Working musicians once made the majority of their income touring. Now, some acts are paying their rent using Patreon and Twitch.

credits: @marvelouscrane /@hihatchie
  • Some working musicians who traditionally made the bulk of their income touring internationally pivoted to creator platforms like Patreon and Twitch during the pandemic.
  • As subscription platforms increasingly become an effective way for creatives to generate revenue, several Australian artists said the money has allowed them to continue working.
  • “At this point I do consider myself a content creator as well as, first and foremost, an artist,” producer and singer Eilish Gilligan told Business Insider Australia.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Over 60% of singer Harriette Pilbeam’s fanbase is based in the US, but she hasn’t been able to reach them in over a year.

Pilbeam, better known professionally as Hatchie, spent the pandemic in her home city of Brisbane. She told Business Insider Australia that artists like her spend the majority of their time touring in Europe, the UK and the US. And the big international shows — with audiences that reach wider and deeper than Australia’s music scene — are the ones that help touring musicians make real money.

When her financial situation began to deteriorate in the middle of last year, around the same time it became clear that plans to return to LA to finish recording a new album were unlikely to eventuate any time soon, Pilbeam decided to do something she’d never considered before. She signed up for Patreon, the subscription platform for creators.

Roy Molloy, the saxophonist for Australian musician Alex Cameron, said he had a similar experience. “A Patreon rep reached out to us,” he said.

Molloy told Business Insider Australia that when the band, who are based in New York when they’re not touring, realised they’d have to find a way to pay the bills while the city was locked down, they began exploring monetised content options.

“Our booking agency collapsed at the start of COVID,” Molloy said.

He described it as the moment the band began to look at the content they had always created as part of their gonzo-style marketing on social media – a bizarre but joyous Instagram account populated by photos of cranes sent in from fans in cities around the world, chaotic behind-the-scenes TikToks before shows, a hyperactive Twitter presence built around lore of Molloy and Cameron as shady “business associates” out of an Italian mafia B-movie — as something that could be put behind a paywall.

Patreon, which was founded in the US in 2013, has exploded in popularity along with podcasters and online video makers over the past eight years.

It allows video creators, podcasters, writer and other content creators to charge a monthly subscription fee in exchange for access to content.

It’s proven popular with creators who’ve grown sick of overcrowded, ad-driven public platforms like YouTube, which demand ever more extreme content in order to be pushed to viewers by its algorithm, as well as with podcasters looking to develop another source of revenue outside of advertising.

But Patreon hasn’t necessarily been a natural fit for musicians.

In April last year, The Music Network reported that Australian creators were turning to Patreon in record numbers to bolster their income while in lockdown.

It cited statistics provided by the company showing that growth was up 36.2% from February, the highest rate since it launched in May 2013.

And Australians were among the 30,000 creators who signed up in the first three weeks of March, it said, claiming about 9,200 creators make an average of $500 a month, and 4,300 about $1,000 a month.

‘I didn’t really know it was something musicians did’

Pilbeam said while she was familiar with Patreon, she didn’t know it was something musicians used.

When she tried to find other Australian artists on the platform, “the first people that were coming up to me were people like Ben Folds and Kimbra.”

However, she decided the combination of a devoted international audience that already engaged with her on Twitter and Instagram was evidence she’d be able to gain a solid audience.

She now creates weekly content for subscribers, including video commentaries on music videos, a podcast based on subscriber recommendations, Q&As, and – for subscribers to the top tier who pay AU$27.50 a month – a handwritten lyric sheet which is posted to them.

“At first, I felt a bit weird about taking money from people,” Pilbeam said. “I was a bit worried about keeping up with their expectations and really making it feel worth it to them.

She said the fact she hadn’t considered herself a “content creator” in the past made the transition awkward.

“At first, I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is right for me,’” she said.

However, she said her experience on the platform has been more creatively fulfilling than she expected. It’s also a place to engage with international fans she worries she’ll lose touch with as Australia’s border closures roll on.

