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Navigating the Music Industry

Erica Campbell is a music journalist and also managing editor at Patreon. Caitlin White is a pop culture journalist, editor, and most recently held the title of director of music at a national music publication. Using their shared knowledge on music, Patreon, and the business struggles of one of the world’s most infamous pop stars, they crafted the following conversation to answer questions about the current state of the music industry.

The Importance of Creative Independence

“At Patreon, we are constantly having conversations around the meaning of creative independence, and what that means for creators. Often, those creators are musicians who have attempted traditional paths to success, like record label support, before realizing they could and should go at it alone. We’ve seen artists like Amanda Palmer, Zola Jesus, and even music journalists and media companies like Dead End Hip Hop and Needle Drop, get rid of the middleman and connect directly with listeners by embracing the new model we offer Patreon.” - Erica Campbell

“When it comes to independence, there are few artists in the music industry who are more passionate about the subject than Taylor Swift. She signed an extensive and limiting six-album deal in 2005 when she was just 14, becoming the youngest person to ever sign with Sony/ATV, who handles the label’s publishing. It’s been fifteen years since that decision, and the songwriter has begun speaking up on the impact of entering a business relationship at such a young age. Though the country-turned-pop-star has long been a fixture on the charts, in the record books, and at award shows, over the last couple of years she has shown up in another public arena — artists’ rights.” - Caitlin White

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Music Should Not Be Free

“One of the issues artists music industry wide run into is not only funding their work, but being able to sustain their work and actually live full lives while making money from music. It goes back to remembering their value. Yes, it’s about creating, but they should also be able to sustain their work and their life styles from it. As digital music market As Hayley Rosenblum shared with us at last year’s SXSW, ‘Your fans are happy to give you money. Let’s pause and remember that. You're giving them value and they've given you value’. As artists, musicians are creating something of value, and that value shouldn’t have to be created for free.” - Erica Campbell

“Back in 2014, Taylor Swift pulled her entire catalog off Spotify due to the subscription service’s unpaid, ad-supported tiers. Her bottom line? Music should not be free. In response, Spotify limited the free streaming set up. Similarly, in 2015, Swift penned an open letter to Apple Music, publicly explaining to the company that their decision not to pay royalties to independent artists during a three-month trial period subscription offered to all new users was not acceptable to her. In about 24 hours, Apple did a 180 on their stance and agreed to pony up for artists even while they weren’t making money off user streams. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the points of agreement between Swift and her new home at UMG/Republic Records was a broadly-termed Spotify payout for all artists on the label: if the label sold their stakes in the now-publicly traded streaming service, every artist on their roster would get a kickback.” - Caitlin White

The Power of Ownership

“Ownership is at the forefront of many of the conversations we’re having with creators on Patreon, especially when it comes to artists who create and share music. Many artists have decided to run their careers as an independent business, making it possible to put their name on their work and know that no one else can take credit for it, or worse, take ownership of it. In an industry where middlemen can often equal abandonment of their rights over their work, platforms like Patreon have because a safe haven where artists can share their art directly with their fans. It can be scary to go towards nontraditional channels, but as singer and songwriter, Raye Zargoza, told us when asked about the advice she’d share to other artists, “[do] not wait for anyone to do something for you and just take it into your own hands. We’re living in a time where there are so many avenues for that, Patreon being the way I believe in most. It’s a substantial part of my income. So yeah, don’t wait around for anyone.” - Erica Campbell

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“While artists making money, and being rightfully paid for their talent, is a sticking point for Swift, there’s another element that she’s even more passionate about — ownership. Most modern musicians, including then-fourteen-year-old Swift, sign early record deals that prohibit them from owning their own masters, effectively cutting them off from the possibility of maintaining control over their own legacy. She recently shared a public letter on Tumblr, after her old label sold her master recordings to Scooter Braun’s company, Ithaca Holdings. In the letter, Taylor indicates that she lobbied and negotiated for any way to obtain the rights to the master recordings of her first six albums; but all the deals she was offered to stay on with Big Machine Records included a one-for-one trade — for every old album she wanted back, she had to give the label another new record. In an effort to both regain control of her songwriting and devalue the artistic property Braun purchased, she announced a direct, concise plan: Simply re-record those first six albums. It feels like an uncomplicated solution that might’ve worked for plenty of other artists faced with the same conundrum in the past, but the truth is, Taylor was and is uniquely positioned to make this proposition work.” - Caitlin White

Connecting Directly with Fans

“We recently sat down with Alissa White-Gluz, a Patreon creator and the lead vocalist for metal band, Arch Enemy, about creating in whatever way she wants. When we asked her about choosing non-traditional channels to fund her work, she told us, “I wanted somewhere I could just interact with my closest fans in a way that’s just direct and honest." That sentiment has been echoed by artists like Amanda Palmer and Raye Zargoza, who see their audience as not just fans, but as equal members of their community. They leverage that direct relationship to get honest feedback from the audience members who are the most invested in their work, while also making sure that they stay engaged with the people who make their careers possible. A direct connection with fans without having to go through labels or firms is one of the reasons so many artists choose to use Patreon.” - Erica Campbell

“It’s safe to say that Taylor Swift has a closer relationship with her fans than most pop stars of the current era. Social media allows for a level of connection that simply wasn’t possible in the past, and Swift has leveraged it to do research on her die-hard fanbase — Swift brings them to private and secret listening sessions, offers them meet-and-greet opportunities on her massive tours, and even, occasionally, responds to fans who are going through trauma or extremely painful circumstances. This connection she’s built comes in handy when she shares her , her fans will listen and relate.” - Caitlin White

The Resources to Create

“Taylor has the resources and the relationships to get studio time, pay musicians, and lobby for her former collaborators to come help her recreate her previous work. Her level of affluence and access shouldn’t be dismissed, as artists without these connections and financial resources probably couldn’t pull a stunt like this off. Finally, Swift is already known for doing things that most people haven’t done before or tried. She has experience with situations like this, and it’s an experiment that could build industry-wide momentum; if she succeeds, then other artists in similar, limiting positions regarding their own masters might be empowered to attempt re-recording, too.” - Caitlin White

“For artists to create, they need more than just internal drive. They need a team, a studio, and all a million other adjacent business requirements people rarely think of when they hear a song they resonate with. In short, they need funding, and traditional paths to funding are no longer as lucrative as they used to be. For creators and musicians starting out without access to the funding a recording artists like Taylor Swift has, platforms like Patreon give them the space to have a voice, take risk, choose independence, and know that they have an audience and income they can fall back on.” - Erica Campbell

The Final Word on Independence

“When artists decide they want to make a living from creating art, they’re taking the leap to not just ask for permission, but to lean into and leverage their creativity to make a living. The current label system doesn’t make that easy, and we’ve seen that same story of lack of ownership and inability to create independently come from artists who have depended on the traditional path to industry unsuccessfully. However, there’s still hope for a better way of connecting directly, funding your career, and connecting with fans while still maintaining creative autonomy. As our music creator partnership lead, Joe Barham recently shared with our readers, “There are tens of thousands of ways to be successful and avenues to release your music and conversations to be had, which is a far cry from what it used to be.”

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“Although the pitfalls of the label system have been well-documented for decades now, most artists still decide to work within the established framework instead of going independent. Still, following Swift’s story might be a warning to some — even the longest and closest relationships with the inner workings of the music industry can sour. The best bet for artists in 2019 is to connect with their fans directly, work to own their own music, and set up a life for themselves that exists independently, outside the traditional confines of the industry.” - Caitlin White

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