Money for Something

How Patreon has saved musicians during the pandemic, the new roles artists play in their own creation and marketing, and the questions over the platform's future in music

At one point in 2019, you probably thought about how you wish you had a few weeks, maybe a month, at home and in isolation. A staycation where you could finally get that one project off the ground. Or you’d finally do that one chore you wish you had time for. With a curl of a finger on that monkey’s paw, you got it, and then some. 

Unfortunately for pretty much everyone in any creative or performing arts job whose name isn’t Taylor Swift or something, that forced sabbatical came at the expense of income. Pretty much all of it.

In the months that followed, once it became abundantly clear that this wasn’t just a two week time-out to flatten a curve, musicians had to find a way to make money when all of their options disappeared literally overnight.

One of the most common ways of doing that has been on Patreon, an online platform that allows people to basically subscribe to an artist or performer. In return, those people receive things like special access to things like music or merchandise discounts.

As the pandemic continued for all of 2020, this became the primary means of income for a lot of touring bands, those benefits for patrons became more elaborate and creative and tailored to the distant and scary world we found ourselves in: livestream performances, rig rundowns, cooking demonstrations, DJ nights, podcasts, you name it. 

It’s also created new problems for bands, navigating how to work with each other as business partners in a new way, handling burnout and mental fatigue from this new “job” while already dealing with the uncertainties of every day life like the rest of us. Not to mention, they’re now forced to act as the marketing executives of their own business, paying attention to consumer trends and customer demands, and now putting a price on their products, which can feel uncomfortable or like “choosing beggars” for some.

The silver lining of all of this is that Patreon has given artists opportunities for more than just money at a difficult time, like bringing hobbies to the forefront of their lives, learning new skills and finding out that they can monetize them, strengthening bonds with each other, and reminiscing on long and successful careers. 

Going forward, it’s evident that Patreon will play some role in the music industry. If tomorrow by some miracle the pandemic is just erased from existence and bands can tour again as they had before, a lot of these acts won’t just hang up their Patreon gloves. Rather, they’ll adapt them to work in a way that is more conducive to the touring lifestyle.

And the same way some might’ve scoffed Instagram in 2011, but now understand it as an integral part of the game, Patreon is just another outlet for artist creation and fan interaction.

The fine line to walk, however, is that line between a band that adds more personal touches and creative output to complement their music, and a band that focuses too heavily on the content, eclipsing the whole reason the fans went there in the first place.

So, now bands find themselves at the beginning of that balancing act. One that started with crisis.

Patreon is not new. At least, not in the relative sense of the 21st Century where “new” is fewer than six hours old. It was founded in 2013 by a musician, and has since been used heavily by the creative community, namely visual artists and podcasters. Bands have been on Patreon, but it wasn’t until the first quarter of 2020, when the touring rug was ripped out from under every working band in the world, that a platform that connected them to their fans became a necessity.

Colin Frangicetto, guitarist for Circa Survive, had just set up a Patreon for his own visual art and music in February. After seeing how it worked for himself and some others, he and the rest of the band planned for a rollout later in the year.

“I had already been working on the framework for a Circa Patreon at that point that we were going to roll out maybe in the fall that was going to be way more low key, kind of like a fan club, one-tier thing, super minimal work,” Frangicetto says. “But, when shit hit the fan and we lost our tour, we were in dire circumstances financially. We definitely did not plan for that. So we obviously put the gas on and launched a Patreon.”

Other bands were in that same situation. They were aware of Patreon maybe through podcasts they liked or artists they followed, and thought about making one for the band. But when your life revolves around writing, recording, releasing and performing music, there’s not much of a rush to make something like that - until there is.

“I’ve tried to get us to do it back in April, because I had followed so many artists and podcasters and stuff who were on there,” says Tom May, guitarist/vocalist for The Menzingers. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, we can turn this into a thing. There aren’t that many musicians on it.’ I kept putting it off and putting it off … and all the money ran out. We were like, ‘Shit, we’ve gotta do something.’ So we launched it in January.”

