Friday, March 7, 2014

Reflections: the subscription model, one year on

A year ago this week, things were not looking up for me on the financial front.  I mean, it's all relative -- I wasn't living in a war zone or anything.  But financially, there was a slow-motion implosion going on -- the business model I had established for making a living as a DIY musician wasn't quite working out as well as it had before.  It worked before because I was able and willing to tour 10 months a year.  But since I had a kid, I haven't been able to or wanted to do that, so I was trying to find other ways of making this thing work.  And, a bit to my surprise, I did!  Or, to put it another way, 273 people (and counting) who signed up to my scheme did...

I have always embraced the idea -- partly out of a lack of viable alternatives -- that a good musician can make a living as a performer, without the support of the music industry, by actively giving away their music online, and relying on people who find it and like it to organize gigs for them, and to pay to attend those gigs.  I embraced the concept on principle, more or less, before I knew whether it was practical, and then found out that it was, at least for me.  I put up all my music, and doing this created a buzz, I think because of some combination of the quality of the music itself, but importantly, because of the quantity of it that I was putting up for free download (all of it, at once), and the attitude that accompanied that act (take it and share it, please).

People from all over the world found it.  MP3's were downloaded millions of times over the years, and videos viewed millions of times, altogether (though in the very low end of the 7 digits, nothing like the hundreds of millions of views that the pop stars get).  My theory was (and is) that for every thousand people who like an artists, one of them might be willing to organize a gig.  With luck, skill and guidance, it might even be a good gig!  I figured 100,000 songs downloaded in a given year, 100 gigs around the world each year, voila, it's a living.

But, I found, there seem to be limits.  It may be that the limitation is the quality of my music, and its limited appeal -- I don't know, but there doesn't seem to be a big enough pool of DIY musicians using the same model to compare myself with.  But it seems that without music industry support, lots of airplay, etc., there are only so many really good, well-attended, well-paying gigs that are going to come together in a given year.  It's kind of like running a small farm -- you till the soil, plant the seeds, etc., but then how good your crop that year is going to be depends on the weather and other factors.  In my case, it depends on the economy, the health of social movements in a given year, which ends up being my main employer, you could say, and factors like whether I get denied entry to Canada or New Zealand or have a $6,000 dentist bill (all of which happened to me in 2013).

It occurred to me then, a year ago (with the help of my accountant), that if there were a thousand people willing to subscribe to me -- to sign up to send me $50 a year, and receive CDs and a free-admission-to-my-concerts card in the mail in exchange -- I could crowdsource my career, and be completely insulated from the vicissitudes of the weather.  If there was a protest happening somewhere -- and social movements often get suddenly significant with very little notice -- I could just go there, without having to spend months lining up paying gigs first in order to cover the expense.  When I'm ready to record a new CD I could just hire the studio and the musicians and do it, with no Kickstarter campaign necessary.  If I were denied entry to a country?  No problem, I'd have a backup plan.

Subscriptions have come from people in 18 countries (especially the US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Germany), including 32 US states (especially the states I lived in the longest, as an adult -- California, Washington, Oregon and Massachusetts).  The initial hundred or so subscribers during the first few months of my campaign allowed me to keep touring, but not accrue credit card debt while doing so.  The next hundred subscribers were instrumental in turning what could have been a personal financial disaster -- the cancellation of my tour in New Zealand last August -- into a situation where I essentially lost nothing.  (Though I still feel bad for all those gig organizers whose efforts were ultimately for naught...)

Over the course of the year, though, the numbers of new people signing up have slowed down a lot.  Perhaps my goal of a thousand subscribers is unrealistic, I don't know, the jury's still out.  But recently it occurred to me, while participating in a fund drive at my local community radio station, KBOO, that perhaps what I need to do is emulate the community radio model here in the US, and create a multi-tiered approach, with different "rewards" for different levels of support.  Although what I propose to offer are services much more labor-intensive than a signed copy of a book or a tote bag (not to malign signed books or tote bags).

So, on the one-year anniversary of my effort to crowdsource my career, especially for those of you are part of organizations, or who fall into the "gainfully employed" category, I hereby offer to you three more Circles of support in addition to what we could call the Subscribers Circle.  You can read about them on my Subscribe link, or go directly to the new page for Subscription Campaign -- Family, Concert, and Song Circles.

And whether you're able to subscribe to me in any of those ways, thanks for sharing my music, which is how it all begins...  (And thanks for coming to my gigs, and especially to those of you who have taken or will take it upon yourself to organize one of them...!)

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