“It’s just been really nice to know that there are still people out there who care … I would much rather be doing this on Patreon than doing a bunch of sponsored posts.”

Molloy said that when Patreon reached out, he wasn’t sure if “it was part of a strategy to get more bands, or there was just some rep who was a fan of the band.”

“We were looking into other platforms,” he said.

“I’ve streamed a lot on Twitch and saw some money from that. But Patreon actually approached us and just laid out what they would do and what it would actually look like for us,” he said.

He said the fact the band already produced so much content made it easy to make the transition.

“Basically, we took all of the content that we would generally make on our Instagram or stuff that we would drip feed for free and started doing it on the Patreon for a subscription fee.”

Molloy also said that streaming music on the platform performs equally well as any of the other material they release.

Each month they upload a cover song, with insights into the music that inspired Molloy and Cameron.

“We’ve talked about the gear that goes into the songs, because a lot of hardcore music fans very much want to know the kind of equipment that you use to produce the sound and the process behind it,” Molloy said.

“But then we’ve done a lot of what I would call miscellanea.”

“I talk about cars that I like. We do a gag called Wikihow, where we just read a Wikipedia article. Alex’s girlfriend [artist and actress Jemima Kirke] does what we call ‘midnight stories,’ where she reads a short story that she enjoys or finds exciting. I do workouts.”

Molloy said their embrace of Patreon was intimately connected to the slow decline in things which once supported working musicians, including touring, “which is how any sort of mid level band makes money.”

Even before the pandemic, factors like Brexit had made touring more expensive and complicated. It drove home for the band that “the only stable thing that any musician has, or any artist has are the fans,” Molloy said.

‘People are pivoting towards making content in every business’

28-year-old Melbourne-based producer, singer and songwriter Eilish Gilligan represents a new breed of artist that blurs the line between performer, fan and community.

“I’m actively posting on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, TinyLetter and TikTok, and I also have a Discord,” Gilligan told Business Insider Australia via email.

She spends around nine hours a week on Twitch, she said, with two of those devoted to “just chatting back and forth with my community, and playing the multiplayer online horror game ‘Dead By Daylight’ with other streamers on Twitch,” she said.

Gilligan said she doesn’t see the difference between building a fanbase and a community online.

“At this point I do consider myself a content creator as well as, first and foremost, an artist,” she said.

Gilligan thinks even if she wasn’t actively working to find new audiences, she’d be doing the exact same thing online.

“I’m not an artist who says ‘if I didn’t *have* to do this, I wouldn’t’,” she said. I’d probably be at least on a few social media platforms even if I wasn’t required to be.”

While he wouldn’t share monthly earnings, Molloy said income from Patreon was what has kept the band together in the past year. The highest subscription tier charges $AU $41 a month.

“The fans have allowed us to survive this year,” he said. “They’ve helped us pay the rent.”

“And, it’s been via making content – which is kind of amazing, because we’ve always done it for free.”

He said that while creating a community around the band and its chaotic mythology has always been at the top of their minds, “it was an eye opener that people will pay money to make sure we can keep doing what we do.”

Pilbeam took a retail job earlier this year to provide financial security, but said she hopes earnings from Patreon will soon allow her to quit and use the platform as a core income stream.

Gilligan said the funds she earned through Twitch, where she was made a ‘Twitch Partner’ in November last year, were essential to her ability to continue working as an artist.

“Though it isn’t a huge amount, it has been unfathomably helpful during a period where shows have been non-existent,” she said.

Gilligan said she personally thinks more creatives will embrace Twitch over the next few years as part of a strategy that includes performing live and touring.

“It’s just such a fantastic way to introduce yourself to fans who are really gonna be your champions,” she said.

Molloy said he sees the move by smaller bands and artists onto platforms as part of the wider trend.

“I think folks have pivoted towards making content in every business,” Molloy said, “because building a fan base that’s engaged and has that loyalty — it’s your safety net right now.”