The Return of the Artistic Patron

A couple of weeks ago, I observed with interest a discussion on Twitter between the Lost Cartographers‘ bass player, Karl Seigfried, and writer/bass player Keidra Chaney. The discussion was too long and wide-ranging to reproduce completely here, but it centered on the question of how the rise of internet is affecting both journalists and musicians.

Karl, who makes his living performing and teaching music, pointed out the dilemma facing recording musicians in the age of the “information wants to be free” generation.

My students are performance, music business, and music ed majors. All want music for free, but still think they’ll make a living at it.

And later:

This is what I mean about the internet model not working. These young people will NEVER pay for music. So how do we finance recording?

Now, I’m generally a proponent of the idea that having their music downloaded for free (whether legally or not) is not necessarily a bad thing for bands, and that fighting the technology, as the record companies have attempted, is an unwinnable battle. But it does raise the question, as Karl asks, of how musicians without the backing of a record company afford to record and effectively distribute albums (or singles, or ringtones, or whatever the dominant popular musical form becomes).

Despite the steep drop in costs for recording technology in the digital age, recording can still be one of the more expensive endeavors musicians may undertake. Equipment, including instruments, microphones, and software, must be rented or purchased. Experts in engineering, mixing, and mastering may need to be hired. Some physical copies will likely need to be manufactured. Those who have day jobs may need to take time of off work to attend to the recording process. If no one buys the music we record, how on earth do we justify this expense, and afford to make future recordings?

It’s important to remember, I think, that while the death of the record industry model as we knew it is certainly a paradigm shift, musicians were making a living long before the first record company was formed — performance has always been, and will likely always remain, most musicians’ bread and butter. The sort of large-scale effort represented today largely by complex recording projects was in the past by supported primarily through the patronage model. Wealthy individuals, families, or organizations (such as the Catholic Church) would provide the funds to support artists for the length of, say the composition of a symphony, trading actual capital for the social (or spiritual) capital of having their names associated with great works of art.

The move to the record industry model was a result of the fact that, by virtue of being recorded onto a physical product — a record, cassette, or CD — music became a commodity that could be exchanged not just for social capital but for actual capital. Record companies controlled the means of production of these commodities, from the recording studios to the vinyl pressers, and therefore were able to institute what was in effect an artificial scarcity; as a result, the demand for their products was usually higher than the supply, resulting in massive profits for the companies that controlled those means of production. Today, when the means of production are effectively in the hands of nearly everyone who owns a computer, the cost of reproducing that product is virtually zero, and the supply of recorded music far outstrips the demand, recorded music is largely a valueless commodity.

But while the monetary value of recorded music approaches zero, the emotional value for music fans remains high – we all remember where we were when we first heard our favorite artist, or how a particular album got us through a difficult breakup, or whatever. Clearly music fans want musicians to continue making music. As a result, I think we are going to see a return to the patronage model of artistic production, with one incredibly important change: patronage is now longer the province of wealthy families and the Church, but of many ordinary individuals. And I’m not talking about the “pay what you like” model that superstar bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have experimented with, in which they use their own vast wealth to finance recordings and then make them available to the public for whatever price the public feels they are worth. I’m talking about artists like Jill Sobule. After years of touring (and yes, one minor hit in the 90s), Sobule had built up a small but dedicated fan base. When she found herself without a record contract, she was able to get those fans to finance her next album through pre-orders and giveaways — to the tune of $88,969 — from just 638 fans. One fan, who pledged $10,000, was even invited to sing on the album.

And now, websites like Kickstarter and Pledgemusic make this model available to all artists. A Brooklyn-based band called The Damnwells is, I think, the perfect example of this new model. Virtually unknown, they self-financed the recording of their album “One Last Century” and gave it away for free, even paying for ads announcing the giveaway on the website and email newsletters of Paste Magazine. As a result, they gained a great many fans who might never have heard of them otherwise, and were able to leverage this expanded fanbase into $30,000 dollars worth of pledges for financing their next album (while simultaneously supporting the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and TB).

One can imagine that this individual patronage model could be used to finance other aspects of an artist’s career, in addition to recording. Donate X amount, and you’ll get put on the guest list at the show of your choice; for Y amount we’ll schedule a stop in your town; for Z amount we’ll do a private show in your living room.

If we are lucky, the death of the record industry will mean the end of a middle man between musicians and their fans, and the success of a band will hinge not upon slick PR campaigns and payola to radio stations, but on the direct connection between fans and the music they love. Of course, corporate sponsorship will never go away, but I think the fan patronage model makes the playing field infinitely more level.

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