Musician Nika Danilova, better known as Zola Jesus, has been in the music scene for the last decade. During that time, she has come to the realization that the model for independent artists is broken and the creativity that drives them is thwarted by challenges created by industry middlemen.
“Having been around for about 10 years now, I’ve been trying to get creative. I want to do this for the rest of my life so how can I make that work in a way that’s sustainable, maintains my independence, and my uncompromising path,” says Zola Jesus told Patreon during this year’s SXSW.
As commonplace in the record industry, artists have several middlemen to get past before their music reaches the ears of their fans. Every step of the way artists give away a bit more of their profits away and see their anxiety rise. “It’s getting harder to play shows, find labels, and get paid for what you’re doing,” she says.
That’s when Zola Jesus saw the advantages of the Patreon platform. Going down the membership model path for Zola her has been “amazing” to connect directly with her fans. “Working within the framework of a fan-based support system is life changing. It allows me to connect with the people directly that appreciate what I do and want to help keep it happening,” she says.
Being this close to her fans through the Patreon community works as a symbiotic relationship as Zola Jesus receives a stream of constant feedback from her fans through messages and comments. She offers them exclusive access to new songs, demos, works in progress, mixes, reading lists, music videos, and more.
“It strengthens my relationship with my music, I give them something and they give me something; I don’t think that’s ever stated quite clearly but it’s evident in this model with this community,” she says.
The classically trained opera singer recently returned to her home in Wisconsin prior to releasing her last album, Okovi. One of her darkest albums yet, the songs signal to bouts of depression, sadness, strength, and wisdom. With creating, comes burnout she says, often feeling like “I’ve made everything that I can make and I feel used up. But I think we all feel that way as creators.”
“The important thing is to keep pushing through because when I work through that burnout and get into the next stage of making something, it is the most meaningful, profound experience — I just live off of that feeling. It makes it all worth it,” she says.
Through it all, she continues to interact in long messages with her community, “like pen pals,” and connect with them across the world.
“It’s cool because I grew up in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t have anyone that shared my interests. It’s so nice to have these people that by making music, you get these feelers out, like an antenna, and it brings in all of these people that have like-minded ideologies as you,” she says.
To reward her community and bring more engagement from current and new patrons, she’s working toward a goal of 500 patrons on her page. She’s past the halfway point and once she reaches her goal, she will perform a live-streamed exclusive solo performance of five songs of the Patreon-masses choosing.
“My patrons have been really reaffirming and beautiful. For me, it proves the deep relationship that I have with my fans and that they have with me. It’s about people connecting,” she says.
Next up, Zola Jesus is most excited about starting to write her next record. “In the process, it’s been really fun to experiment with things, whether it’s poetry, video, or photography. Or experimental songs that I wouldn’t normally show anybody and putting those on Patreon has been really rewarding.”
“I’m excited to do that more and maybe create a physical thing that they can have [to thank them for] their investment in this community and that’s just for them. That’s been really exciting to focus on.”