a modern day, more advanced version of a fan club. Pentatonix, the a cappella supergroup known for their tight relationship with their fans, uses the service, and according to the group's Scott Hoying, "A fan club is a perfect title for it. There's more of a sense of a community, though, because it's all digital."
Ari Herstand, who's a musician but uses Patreon to support his music business blog, adds, "Fans crave a closer engagement and exclusive content from their favorite artists." He notes Patreon "gives fans a [nearly] direct line to support their favorite independent artists more than just paying for a download, which has turned into a cold, detached, digital transaction, quite different from the feeling fans would get visiting a record store and buying their favorite artist's record."
With constant access to your fans' bank accounts, however, how does an artist make sure that their relationship with their fans stays a happy one? According to Hoying, "Putting out good content and staying interactive with the patrons will keep all parties happy." Herstand seconds this, saying, "If the artist continues to show their fans that they actually care about them, and continues to be authentic and honest, the fans will stay loyal."
2. Artist-run subscriptions
Magazines have been published for hundreds of years, and for hundreds of years people have subscribed to the magazines which featured topics in which they were interested. Some indie musicians are looking to use that ideology as a way to sell their music.
Coole High, a hip-hop and smooth jazz artist, remembers first hearing about the artist subscription concept in 2009, when he met Tim Sweeney, who ran a music strategy conference in LA. "He had this brilliant idea of independent artists having their own subscription models to sell their music, merch, etc." The comparison made at the time was Netflix versus Blockbuster.
In 2009, however, the tech wasn't quite there yet to make it happen. Now it is, which is why Coole High recently launched a way for fans to subscribe to his work for $20 a year. That subscription includes his extensive back catalog, any new releases that come out in the next year, discounts on tickets and merch, and subscription exclusives in the form of videos and concert streams.
Dance pop artist HoneyChrome has also launched a subscription format, noting "it's like the fan pays the artist to be an artist, not pay the record label to manufacture one release."
They key to making this form of distribution work, according to Coole High, is in the connection an artist has with his or her fans. "It's really about creating a new and more intimate but effective way to connect with the people who really appreciate what you do, who you are, and what you're about." He adds, "A lot of my fans can't make it from France to see me do a gig in NYC, so now with the subscription they'd have access to live streaming of select concerts or performances from virtually any location I can access WiFi."
Both Coole High and HoneyChrome also love the fact that this form of distribution discards the traditional way of how artists release albums. With a subscription format, much like how Beyonce and Drake have dropped albums out of the blue, artists can release music whenever they want to. "Typical album/EP/single release schedules are fading," HoneyChrome explains. "Artists like myself are creating more and more music faster than ever, and we want it to be heard. This answers our call."
3. Cassette tapes
Yes, you read that right. There are artists and labels going back in time and releasing albums via cassette tape. Some artists are doing cassette-only exclusives, while indie labels like Burger Records boast a giant catalog of cassette releases. (And when we say "giant," we mean it. Their site features over 200 albums available on cassette.)
Most music fans aren't about to add a tape deck to their lives, but many still have them in their cars and others have older boomboxes that have the ability to play tapes. You're definitely targeting a very specific audience with a release on cassette, but when done correctly, it can reap some pretty impressive rewards.
For his most recent tour, Stones Throw Records artist Homeboy Sandman had a tour-exclusive cassette release, meaning the only way to get it was to buy it at one of his tour dates. "Everybody's hyped over it," he says of the cassette release, which he credits Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf for coming up with. "I sell it more than any other piece of merch. More than vinyl, hats, or CDs."
Homeboy Sandman feels that the exclusive nature of the release, which makes the album a collectible, is partly what inspires so many people to purchase it. "Nobody's like, 'Oh, I'll just get it online, so I don't have to carry it home.'"
From an artist's standpoint, he notes that the cassette tape is a format that is more challenging to rip and put online, so a cassette release will likely have to be bought if someone wants to hear it.
The positive reaction he's received from his first cassette release has Homeboy Sandman thinking of future uses for the format. As he says, "If I had some of my actual albums available on cassette, it seems like they would sell, too."
Which one of these burgeoning forms of distribution is right for you? We don't know, but we can give you three words of advice regarding this: know your audience. If you have an older crowd that grew up in the '80s and '90s and is prone to long car trips, a cassette release may be right up their alley. If your fans have fervently supported every one of your releases, perhaps you may want to try one of the subscription ideas.
There are a lot of ways to get your music out there, and as HoneyChrome notes, they all have the same ultimate goal. "I think we are just trying to get back to making everyone happy, fans and artists."
Want to make even more money from your music? Check out these articles:
- 5 Not-So-Obvious Revenue Streams for Musicians
- 14 Ways to Make Money From One Song
- 3 Creative Ways to Make More Money Gigging
Adam Bernard is a music industry veteran who has been working in media since 2000. If you live in the NYC area, you've probably seen him at a show. He prefers his venues intimate, his whiskey on the rocks, and his baseball played without the DH. Follow him at @adamsworldblog.