I’m posting this piece today in honor of my good buddy Pepper Coyote and his shiny new Patreon. It’s about time! Are you thinking of jumping on Patreon or Bandcamp or some other straight-to-fans subscription system? Righteous. It’s exciting and fulfilling, but could also kill your career entirely. (Paying attention now? Good.)
I’ve been doing this since 2008… FIVE YEARS before Patreon was even a thing.
Most people don’t know who the fuck I am, but that’s okay… In the Big Music Business World™ I’m nobody, but I’m still paying my bills the same way I have been since 2008: a straight-to-fan subscription system. Yeah, five years before Patreon was even a thing. If you want to keep your fans happy without burning yourself out or pissing people off, I’ve got ten tips to consider before you start taking people’s money:
1. DON’T BE A SUPERHERO.
When I started Matthew Ebel dot net back in ’08, I thought I could write, produce, and release two new songs and a live concert recording every month until the end of time. With that kind of release cycle, how the hell was I supposed to book shows, do road trips, promote my act, sleep, have a social life, and create EVEN MORE content for my non-subscribing fans? What happens when I get the flu? Nobody has that kind of time or energy unless they’re Prince (he’s still writing new tunes daily, I guarantee it). The resulting burnout nearly ruined my interest in music entirely. So…
2. DO MAKE UP A MENU.
Obviously your number one asset’s going to be new original singles, but what else can you offer the kind of superhuman fans who’d sign up for monthly payments? Live recordings? Private webcasts? Postcards? An annual members-only bacchanal in your backyard? Write down anything you can think of. Now write down how frequently you think you can deliver each of those goods. Which leads me to…
3. DO TEST THIS SHIT OUT PRIVATELY.
Seriously, you need to practice the routine of delivering goods that other people would actually pay for on a monthly basis. Do it for six months to a year at least, see what kind of output you’re capable of before you embarrass yourself (listen to the voice of experience here). Here’s an idea: Plan an album release for sometime next year, then spend the next 12 months writing and recording a new song every month with whatever other cool goodies you’ve got on your menu. See what you can actually keep up with, then use all those goods as perks for your album pre-order packages next year.
4. DON’T OVERESTIMATE YOUR FANS.
The sales geeks know that 1% is considered a good conversion rate for an email list (meaning if you’ve got 1,000 people on your list, 10 fans are actually going to buy the new album). For something that’s not just a sale but a commitment, don’t be surprised if it’s more like .1% of your fans that actually get on board. It’s okay, the rest of ‘em still love you, but come on… we’re all afraid of commitment. Set your expectations so you’re pleasantly surprised, not rudely disillusioned.
5. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE YOUR FANS.
Since 2008 I have been consistently surprised by the dedication of some of my super-fans. I’ve had people drive from Florida to Boston just to have beers with me at my annual Beer Bash. Some of my supporters have spent literally thousands of dollars on me over the years because something I did in the studio touched them in a meaningful way. It won’t take you long to figure out who’s just supporting you and who’s a born-again believer. So with that in mind…
6. DO KEEP THE BELIEVERS HAPPY.
Once you’ve made the commitment, your sole purpose is to keep those super-fans happy enough not to unsubscribe. Fortunately, though most of us artists are total shit in the analytics and marketing departments, a subscription makes it crystal clear who your top customers are. What are you doing to make them feel special? When’s the last time you started a conversation with them that wasn’t just a comment thread on your blog?
7. DON’T FORGET THE REST OF YOUR FANS.
One of the things that nearly killed me was exclusivity. Think about it… if I’m releasing two songs per month for paying subscribers only, that means I have to create even more songs to share with people who have never heard of me before. Hiding all the best goods behind a pay-wall may make the subscribers feel special, but you’ll never grow your fan base like that. For example, one of my perks was a members-only after-party after shows. By changing it to a members-get-in-FREE after-party, the non-members end up paying for all the beer while they hang out with my most ardent evangelists for a few hours. Win-win.
8. DO SOME DAMN ACCOUNTING.
Sure, most of your goods are likely to be digital these days, but even those cost money. You’re obviously paying a percentage to the credit card processor and Patreon, but what about band members and the mixing engineer? Then there’s the physical goods like postcards, shirts, and even the beer at the after-parties. Postage may seem easy, but how many of your fans are in Germany or South Africa? At the end of the day, you have to make a profit, so make sure you’re pricing your subscriptions with enough breathing room to pay for the goods and your rent. Make some coffee and a spreadsheet and work this shit out before you sign anyone up.
9. DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT.
Use your devoted disciples to your advantage. By sending my Officer’s Club new songs a few months before I share them with the rest of the world, I get all kinds of feedback on mixes, arrangement, and even lyrics. Those that pay for the annual goodie bag have helped me decide which shirt designs I should bring to live shows and which should stay exclusive (or just should have stayed on the drawing board). Most fans I’ve met are thrilled to be a part of the great music laboratory, even knowing they’re the guinea pigs. Be honest with them and they’ll give you the most usable feedback you’ll ever get.
10. DO THINGS THAT AREN’T MUSICAL.
Like I said in #5, I hold an annual Beer Bash for my top-tier supporters. Why? Because I love making beer. It has nothing to do with my albums or stories, but it’s something I can share with my fans. Think about it… have you ever tried Dave Grohl’s homebrew? I haven’t either, but it would be fucking awesome. I’d pay for that privilege. Maybe you’ve got a sense of style that could turn into monthly fashion/makeup tips, or you make cool trinkets with an Arduino and LED’s that could turn into a monthly how-to video. I’m betting you’re good at something besides music, so start using all your talents.
Now Do It.
If you’re ready to take the plunge, great! If you’re still scared, don’t worry… there are plenty of us around to help you. Just ask! Now get started with Patreon!