Over the past few years, the consumer model has gone through some major changes. In the good old days, you may have opened up your Christmas stocking and expected to find a bunch of physical products. Then as those products went digital, you probably started to receive a bunch of gift cards for online stores instead. This year, we’ve seen another consumer shift, and this time it’s towards subscriptions; from Netflix to Spotify to Pro Tools and even Microsoft Office, everything today seems runs on a subscription model. And while major record labels haven’t been able to crack the subscription code just yet, there are several tools independent artists can use to make the subscription model work for them. Here are three of the best options for musicians who want to earn income not just from one-off sales or gigs, but on a regular, predictable, and ongoing basis.
If you want to generate ongoing income as a musician, Patreon is the first source to look to, as it was designed with that specific purpose in mind. While people sometimes mistake Patreon for a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, in reality it’s something entirely different. Patreon founder Jack Conte (of Pomplamoose) describes Patreon as a platform that allows fans to become patrons of their favorite artists. This idea comes from renaissance times, when musicians would rely on rich benefactors to become their patrons so they could continue to create art. With Patreon, the difference is that instead of relying on one rich person to fund your career, you’re relying on small recurring donations from a large number of your fans.
The way Patreon works is that people will agree to pay you a certain amount of money every time you release a new thing. This thing could be a song, a music video, an instructional video – really anything you want. Fans can pledge different amounts in exchange for different rewards (which is where the Kickstarter comparison comes into play).
While you’ll hear examples of artists like Pentatonix earning upwards of $19K for every music video they release through Patreon, the average artist on the platform is actually earning somewhere in the range of $100 to $300 every month. While this will certainly keep you in new guitar strings, it isn’t exactly enough to build a full career on. Still, for those who can establish a strong connection with fans, Patreon represents a real opportunity to build an ongoing, predictable source of income, as there are also plenty of artists on Patreon who earn upwards of $1,000 for every new thing they release.
Even though YouTube is where most fans go to find new music these days, musicians seem to have a love-hate relationship with the video service. Most of this frustration has stemmed from the video streaming service’s low payout rates. A Forbes article reported that singer/songwriter Molly Lewis earned only $28 for a video with over 14,000 views, and Thom Yorke even compared YouTube’s payment system to “what the Nazis did during the Second World War” – but YouTube has been undertaking efforts lately to change this situation.
YouTube recently launched two fan subscription services, YouTube Red and YouTube Music, and with these services YouTube is shifting the way it pays creators. While the traditional way to make money from YouTube videos has been to place ads on videos and hope that enough people click on the ads or watch them the whole way through to earn you a bit of revenue, these new YouTube subscriptions have the potential to transform the platform into something more akin to Spotify or Apple Music. So instead of waiting for payouts from advertisers, creators will earn money directly, based on the total number of plays on their videos, and this money will come from the monthly subscription fees paid by fans.
It’s not clear yet what sort of payouts this new model will create for artists, but with YouTube moving towards a subscription model, this represents another opportunity for artists to earn a solid ongoing income.
3. Licensing Libraries
While both Patreon and YouTube tend to cater to artists who are skilled at building direct relationships with fans, there’s another option for artists who may not be so inclined to speak to fans directly all the time. Being part of a music licensing library that’s geared specifically towards indie artists – something like The Music Bed in the U.S. or Community Tree Music in Canada – can give you the opportunity to earn recurring income through sync licensing.
While the big money in sync licensing comes from having your song placed in a network TV show or a Superbowl commercial, there’s also a decent amount of money to be made through smaller placements in things like wedding videos and social media ads. For artists who release new music fairly often, and who have a sound that fits well with these types of videos, finding the right licensing library could be the key to creating a more reliable income stream from your music.
The downside of this model is that it’s not based on a subscription service, so there’s no guarantee of earning the same amount of income every month (most of these services pay quarterly or biannually anyway). At the same time, once you start to get some songs placed through a licensing library, this often has a multiplying effect, as more placements mean more exposure. So artists who have built up a following through their licensing library can often rely on their library placements to earn them income on a fairly predictable basis.
Depending on what sort of music you make and how you like to share that music, there might be one of these tools that works better for you than the others. If you’re releasing new material on a regular basis and you’re good at building a direct relationship with your fans, Patreon is probably the best option for you. If you rely more on video streams for income, but don’t necessarily put out a new video every month, YouTube, with its new subscription-based model, might be the better path. Or, if you feel your music is better suited to accompany videos created by other people, a licensing library could be your best bet. Not every artist will be able to succeed on every platform, which is exactly why we have so many different platforms to choose from. In an ideal world, however, artists should be able to benefit from two or more ongoing revenue streams simultaneously. Then, when you combine these income streams with earnings from other things like touring, digital downloads, and streaming revenue, you could see a real increase in your annual earnings.
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.