Most musicians and content creators have at least heard of Patreon by now. The company started in 2013 with the goal of helping musicians, YouTubers, and other people in the creative economy rethink how they interact with — and earn money from — their fans.
And seven years later, Patreon's mission is working.
Patreon has more than 200,000 creators on their platform supported by more than 6 million "patrons" (aka people who pay money). All in, Patreon has processed over $2 billion in payments to creators since the company was founded.
It's all somehow just the tip of the iceberg.
All the instability of 2020 has brought an influx of interest to the platform — especially from musicians who saw their primary revenue stream (live performance) dry up in the midst of COVID-19. Tens of thousands of new creators have flocked to the platform to figure out if they can establish a reliable monthly income from their most loyal fans.
The Premise of Patreon
The premise is simple: fans pay you directly for your creations. In most cases, creators choose to allow fans to pay a recurring monthly amount in exchange for a predetermined list of benefits. Sometimes that means just having access to an exclusive update feed. And sometimes that includes exclusive content, merch, input, or other privileges.
At the heart of the platform, it's about strengthening the relationship between creators and fans. "Patrons" get more content, sure, but they also know they're directly contributing to a creator's ability to keep making that content.
As with any platform, Patreon brings its own unique set of benefits and challenges. So we talked to Tom McNeill, Patreon's Creator Partnerships Manager, about navigating these waters for the first time — or trying to level up your existing Patreon game.
Whether you're just looking for a little extra income from your art or trying to make a full-blown shift to full-time Patreon creator, McNeill has some solid advice for all creators.
An Interview With Patreon's Tom McNeill
RootNote: If an artist/musician/band is looking to get started on Patreon, who are some other music creators they can check out that are doing it well?
Tom McNeil: Music has been one of our fastest growing categories over the past 3 years — the variety in the membership communities that they create is truly inspiring and exhilarating to witness. To give a couple of good examples:
Rhiannon Giddens is a Grammy-award winning singer, fiddle player, and banjo player whose career has also spanned musicology and training as an opera singer. As well as sharing new music performances with her patrons, she has an amazing set of Educational exclusives. Her patrons are able to enjoy one monthly book feature from Rhiannon and Francesco (they pick out a quote from a book they've read and write about it and share / recommend the book) and her ‘Instrument Corner with Rhiannon and Francesco’ series.
On the other hand, someone like Noname is using her Patreon to create a book club dedicated to uplifting POC voices. Her community chooses two books each month written by authors of color and uses the Patreon to compensate staff, graphic designers, photographers, and facilitators who all help bring each meeting to life.
How important is exclusivity in the world of music Patreon? A lot of artists get hung up around the idea of releasing music to *only one* segment of their base. After all, no artist wants to miss an opportunity to have a song grow once it’s out in the open. How do artists balance Patron incentives while also knowing they need to constantly put out content?
I love this question because it really gets to the heart of some crucial strategic questions that every artist is navigating. As we all know, discovery usually happens in unplanned spaces whether that’s playlisting on radio/streaming services or even overhearing a new band at a music festival / opening for an artist you already know.
An artist I think navigates this really neatly is singer/guitarist Allen Stone with his Live at the Lodge series. The sessions are free to watch/stream on YouTube and Facebook — he mentions the Patreon in each stream and in a light-hearted way explains how the Patreon keeps that side of things free. It’s transparent, feels good and if you decide to become a patron then this grants access to exclusive additional content, fan recognition and even exclusive merch. This is a really smart balance of the realities of both discovery and sustainable monetization.
We’ve seen Patreon do a great job of involving itself in other ecosystems more and more — the integration with Discord, for one. How has this been received in the creator world and what might you tell an artist who is trying to figure all of these emerging platforms out?
Collaboration is one of Patreon’s strongest suits and artists love the options this creates. We’re founded by a musician (Jack Conte) and many of my colleagues have played in bands, written music and still perform. This naturally leads to a really collaborative environment akin to putting music together: how can we collaborate with our ecosystem to make this sound/work even better?
Integrations with other creator tools/platforms like Discord (community building), Vimeo (secure video sharing) and Crowdcast (live streaming) is particularly well-received by artists who have embraced an experimentation mindset for their membership. The extensive glossary of apps that a creator can integrate as part of their Patreon means that they can shape it in the way they want. Discord is a really good example of an integration that responds to their growing presence in / mastery of the community space.
If you’re not so familiar with Discord it’s worthwhile checking it out as it’s a fan favourite. Check out what Arca’s doing with hers as her Patreon offers an invite-only Discord as one of its benefits.
Editors note: read our article on why you might want to consider making a Discord for your fans here.
