Five Years Of Patreon: A Wonderful Thing
Five years ago, Stephen Seifert shot me a text saying, “you should check out this Patreon thing.” Stephen’s one of the most inquisitive minds I know, an early adopter of apps, tech and gear, always willing to give something new a shot and his advice to me has been priceless over the years. Nowhere is that more plainly evident than with his suggestion of Patreon.
I’d done the crowd-funding thing before, on my own and without a platform like GoFundMe, IndieGoGo or Kickstarter; raising $5200 for my first little motorhome back in 2011. A few years earlier, Dan Landrum had spoken to me about the concept of “superfans”, which were truly dedicated supporters who would stick with you as you continued along your career path. My first mailing list was started in 1994 and, as I’ve changed platforms over the years, hopping from service to server, I did indeed notice some of the same e-mails surfacing in my inbox.
From the start, however, Patreon pledged to be different. Less a way to raise funds for a specific project or goal, and more of an ongoing effort to subsidize the income of creative folks from all disciplines and walks of life. It wasn’t a new concept by any stretch, because patronage was very popular in the 16th and 17th century Europe, where well-heeled members of society became patrons of composers, painters, sculptors and the like, in order to keep them well-funded enough to continue making their art. Patreon just re-introduced it in a form that was diggable for the 21st century tech-savvy internet community.
I leaped in with both feet and went to work figuring out how to make this platform work so that everybody was happy. My full-time musician’s income stems firstly from performance and teaching stipends, secondly from merchandise sales (including digital), thirdly from ad revenue and lastly via individual contributions (tips, donations, “here, buy yourself a nice meal”, etc.) In 2014, I was living a long-desired dream, to create music full-time, with an emphasis on that last bit. Summer tour had become a 3-month behemoth, bookings were definitely up, CDs and books were moving at a nice clip and ad clicks on YouTube from Dulcimerica With Bing Futch were starting to wind up. What’s not to like?
Well, the down-side of all that, which was the expense of operating and maintaining a 23-year old motorhome (not cheap), not being able to afford studio upgrades for audio and video gear (not great) and having to spend most of my time chasing down gigs in order to keep that income flowing, which left very little time to, you know, write, practice, rehearse and record the material that was the very foundation of my career! Still, I was happy for the autonomy, which had been long fought for, and hoped that Patreon would provide a springboard from which to dive into the next level.
I’m still blown away by the number of people who quickly took the leap with me, making it fairly easy to reach the first milestone goal of $50 per upload in one month. A month later, we had crossed the $100 per upload goal. Back then, I was on a “per upload” pricing system, but decided to switch to a “per month” approach, because my content output was a bit hyperactive, causing some patrons to worry about their budgets.
So, after some deep thought about it, I decided to basically put all of my books, CDs, videos, tablature and teaching materials on DropBox and make them available for $5 per month. Some of my patrons were very well-meaning when they said, “you’re giving too much away!” But I had a plan.
I knew that giving away the store would result in decreasing merchandise sales, at least within the immediate community, but that would also challenge me to continue producing new content that would also be made available to patrons, like a movie studio producing films for its streaming service. I imagined a slow-growth approach using my archives as the incentive to sign up, and using the continuous flow of new content as the incentive to remain.
By January of 2016, there was nearly $900 per month coming in.
Bit by bit, I was able to begin upgrading the studio; an external drive here, some lights and a backdrop there, all serving to plus the production values for Dulcimerica and recordings made in my home studio. As my production media swelled from gigabytes to terrabytes, there was now enough cushion in the budget to pay for cloud-based storage. The bonds and constraints began to lift and the freedom to expand, explore and excel became more obvious with each passing month.
I told other mountain dulcimer folks about Patreon and soon, my friends Steve Eulberg, Aaron O’Rourke, Wendy Songe, Jerry Rockwell, Erin Mae and others had not only signed up, but had become patrons as well. By the end of 2016, I had pushed past the $1500 per month milestone goal through copious uploads of new music and video all while signing up new patrons. In a year-end mailing to all creators, Patreon indicated that I was in the top 5% of active community members.
For someone with ADHD, remaining focused can be an issue. But my Patreon plan created a release schedule that not only required my daily engagement but also generated loads of new content. I channeled all of my energy into the growing community of subscribers and limited my output on other social media. I went all-in.
Flash forward to the present (late summer 2019), where I’m about to embark on an ambitious project that will be months in the undertaking. Pushing past the $3000 per month mark earlier this year was a remarkable milestone, and it’s allowed me even more time to dedicate towards creating new material. The project consists of short-form video lessons for beginner, intermediate and advanced students in the subjects of mountain dulcimer, ukulele, Native American flute and music theory. The entire multi-track series is being produced exclusively for Patreon and will only be fully available to patrons. It’s going to be a huge challenge to pull it off right, and I’ll need to upgrade even more equipment to have the available tools necessary to make it top-notch, but the end result will be more original content for my patrons and more incentive for folks to subscribe to my Patreon.
What’s my goal here? What comes first, the work or the money?
In all honesty, the work comes first. I’d be a musician if nobody paid me, not that I’m advocating any such thing, but it’s true. It’s about sharing the music, either by performing or by enabling others to make music, too. If we all made music, the world would be the most perfect place in the universe and we’d all come to know each other by our collective harmonies. I also think, specifically, that every person needs to take it a step further and pick up a mountain dulcimer, but I’m quite rightfully biased.
However, putting all of your time and energy into making and teaching music requires, well, all your time and energy. I part-timed it for many years, working various jobs and then trying to get time off for traveling to festivals and such. It was a crazy little dance for most of my adult life, working multiple columns, spinning multiple plates, working both sides of the chain. When the caboose finally separated from that train, it was a powerful relief and also the most deeply scary realization all at once. It’s up to you. What are you gonna do?
The goal was to help fund the work, and it remains so. That boils down to “time”, really. Time to research and learn new things and educate the resource. Time to write, practice and rehearse. Time to shoot and edit video. Time to read up on SEO metadata and new coding standards for web-based storefronts. Time is important to all of us, so much so that our time is worth money. Whether it’s how much you make per minute or hour, month or year, it all circles right ‘round back to time. How do we invest that time in order to get the best returns? What returns are we seeking and what are the costs of settling for less than our own deeply important standards? I know my time is worth something, but the time of others is worth something, too. How can I connect in such a way that every interaction is a worthy investment of this tick-tocking commodity?
I know that’s deep stuff, but these are important questions.
I’d like to have the freedom, and the peace of mind, to continue making and teaching music, with all of its attendant costs. I’d like to be out of debt (I’m still paying off the $12,000 expense of a 6.8 liter Triton V-10 from a few years back) and I’d like to maintain a lifestyle that prizes camping over the Chateau Marmont. That’s pretty much it. No condos or sports cars or fancy things. Hell, we have cats. We can’t have fancy things.
My daily focus, for five years, has been to create great content for my patrons, to create something that has meaningful value. And slowly, more folks have noticed and subscribed. It’s been absolutely transformative for both my career and for my approach to music. Moving forward from this, another milestone, I think about every single person who has clicked the “become a patron” button on my page and I smile, and am thankful, and deeply grateful to you for joining me on this journey. Your voices and songs have advised, informed and inspired my growth as a musician, teacher and producer. The tagline for my Patreon is “become a part of the art” and I can honestly say, on a molecular level, that all of my patrons are truly a part of my art every day. There is an element of each one of them that radiates out and illuminates my workspace on a daily basis.
So, here’s to looking forward with exciting new studies and projects. I can’t think of a life that I would rather be living right now. Thanks to ALL of my supporters and followers. You are truly SUPERfans!