The Cue to Create

Bandcamp just launched a new service that allows fans to subscribe to artists on a monthly basis. Looking to expand the avenues of artist compensation as music earnings move away from sales into subscription models, Bandcamp enters the 21st-century patron space with one of the biggest rosters of indie artists online.

Bobby Oswinski wrote in a recent blog post on Music 3.0  that despite a large usership he saw Bandcamp as having an uphill battle in making this work for four reasons:

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1. Why subscribe to an artist when you can stream their music for free on YouTube? The same reason given to any music sale quandary – why buy when there’s YouTube.
2. Artist’s can’t help but over-promise. Invariably the incentive for fan-hungry musicians to offer more than they can deliver in a year will make for uneven content leading to a gradual decrease in the fan’s user experience and thus engagement.
3. No artist can seriously focus on the subscriber base and non-subscriber base at the same time. One will be short-shifted.
4. You’re your own competition. Why buy when you can rent? Compounded with Owsinki’s number one reason, “There’s always YouTube,” what does this do to your Amazon or ITunes sales, not too mention the ones you make on Bandcamp.

I think Owinski lays out some realistic concerns and highlights some questionable business logic. Nonetheless, we can’t blame or deny digital distributors, who make their living from music sales too, the opportunity to respond to changing market forces. No online music player wants to go the way of the record label and staying relevant and in sync with technology is essential for mere survival. The question I have is how will the growing experimentation in forms of music consumption shape the twenty-first century artist-fan relationship.

With Bandcamp’s subscription service added and YouTube’s Tip Jar, I am curious how Jim Conte’s independent upstart Patreon will weather the expansion of such similar services from so much bigger players. While Patreon comes across as the David to YouTube’s Goliath, I have a kind of underdog faith that we shouldn’t number their days just yet.

It is precisely Owsinki’s reason number two, ultimately the crux of any subscription success, that gives me faith in a small indie upstart like Patreon. The question of can an artist create on cue consistently at the same quality level is a good one, and one Patreon has been exploring for several years now. The fact that Patreon was built from the beginning with constant content aims attracted artists aligned to that paradigm from the start. The ultimate outcome might see it as a service where you do get what you pay for.

Sure, YouTube being the online monolith that it is may simply bulldoze over Patreon with its billion+ user base but that doesn’t mean Patreon doesn’t have a fighting chance. While they may move into the realm of online boutiques, I can see them being the go-to for indie artists and discerning fans. The know-how to upload your music to YouTube and having the where-with-all and/or capacity to engage fans in an ongoing relationship are two separate skills. All these new channels of income for emerging or mid-level musicians and producers will undoubtedly raise expectations for constant production no matter the platform.

Ultimately for YouTube or Bandcamp, fan subscriptions may be one small feature amongst many, and we have yet to see them really lift off to make any true judgment. For Patreon though artist patronage is the whole point of their platform, and if Patreon continues to concentrate on its user experience and attract artists with the same vision, it may be able to keep a relatively steady hold in such a dynamic market.

The future of the music industry seems to be moving on all fronts into the subscription model. It appears today the mobile nature and multi-device music listener prizes convenience over ownership; and while there will always be collectors, they are outliers and will not dictate industry direction, which is by necessity concerned with mass appeal.

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