More (long) thoughts on subscription services.

Right, now the subscription is up there, we can have a chat about what it might mean, right?

After all, the word “subscription” has become somewhat tainted amongst musicians by the conversation around Spotify’s pricing model. Little work seems to have been done to look at what in particular people are listening to on Spotify and the degree to which its impact on sales is asymmetric (sales lost and streams gained not being to the same people) not to mention the whole ‘correlation or causation’ conundrum. But generally, lots of musicians are now thinking subscribing to ‘everything’ = booo!! hissss!!

So what does it mean to subscribe to just one artist rather than ‘nearly all music’, and what kind of artists and their listeners are going to benefit from this?

First up, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t new. It’s new to Bandcamp, and as a service integrated with the Bandcamp platform, it may well end up being revolutionary, but the idea has evolved from the pioneering work of quite a few people, not least of all (as is so often the case) Kristin Hersh, whose Strange Angels supporters club is exactly this – an annual subscription members club that gives those subscribers access to all kinds of things. Her pricing is tiered, so you can get all kinds of awesome exec perks if you pay a tonne of cash, but for not very much you can get a whole load of music and sometimes cheaper tickets at gigs, things like that. For someone as prolific as Kristin (she has three main projects on the go – her solo work, Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave) it’s the ideal way to not be reliant on the vagaries and speculation of the standard model of

  • borrow money,
  • make a record,
  • hope it sells,
  • wait to recoup before doing the next one,
  • or just pile up the debt in the hope you get a track on a film soundtrack and clear the decks at some point’ deal…

That’s not going to work, especially when you start having to trade the three projects off against one another (that’d be like what record companies do, and we don’t want to end up back there 😉 ).

Another artist who has used a subscription model to release way more stuff than a normal label release schedule would allow is the brilliant Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph. He had a paper mailing list in the 10s of thousands by the late 80s/early 90s, and in those pre-Internet times, sending out a newsletter became absurdly expensive. So he made his newsletter into a paid ‘information service’ and with your subscription came a properly printed glossy booklet, and at least once a year an exclusive CD. Brilliant! He gets the money to make it happen, and his dedicated fans get more music than he can afford to release via normal channels.

But now those of us who are operating on a smaller scale can join the fun. Bandcamp have, from the start, managed to combine digital and physical sales in a pretty much seamless platform. They’ve allowed artists to put the emphasis wherever works best for their career. Some people use Bandcamp exclusively for physical merch sales, using the streaming bit as a way of letting people hear the music that’s on the CD or vinyl, but not buy it. That seems insane to me, but I love the fact that people who think like that can use the same platform that freed me from ever having to press CDs at all… I’ve been using it more and more like a subscription platform for a long time, bundling works together in high volume deals, so people could “catch up” with the story so far. But the degree to which I was able to make that value proposition again and again was limited… the USB stick has also proved very popular as a way of getting everything so far.

But what about going forward? I’ve got the back catalogue stuff covered with bulk-buying and USB Sticks. Now we need to think about new music…

It seems nuts to keep releasing new albums, selling them singularly for a while, then adding them to a bundle. I mean, it works, but it’s not particularly efficient. It’s feels a bit like the old discount bin in Woolworths for things that had dropped out of the charts, as though ‘newness’ is really an important metric of anything anymore (rather than a more useful binary split between ‘music that exists’ and ‘music that will exist’)

So, for an artist as prolific as I am, one who’s not going to struggle to release way more music than fits into that old album/tour record label cycle, the idea of paying £20 to free me up to make the best music I can, be it solo, collaborative or whatever, is a way for those people who dig what I do to get involved in a more sustainable way:

  • You pay upfront – like a year-round Kickstarter without the endless begging emails.
  • You get the music the moment its released – no more waiting til payday, or til you’re on the right computer to be able to download it. It’ll be available via the Bandcamp app or a download link in an email as soon as it’s out.
  • I get to communicate directly with you about what I’m up to, without flooding the inbox of those who just want to hear about gig dates and new albums. There’s a lovely communication tool that’s built into the subscription process. It’s not invasive, it just puts messages into your bandcamp app.

And, crucially,

  • I don’t have to second guess the wider commercial appeal of a record before committing time to it. I can focus on making the best music I can.

At its best it will allow artists and audiences to evolve together. I’m sure if I changed style too much, there’d be people who decide not to renew their subscription, but I’m kind of OK with that. I like the idea that there’s always an open door here, to come in or leave. If after a year, the value proposition seems flawed – if I’ve just put up a bunch of dodgy live versions of tunes people already have – then I’m going to lose all those subscribers. Whereas if I continue to vet my work and make it all as good as I can, if I use that increased economic stability to spend more time making great music, everybody wins.

I envisage the range of subscription services evolving in really interesting ways. Vinyl-only clubs – get 10 albums a year from a range of artists, hand picked, for £100 a year, artists releasing a track a month for £5 a year, labels doing a subscription to all their albums and working out a new deal with the artists if they want to be a part of it. Patreon already have some of this stuff going on, and not just for musicians. Integrating that kind of post-cost-per-iteration economics into a service as widely used and brilliantly designed as Bandcamp could well be THE game-changer.

For me, it’ll be fun being able to give collaborative projects to my collaborators for wider release, and have my ‘payment’ be the rights to make them subscriber only downloads. Again, everyone wins.

It’ll work for podcasts, audio and video teaching materials, all kinds of fun stuff. Watch this space, it’s going to get creative… 🙂

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