I included Circuit Boredom, the most recent album from Ben Kweller, in my list of the best albums of 2020. Though the album is now available on all major streaming platforms, at the time that I published that review, Circuit Boredom was locked behind a paywall on Kweller’s personal website. Kweller has adopted a subscription model to his music which I find fascinating. Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about:
When I first discovered that this was how Kweller was monetizing these days, it felt so futuristic. A musician relying on the subscription model? That sound you’re hearing is the official death knell of album sales; the coroner marked the time of death as when a musician with a major cult following started using the same revenue model as every listener-supported podcast recorded in a random basement in Des Moines.
But that knee-jerk reaction is dumb for a couple of reasons. The first is that artists of all varieties, including musicians, have been relying on the support of patrons for basically all of history, save the last 100 or so years. There’s a reason that the most well known creator-subscription platform calls itself Patreon. Requesting that your listeners provide direct financial support is, in a way, the least progressive approach that a musician can take.
It is also, arguably, the best financial model for both artists and their fans. The time of profitable album sales is over—whether or not the streaming revolution is good for artists, there’s no undoing it. Until the catastrophe of COVID-19, concert revenue was driving the income statements of most musicians. But that’s an inherently limiting model because the only people who can provide financial support are those within geographic proximity to select concert venues. At $40 annually, Kweller’s Music Plan seems slightly overpriced in the market, given that most of the music provided is available elsewhere for substantially less. (To his credit, Kweller does provide access to some rarities and deep cuts for that price.) But that $100/year tier is intriguing because you get access to his music, discounts on his merch and the ability to attend any concert he plays. The flexibility of that perk alone seems worth the price, assuming you love Ben Kweller and that live concerts are not currently being derailed by a global pandemic.
There is a caveat attached, as the fine print above shows: Some venues or events won’t allow this type of “member” access. Depending on how frequently that becomes a problem, I suppose it could sap the value of this kind of package. But if you love Ben Kweller, and you plan to see him every time he comes through town, and you genuinely want to support him, this kind of plan feels like a win-win. Honestly, I’m surprised more bands aren’t doing this. And I’m guessing that more will, soon. At least, until venue owners start cracking down on how many “members” can attend each show.
Of course, this subscription model is really only available to artists with established fanbases. Or at least, it’s only available in a way that could produce meaningful, scalable revenue to artists with established fanbases. No band is going to materially expand their listener base if the only way to hear them is locked behind a paywall. So what’s a young, talented band to do? Honestly, I have no idea. The same shit as always, I suppose. Grind like hell at the online promotion game, hope you find a label or other partner to help spread the word and maybe you’ll organically build a fanbase or at least score a viral hit. This whole process reminds me a lot of the cord-cutting “revolution.” It’s great that we’ve cut out the middlemen so that Comcast and Columbia aren’t getting rich by exploiting artists, but fundamentally the system still works the same way: In music as in most everything else in capitalist America, the best way to succeed is to already be successful.