Making money in music is scary. Subscriptions may help.

This article was written originally for rebilly.com. I repost it here because maybe it’s useful information. This isn’t comprehensive, and the point was to sell Rebilly as the subscription service you need, but still. Rebilly might indeed be the right way for you to do it, or perhaps Patreon or another solution. You’ll have to decide for yourself, but hopefully this at least is a start.

Look, I get it.  I’m a musician and It’s tough out there.  Traditional ways of making money in music have blown up. 

Streaming is killing download sales.  Downloads killed CDs.  Touring is expensive and rarely profitable.

With so much scrambling, so many musicians, and such widespread devaluing of music, making a living – or even a buck – can seem like a lost cause.

It’s daunting, but there is good news!

It turns out, with the right kind of innovation and willingness to leverage new technology, now is actually the best time in history to be an independent musician.

A Possible Solution

There are many ways out of the mire, but a couple solutions seem particularly suited to indies.  Many musicians are leveraging fans directly to fund records, tours and other creative projects.

You may remember Amanda Palmer from her wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, which convinced the music world that crowdfunding might actually work.  The Pixies were almost as successful with their “PIXIES: A Visual History” campaign, and Music For Cats (yes, it’s actually an album for cats) raised over $240,000.

Since crowdfunding a single project has proven workable, now musicians are taking the next logical step.  Amanda operates a subscription business  on Patreon, and rakes in $37,000 every time she releases something.  In fact many musicians are finding subscription services to be a great way to create predictable income while simultaneously building a strong fanbase.

Virtually unknown to the main stream, rapper Nino Bless makes a tidy income which allows him to remain fiercely creative and free of label influence.  Using a combination of his subscription service and well placed product offers, he was able to grow from nothing to 17,000 rabid Facebook fans, all while actually making a profit.  It took him a mere four months to reach that stage, largely because he was able to fuel growth with subscription income.

Could it be you?

Let’s be real for a minute.  Subscriptions could be perfect for you – or not.

Here are a few things you need to succeed with subscriptions:

  • Consistency.  Subscription based businesses can’t earn predictable income (or trust) if content and communication are sporadic.  If you only make art when the muse happens to float by, you should learn how to be consistent first.
  • Popularity.  This may be a hard pill to swallow, but the truth is “if you build it they will come” does not apply to crowdfunding.  It’s best to build a following, remain consistent and when the time is right, launch your subscription service for your most loyal fans.  For help with this stage, check out some thought leaders in digital marketing for musicians: Indepreneur and Music Marketing Manifesto.
  • Reliability.  Once your fans start paying every month, they’ll expect you to be there for them, deliver whatever goodies you’ve promised, and provide support.  You can delegate some of this, but it won’t work if you’re not seen as reliable.
  • Service.  You’ll be interacting a lot with your fans who you’re trying to make ongoing customers, so your customer service skills need to be on point.  That shouldn’t be hard for rock-star types who love interaction.  It’s just a matter of making sure you’re putting your customers’ needs first.
  • Patience.  Your wildest dreams are possible, but it could take time.  The big numbers artists like Amanda Palmer pull in look great, but the reality is those are outliers.  In fact only 2% of Patreon creators make more than minimum wage.  Don’t get discouraged or quit too soon.  Let your business grow over time, rather than hoping to explode.

If you can create those things (and you can!), you’re on track for building a business that works!

The tools

In order to make your fan club go, you’ll need a few tools. 

As it turns out, Rebilly has a thorough rundown of the tools you’ll need to launch your subscription business.  Nevertheless, here’s a quick rundown of the tools you’ll need.

You might also like to use a customer relationship manager, a support tool, and a shipping tool, if you’ve got physical product.

What to deliver

What you give your subscribers is entirely up to you.  People love exclusivity, and you can create a feeling of being one of the in crowd with a variety of digital products, subscription only content and access.  Most successful acts get quite creative with what they offer their diehard subscribers.

Here are a few ideas to get your juices flowing:

  • Music.  What a concept!  You can simply give your subscribers regular access to new songs.  You can release a new single every month which they get before the public, release exclusive remixes, even do a cover song every month.  Jim Guthrie gives access to his entire back catalog of 14 albums – quite a lot of music.
  • Video.  Video is super engaging, and it doesn’t have be all full music videos.  Behind the scenes videos, explanations of songs or special performances are all options.  Andrew Huang’s whole shtick is live performance videos, with a lot of cross collaboration thrown in.
  • Access.  Fans love having access to musicians.  This may be the biggest advantages indies have over major label artists, who are typically hidden behind a veil of mystery.  You still seem like a rock star to your fans, and people will pay to get behind that wall.  You can do live video with interactive chat, online performances, Facebook interactions, and even perform in person for your top tier subscribers.  You can also seek feedback and let your fans be part of the process.  Nino Bless takes the time to live stream, email and even call subscribers, and his fans really appreciate the attention.
  • Merch.  Also known as physical stuff.  For your higher paying subscribers, you could ship regular goodie boxes with shwag like shirts, buttons, stickers or even CDs.  Just make sure to budget for shipping, production and packaging based on what subscribers pay, and leave yourself a profit margin.  For $25 per creation, Amanda Palmer will send physical artwork that she makes.  You can also increase revenue beyond subscription fees by offering awesome exclusive merch or discounts.

Above all, provide value and an ongoing, engaging experience.  You’re beyond just making music when you gather paying subscribers.  You’re creating an experience, and it can be quite effective!

It’s up to you

It’s an exciting time to be a musician, even if it’s a little frightening.  Fans are gobbling up new music, and they’re dying for an experience beyond the anonymous, boring pop radio phenomenon.  As an indie with some ingenuity, you’re situated perfectly to fish the teeming waters of people who want to be touched, moved and inspired, and want to be a part of the process.

It might take a little time, effort and new thinking, but it can be done, and it can be very rewarding.

I admit it, I don’t have a subscription program yet. I may do that at some point, but in the meantime just hit me up on Facebook @AaronJTrumm – or email me aaron @ recordinglikemacgyver.com

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