For some, the timing of the pandemic packed an even more powerful punch thanks to album release schedules. Take for example indie rock duo Diet Cig, whose album Do You Wonder About Me? came out on May 1, 2020, about two months in, where touring was totally out of the question.

“We were kind of like, ‘How do we continue connecting with our fans beyond Instagram and stuff?’” guitarist/vocalist Alex Luciano says. “And typically, it would be on tour. We could see them face to face. And because of the pandemic we were like, ‘OK, how do we stay connected and think we’re doing something beyond social media with them? And so that was kind of how we ended up jumping on [Patreon]”

Each band’s Patreon is different. They all have similarities, sure. They’re usually multi-tiered, with a spectrum of rewards ranging from things like early access to songs and some rarities, becoming more valuable incrementally to things like private Zoom Q&A’s, exclusive video content, rare merchandise items and more. And each band’s personality shows through to varying extents.

Over time, a lot of them have evolved to become much more creative. Cooking shows, “Hot Ones”-style chats, homemade art prints and cover requests. Maybe it’s the isolation, but it’s created a playing field where just sending out an old b-side once a month isn’t enough to stand out anymore.

Suddenly being thrust into the world of “content creation,” an ocean away from pure artistry, was an adjustment to say the least. Thinking of things that people would actually want to see, figuring out how to make said things. It’s a lot.

“In going into it, our expectations for it were that, OK, this is going to be a lot of work, but we’re not really doing much of anything anyways,” says Conor Murphy, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist in Foxing. “We’re not out on the road living our normal lives here. So we have time to make this really cool.”

“There are weeks where I’m doing 40 hour weeks, just to put in getting this content together,” says Murder By Death vocalist/guitarist Adam Turla. “I’m doing a podcast for one of the higher-level tiers where I’ll interview people. I did an interview the other day, and the recording didn’t finalize on my side. So it’s like, do I have to re-do this whole interview? It’s so frustrating. And that’s just one tiny part of the responsibilities for this. I would say, since we started it, I’ve probably put 10 to 45 hours a week into the Patreon. It’s a lot.”

This new lifestyle of content creation has put a lot of bands’ productivity, organization and time management to the test in a way that they might not have ever dealt with before. And, in some cases, it creates a new stress.

“Most people I know in bands just do not have the organization,” Frangicetto says. “I mean, fuck, I have horrible ADHD. I struggle with it all the time. But luckily, over the years, I’ve learned how to compensate for what I lack in organizational skills with grit. Just like working hard.”

For The Menzingers, the solution was creating everything for their Patreon in week-long chunks and sporadically releasing everything from there. 

“That allowed us to not get burnt out, because we were able to tangibly see the goal and reach it,” May says. “So, it needs to be done by this time, instead of just living in an abstract space of, Well, eventually, we’ll do this thing that we said we were going to do for the Patreon. Being able to focus down on it really made it inspiring.”

“A month feels like a long time when we get to the first of the month, like, Woohoo! We have all month to do all this stuff!” Luciano says. “And because it is so self-directed, the time management can often creep up on us sometimes.”

In a normal world, you come record an album, you go on tour, and you come home. That time between tours is typically a break. But now, when everything is that “break” that no one bargained for, there’s often a nagging feeling of not getting enough done. 

“There are degrees of being a musician that are relentless, like you come home from tour and it’s an instant countdown as to when you know you’re going to be touring again,” Frangicetto says. “That’s a shitty, kind of relentless feeling that you deal with as a musician. But, like, I never would go through periods of time where I literally couldn’t take a week and just do nothing, you know? That was kind of the trade off. I tour all the time, but at least when I’m home, I can just fuck off for a little bit and make my own schedule and do all that stuff. With this Patreon schedule and the workload, it’s impossible. Taking off is, like, very difficult to do. And you have to really plan for it ahead. That’s not even getting into the pressure of when you see numbers dropping and you’re like, Fuck! What do we do?

When those numbers drop, you have to switch gears immediately from artist to marketing director. 

Content creator.

