Art has never been more appreciated and less valued than it currently is. There is a wide social understanding of the importance of creativity in our lives, and the need for well-crafted songs, paintings, books, and essays. Yet while this understanding has spread, the need to pay for these things has been eroded.
More and more artists, musicians, writers, and now even journalists, are turning to alternative funding models. Increasingly we are looking for direct support from fans, listeners, readers — the people we make art for, and with.
There are many ways to crowdfund. Kickstarter is still the gold standard for project-based funding. But project-based funding isn’t enough for most creators, because even those blockbuster campaigns that far exceed their goals are only shipping more product.
Subscriptions are coming up as the new wave of micro-patronage, from running your own site to joining one of the monthly-funding platforms, there are many options.
Welcome to MISSION CONTROL.
Since 2012 I’ve had my very own subscription platform called MISSION CONTROL where 163 backers have supported me monthly and made my music possible. The website hosts password protected blogs, songs, videos, and documentation of my creative process; things I make but do not want to share with the internet at large.
MISSION CONTROL changed my life. I went from feast or famine, hand-to-mouth living on the terrifying roller coaster that is the financial life of many artists, to the relative luxury of having a stable income.
A stable income.
Independent artists huddle together around digital campfires and tell stories about the mythical “stable income.” It’s real, friends. Even for artists with no family money, no record label, no publishers, no youtube hit.
I built MISSION CONTROL myself, the first iteration of it was pretty hokey looking, but I loved it so and my songwriting flourished under the safety of knowing I could eat and pay rent. At first I used ugly Paypal buttons to invite monthly subscriptions and had to email new subscribers directly, asking what username they’d like, I then made a user account for them. One by one. This is not a scalable system.
Nowadays I run my own password protected Wordpress site, with all Paypal payments and user accounts generated by paidmembershipspro.com. I love it, it works well and they are constantly upgrading to include better services. The free version is fully usable, though $97/year gives you access to full documentation and support, and for a fee they’ll help you customize and install Paid Memberships Pro on your own website.“The starving artist” is mythologized as a true creative, but it’s largely a lie. I’m always fiercely creative, but I’m not the only artist in the world who feels that the low-level terror of destitution is a detriment, not a bonus, to my art.
“Starving” may be “romantic,” but subscriptions gave me the breathing room to make better music with better tools.
I still ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording and manufacture of my last album, but it was MISSION CONTROL that afforded me the time to write and craft a truly wonderful work of art I am proud of. And it’s MISSION CONTROL that funds the writing of my next album, the release of all the single songs and videos between albums, an ongoing collaboration with the writer Warren Ellis, and the writing of essays like these.
Subscriptions are not a replacement for project-based crowdfunding, they’re complementary.
Carla Kihlstedt, a world renowned violinist and singer, and her husband, Matthias Bossi, an extraordinary drummer, piano player and storyteller, embarked on a music subscription experiment in 2011 that is still going strong.
Rabbitrabbitradio.com is their brainchild, an ongoing series of songs, released on the first day of each month, for subscribers only. The world of Rabbit Rabbit Radio is charming, immediately welcoming, and excitingly new. As musicians, Carla and Matthias are known for wild abondon and fierce beauty.
Supporting rabbitrabbitradio.com is a wonderful way to watch these two incredibly inspiring artists evolve and experiment.
Subscription websites have been popping up right and left over the past few years. The first I was ever aware of was called patronism.com, but it’s still in beta years after launch and is really ugly (sorry guys.)
Ziibra.com is built for a wide variety of creative types, it has a beautiful interface and straightforward plan. It’s easy to fall in love with the glossy site and I could see it working as a platform for many types of artists. Ziibra puts the emphasis on creation rather than production, something I think is incredibly important and very overlooked in our product-obsessed world. Ziibra doesn’t have many users yet, and the name is confusing, but I think they’re on the right path.
Patreon.com is the lead horse in the subscription race, it was founded by Jack Conte, youtube sensation and inspiration. Many artists, writers, and musicians are starting to use Patreon.com as their ongoing funding platforms and it’s perfect for people who put out a lot of free content and want a way to get ongoing tips from supporters. Patreon.com is absolutely production focused, with high-output fetishized over slow-crafted creation. It is amazing for some creators but completely inappropriate for others.
Subbable.com is similar to Patreon, but it hides the dollar amount of funding which some people find preferable. Giving people a solid goal to reach for is more satisfying, but there is something to be said for the personal desire to keep your income private.
Beaconreader.com is specifically for writing, which is certainly a niche that needs to be filled. I find the “fund one person and get access to everyone’s work” model ethically dubious. But maybe it really is the best way forward.
Zivity.com is a pinup photography platform, founded in 2007, it was one of the very first art patronage websites. Artists/models upload photo sets, and patrons get the chance to vote for those sets. Each vote costs a dollar to cast, people can vote as many times as they like, and 85% of every dollar goes directly to the artists every time their set receives a vote.
Gittip.com is a quiet contender for my favorite ongoing-funding platform. While not really a subscription platform, it provides weekly funding for coders, writers, artists and more. Gittip.com is creation focused, with a “no-strings-attached” approach to funding. Funders trust that you, as a creator, will continue to create the things you do, and they fund you for it regardless of specific output. Yes to this. So much yes.
Instead of paying for art after it is made, we support it while it is being made.
We honor the creation, not just the production.
To fund the writing of her albums, my sister Zoe Boekbinder, launched her “Sea Creatures” program in 2009— a monthly funding platform where members get exclusive videos, recordings, blogs and photo updates from her adventures. She’s currently working on an album written with inmates at New Folsom Prison.
Zoe first had the idea of monthly band subscriptions ten years ago. The world is finally catching up.
Musician Marian Call has a hidden space on her website, for those who really look, called “The Donor’s Circle,” it is a place where her biggest fans can support her ongoing songwriting, independent of releases and products. Marian still has wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund tours and albums, but it’s the quiet donors that give her the time it takes to craft something truly deep and beautiful.
“I think of the Donors’ Circle as my very own Zombie Cheerleaders — they keep me encouraged, keep me rolling, and keep me independent, and they own part of my music in a very real sense.” — Marian Call.
It is beautiful to me that fans and supporters are willing to fund artists without promise of immediate project reward. Marian and Zoe are prolific and giving artists, their fans trust that their art will continue to be as beautiful and intelligent as it always has been, and they want to be part of that process.
Running your own subscription site is a prodigious amount of work, and something many artists are not cut out for.
Patreon and its ilk are wonderful platforms for different reasons, they do a lot of backend work, database maintenance, and backer-info streamlining that is a real headache to do by yourself. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses. Patreon currently has the most momentum, and if I had the right project for it I’d jump on in a second. For ongoing monthly funding I prefer to stick to my own site, because it’s a world I build myself, and the limits of my technical skills are made up for by my comfort and freedom to express. It my not be as slick as those big platforms, but it’s mine.
As internet behemoths crumble and fail around us it is becoming increasingly important to maintain distribution of your own art.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t use any of the other funding platforms — give them all a go if you’re up for it! I’m sure new platforms will crop up and the perfect one for you may be just around the corner. Use whatever platform makes your art possible.
Just remember that at the end of the day, and the end of the internet, it’s your art that makes them possible, too. All the funding platforms in the world still come back to you, your art, and your ability to ask for support.