One of the great things about digital platforms for creatives (like Twitch and YouTube, both of which have a user base that adopted Patreon quite nicely) is that they foster community among their creatives as well. What are some ways musicians on Patreon can interact with other creators to mutually expand their reach and perhaps provide something unique for Patrons?
Fostering connection and community (creator to fan, fan to fan, creator to creator) is really top-of-mind for us. We know from our conversations with creators that the best way to continue to fund the creative class is to build a global network —on creator-friendly terms— where community can flourish.
Even before we started working on in-platform discovery, creators were finding ways to collaborate with one another to both expand reach and offer patrons really unique value. For example, Jose James and Taali have separate Patreons and will do livestream collaborations for their patrons which is really cool.
Outside of Patreon, creator collaborations are thriving too like Rhinnaon’s track with Amanda Palmer which was covered by music press like Rolling Stone.
Let’s say you’re an artist with a small but passionate fan base and you want to create a Patreon to establish a new predictable monthly recurring revenue stream. You can only pick one pricing tier and a few incentives. What are you picking?
Keep it simple (for you and your patrons). Keep it interesting for your creative inclinations. Focus on the things that you know are compatible with your bandwidth and giving your fans more of what they love. That’s going to be different for everyone, although some of the things that work well in music are patron-only tracks / videos, livestreams and online ‘hangs’ which can feel like a backstage meet and greet / beer with the band.
You’re an expert in your audience and will have good gut feeling of what a true ‘value for value’ exchange feels like. If in doubt, the price of a cup of coffee ($3-5) feels like a manageable expense that a super-fan can take on to have a deeper connection with the music/artist they love.
For artists who are stuck in the “few dozen” Patrons world and want to elevate their page to become a more substantial (or even primary) source of income, what are some growth tactics you’ve seen work well for musicians?
Such a relatable situation — great question. There are various ways to approach this situation and the first thing I’d recommend is to sit down and work out what’s been going well. What posts/events always get the most comments, likes and interaction? What’s your most popular tier? These are your pillars — the rest is up for revision.
How to revise? Well, first of all ask your patrons — what are they loving? What would they like to see more/less of in the name of growing this core piece of community? Then ask your non-patron fans.
Make an Instagram story that describes how you’re going to be revamping the Patreon and want to hear what the fans really care about. This is such useful feedback as the fans who engage with you on social media or mailing list are the most likely to become patrons. These are your super fans.
We also built various tools to help artists revamp their membership. We know that fans love merch and we built a new merch tool to help creators easily add this as a benefit. When relaunching, you can also use a Special Offer to create urgency and interest. Above all else, give yourself the permission to get creative and have fun with it. Remix it, reinterpret it — this is you Patreon and it should feel good.
What should artists reasonably expect when they start a Patreon, what do you think are good “target numbers” for a new Patreon creator, and what do you think is the LEAST important thing when launching and building a page?
One of my personal favourite Patreon core behaviours (the culture we work on creating internally at Patreon) is to achieve ambitious outcomes. As an artist, you’ll have a good sense of the size of your reachable audience and how many of them buy tickets for shows, bought your latest piece of merch, buy records, stream tracks, watch live streams.
Start with an honest appraisal of what your total reachable audience is. When you have that number, how about setting an ambitious but achievable goal of getting 10% of them to visit your Patreon in the first 3 months. What would that look like? Based on their enthusiasm for your other monetised work streams, how many of them are likely to sign up and how can you make it even more appealing for them? That’s how I’d start building a picture of what a realistic target is for the first 3 months of a Patreon.
As for least important, don’t agonize over moon-shot tiers. Get the core offering right. Build a membership which can scale rather than crossing fingers for one or two Super-VIP patrons.
There are tons of great resources on the “Do’s and Don’t’s” of Patreon, but is there anything you’d add that specifically pertains to musicians? Any major avoidable pratfalls or “A-ha!” moments we might help artists reach earlier?
Do: ask your fans. It’s such a healthy, informed way to start planning and you’ll get a great sense of what’s going to be most popular for them. Here’s how Manchester Orchestra did it — this really set them up for success. Do celebrate your patrons — it will feel good for both you and them. Do experiment — Patreon is a flexible space that’s a great fit for creative spirits.
Don’t: forget to include Patreon tasters on your other channels. When you share a 3-minute video of a new track, put 20s of it on your insta stories. Create moments for fans who’ve heard once or twice about your Patreon to get a sense of what it feels like to become a patron. Give them that insight and pique their interest.
Editor's Note: You can also now track your Patreon income in CODa by dragging and dropping CSVs into the platform. See all your Patreon revenue next to things like distribution, publishing, Twitch, and more!