“I think it would be a really difficult thing for people who are just more, for people who are just into the creative part – making music, making art – it’s a really big gap to bridge, you know?” Frangicetto says. “‘Oh, let me figure out how to make content.’ It’s not just art anymore. It’s content.”

And content comes with a price.

Discussing money is awkward. The music world is no different than most work spaces in that regard, where people don’t discuss their own salaries with their peers. It’s tacky. Gauche.

Patreon’s platform allows you to see exactly how many subscribers a band or artist has. Doing some quick math based on their tier prices, you can get a decent look at what they’re making from it. And, according to Luciano, that’s removed some of the stigma and opacity of the financial side of things.

“The more transparent we all are, the easier it is to advocate for fair compensation for stuff,” she says. “Getting to see other bands doing it before us was really helpful, so I really hope people can see our page and what we’re doing and see that it is OK to ask for compensation for all the work you put into your art.”

But, ask any person in a creative field about an experience of being “paid in exposure.” Being able to put a fair price tag on your output is necessary, especially now. While bands might first have balked at the idea, they realized quickly that fans really do want to help. Not out of charity. They just love their band.

“Nobody has let us ever feel like we’re begging, you know?” Murphy says. “You’re subscribing to this thing. It is fueling this thing to make more stuff that you like. And during that whole process, we’re getting to know each other a lot better. A lot more than any sort of business would be, like selling a product or something.”

“Ultimately, more than anything else, I think the way that the supporters see it is, they get how much things suck for musicians right now, and there’s no PPP loans or grants that are making up for not being able to tour for two years,” Turla says. “How many articles did you see pre-pandemic that were like, ‘Well, more bands are going to the road, because touring is now the number-one way that bands make income!’ That was the story for years. And then all of a sudden that’s gone? So the number-one way is gone? That’s kind of nuts.”

The give-and-take of having so much creative control on a platform like Patreon is that artists are now left to navigate the waters of putting a price on their art for the first time. And setting a price can come with the worry that you are overvaluing (or undervaluing) your output.

“We got to a point where we were like, OK, if somebody is paying $20 a month, they should get so much shit,” Murphy adds. “Like an insane amount of things. And if somebody is paying $5 a month, they should still get a bunch of stuff. And like, what that ended up coming to was just a really crazy amount of things for us to do. [...] It’s more us being really insecure in thinking nobody’s going to want to pay $5 to have anything to do with us. When the reality is, no, all of these people enjoy what we make. We’re just insecure.”

“It felt really skeevy at first, and sometimes it does feel a little weird,” May says. “We think of it as taking advantage of somebody sometimes instead of giving them what they want. So we were wary of it at first. We were like, ‘Who wants to pay $25 a month for these things that we’re offering? Are they worth that?’ And we realized that people like us so much that it’s totally worth it to them. It’s become easier that way, and I think we’ll continue to roll with that. It’s just not the same art that we’re used to. What is this? What am I doing? A lot of it is that contrarian, punk rock notion to begin with, where we’re like, Really? Some tech startup thing? Another social media thing I’m gonna jump into right now? It turns out that’s not the case.”

“There’s something about Instagram or Facebook or Twitter where like I feel like, those apps are designed to be so addictive and stuff like that,” says Dave Benton, guitarist/vocalist for Trace Mountains, who also put out a record right as the world shut down. It kind of feels almost like you’re stealing someone’s attention away from them in an almost nonconsensual-type way. And the thing about Patreon is that people are there because they want to read what you write and listen to the things that you post, or whatever the fuck. It just feels a little nicer.”

That punk rock guilt can be assuaged a little, too, if you can find ways to incorporate talented friends who are also feeling the sting of the pandemic. That’s what Turla and Murder By Death have been able to do with creator friends. These are the people who have been working on the very artifacts that the band has been digging up for its own Patreon subscribers.

“When things shut down in the pandemic, I was hearing from a lot of those people, like, ‘Man, my business is dead. There’s nobody ordering tour fliers for me to print because nobody’s touring,’ and shit like that,” he says. “So, I was trying to get creative, and I ended up hiring a lot of people for like merch stuff to try to give them some work. And then I was like, ‘Man, what if I created a level of this Patreon where basically I mail people art?’ I go to people and say, ‘Hey, I can give you this much money per item. And if you give me an individual hand-signed piece, give me like 250 of those, I can just give you a lump sum of money. We basically just find a way to make them some money during this shitty fucking time.’”

During this shitty fucking time, we’ve all been given the opportunity for reflection. Being inside and scared that long will do that. And for bands who were dealt a monumentally shitty hand, it’s hard to find a real silver lining. But, they do exist in this story.

The money is necessary. There’s no question. At the end of the day, that’s the cornerstone of every band’s Patreon page. Otherwise it would be free. But with every single band I spoke to for this story, when I asked them about what was the biggest reward, everyone had an answer that showed the impact this Patreon has had on their professional and personal lives.

For Murphy, it was reconnecting with the community his band has built during their careers. It was something he saw at shows before the pandemic, but it wasn’t until popping in on Discord or Zoom chats, hearing friends talk to each other from different cities or people introduce their partners that they met at Foxing shows, that he really understood the full scope of what they were doing, and the importance of what they were creating from isolation.

“It’s stressful, and there are moments where we’re like, ‘God, maybe this was all a horrible idea to do,’” he says. “But, again,every time we put something out, we just get such a good reception, and it reminds us of why we do this in the first place. Eric and I talk about it a lot. The way that when we’d be on tour and we would do a 15-hour drive, a straight shot, 15 hours, cause we’re chasing a bus on a support show, it’s the most grueling thing ever. And you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this? Where am I? Is this really something I can keep doing for the rest of my life, or even just now?’ But then the second you get to that city, and if you’re working at the merch table and somebody comes up an shares a story with you, it just becomes worth it again. You’re just reminded, ‘Oh, that’s right. That’s why I do this.’ Because the connection that I’m making with all of these people is enough to get in the van and do another 15 hours. And that’s really what it feels like.”

For May and the Menzingers, the reward has been learning new ways of working together after years of professional friendship as a tight unit. 

“At times, aside from bullshitting in text messages, we wouldn’t talk about band stuff for days,” May says. “And now we talk about band stuff every single day, no matter what. [...] I guess it’s a situation where we’ve evolved from the roles we’ve had for so long, too. After this many years, after 15 years, you know what you’ve grown into. And this new one, with these new opportunities, is like, ‘Well, I had a strength in this department.’ I know personally I have weaknesses in some of them. Let’s say, [bassist] Eric [Keen] is much better at organizing things and making something look good for videos. It’s become a new balance. A new dynamic for us.”

That’s also been the case for Circa Survive, whose members live far away from one another. Having a reason to “be together” more often has been a positive side effect of this all.

And, for Turla, it’s been a profound way to look back on a decades-spanning career, remembering ups and downs, seeing messages from old bandmates and friends, and sharing stories with fans who have grown up with them.

“I have to say, with the Patreon, just sitting down and writing about your experiences is really cathartic, and I’ve gone through some pretty exciting and just intense emotions going back to these time periods and reflecting on what it’s like to be 19,” he says. “In 2001, the part that I’m writing about right now, looking at the shows and just seeing it on paper with all the shows listed out. That was a really huge change in our life. We played about 80 shows that year, 85 shows, and we were still in college for most of the year. At the end of the year you suddenly see things start to change. And then a year after that, things start to change again. You just watch your life in this weird list of, here’s the city, here’s the venue, the bands we played with, and the date. But you suddenly have all these stories flood back that you haven’t thought about in a really long time. And it’s an incredible experience that I found the way to do this that’s that fulfilling and that actually engages me in a way that connects me to the past.”

But now let’s look into the future.

Let’s say tomorrow, it all just goes away. It’s all back to normal. Venues open back up. You can once again spray airborne particles all over your friends and loved ones with reckless abandon. The bands can hit the road once again.

What happens to Patreon? There’s the possibility that it slinks back into its pre-pandemic role, catering mostly to artists and podcasters, mostly staying out of the mainstream eye. But, I think the more likely scenario is that the pandemic was the breaking point that boosted Patreon to a plane along with the traditional social networks. With all of its control and creativity, bands have a new means of interacting with fans.

But, now, fans are used to such prolific output, which isn’t realistic with a full touring schedule.

“I think the Patreon will definitely survive in some way,” Frangicetto says. “I think it will absolutely have to change, like the intensity, what’s expected, probably the tier system will change. Because, realistically, we could’ve used this supplemental support long before we launched it. I think if you have something that people want in that way, which I think we do, like we’re always going to have an excess of music and projects that are in various forms of production for lack of a better term. And there’s always going to be people who are going to want to be on the inside of that and kind of see how things are being made, listen to things that no one else will ever care about, like the first initial acoustic sketch of a song or see the lyric sheet scribble scrabble of various ideas. There’s always going to be a place for that stuff, and I think we’re always going to want to have something like this.”

Benton, too, sees this as a long-term project for his own band, at least if the rewards relating to real, live, in-person shows are any indication.

“I mean, hopefully people stick around,” he says. “It kind of feels like there’s a core group of people who are. And I’ll definitely stick around long enough to honor that reward or whatever. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to keep it up in the same way, the weekly posts, but I kind of feel like people will be OK with it kind of evolving.”

Even Turla, who says he “doesn’t scroll” too much on social media, sees a future in it.

“I think that’ll be kind of interesting to have done a year or so of the Patreon from home, and then, ‘Oh, well, let’s just throw a camera on this thing that’s really interesting,’” Turla says. “‘There’s the Grand Canyon,’ ‘I’m out rock climbing on my day off.’ There’s the opportunity that I think, as long as it’s not overwhelming, could be fun to share. And you know, this is coming from somebody who’s not that into the internet or social media.”

If the Patreon bubble keeps growing, and the landscape becomes saturated and chaotic, it might even start to go full circle from full artist independence to what May calls “pseudo-labels,” where multiple bands’ Patreons are under one roof.

The other worry for the future is that bands become desensitized to this level of output and interaction for the sake of survival, and it normalizes a level of labor and capital-C Content Creation that risks overshadowing the art.

“I do worry a little bit about when I’m in this writing period, I want to make sure that I’m not having to write all this content, and I don’t want this to keep me from doing the thing that’s actually most important, which is trying to make something that people care about, and that will have a positive effect on people in some way,” Turla says. “You don’t want to get lost. It’s like, do people really need to see me doing an acoustic cover song on Patreon? The more important thing would be to write a good song.”

As it grows, who knows what Patreon will look like tomorrow? Facebook in 2009, with Farmville and college dorm groups, is not the Facebook of 2021 that can sway elections and radicalize suburban uncles. The way bands use social media and market themselves has drastically changed over a short period of time.

“When we started posting on Facebook, it was free,” Turla says. “But now your posts get buried unless you boost them. Well, now we pay to have Facebook. And we pay per post. It’s just, my fear is that there’s going to be enough of these things, artists are getting more and more independent from the major labels. More and more people are able to generate money through their own webstore or through their own production of any kind. Merchandising. But then there’s all these companies popping up that are saying, ‘Hey, just give us this much. Just give us this much.’ And then you’ve got your manager and your booking agent. There’s a great Against Me! song quoting all the percentages. Every time something new happens, a few years later, those percentages get slimmer and slimmer that go to the artist. I think you just have to be wary of that.”

If there has been one lesson in this past year, aside from all of the personal lemonades that bands made from the historically terrible lemons they were given, it’s that nothing is truly secure. Everything is subject to change. And malleability, especially within the creative world, is crucial. 

“I think that’s probably how we will exist as an artistic entity until the end of our careers – just like going kind of thing by thing, time period by time period, and readjusting,” Frangicetto says. “We’ve been readjusting all along the way this whole time. We’ve been a band for maybe, like, two records when album sales were just not even a thing anymore. So I have no idea what’s going to happen two years from now.”

Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is Dinosaur Jr.

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