Smart Artists, Smart Fans

The Internet age has drastically altered the dynamics of the interaction between corporations and their customers. Talking down at consumers, for instance, is less preferable than engaging them in a conversation that can later lead to a commercial transaction. This is what direct-to-fan marketing should be for the music industry.

Before the Internet, the figure of the rock star was dominant. The aura of mystery, backstage antics, and secrecy at the recording studio was a valuable commodity. The perspective seems quite different today.  An aura of mystery means there is no story to tell, backstage antics end up on Twitter and Reddit before the encore, and the singer’s mother gets less updates from the studio than the fans do. This is the expectation, and bands that can’t deliver are forgotten. But for artists that understand these new dynamics the promise of growing a loyal audience is real.

A loyal fan base is paramount. 1,000 of them can do a far better job of helping an artist’s career than 10,000 casual fans. This is because in the current music industry, casual fans don’t pay for music. They don’t have to. A casual fan can listen to an artist’s hit song a couple times on YouTube or Spotify and move on without paying the artist. Five years ago, such a fan might have spent 99ç to get the hit single from iTunes and if an artist could sell to 10,000 casuals the song normally paid for itself. Today downloads are dropping and iTune sells are much harder.

Casual fans may still be in the sweet spot, but there is a new breed of companies that target loyal fans, among them Patreon and PledgeMusic. Patreon allows fans to pledge a certain amount of money per work that the artist releases and the fan receives certain rewards based on the amount of money pledged. Tony Lucca, an alumnus of The Voice, has a Patreon page set up where users can spend $1, $5, $50, or $100 per each YouTube video he produces.1 In return, the patron will receive anything from exclusive access to Lucca’s Patreon stream to a monthly, and private, Skype session. Tony currently receives $1,553 per video from 170 patrons and has released 63 videos in the past 10 months. PledgeMusic is another platform that caters to loyal fans. PledgeMusic allows fans to watch the entire recording process of an album via updates straight from the artist, and offers a multi-tiered merchandise and experience store. Essentially, PledgeMusic acts as an extended pre-order campaign with an emphasis on fan engagement. Fans can spend as little as $10 for an album download to upwards of $20,000 for a house concert from the artist, with unique items such as signed vinyl copy, handwritten lyric sheets, and Skype music lessons. On PledgeMusic, the average fan spends $60 on an item, and the record pledge is over $40,000.2

Patreon and PledgeMusic have in common that they take an artist who is at their most vulnerable, i.e. in the middle of the creative process, and encourage  and enable interaction between artist and fan. On both platforms, the artists share updates from the studio, and participate in discussions with fans in the comments section. Singer-Songwriter Mike Doughty had a PledgeMusic campaign where he not only showed in-production mixes of songs, but allowed fans to vote on the album artwork, t-shirt designs, and more. These campaigns both maximize the amount of revenue earned per fan and breed added loyalty among the listeners.

Other artists utilize platforms that have already been adopted by a mass audience to communicate with fans. Both Drake and Brad Paisley used Twitter to release new songs to their fans. In Paisley’s case, songs were released without his label’s permission, and caused some very public distress within his camp. Paisley presumably understood that a backlash would be coming but chose to favor his loyal fan base.

Interestingly, it seems that U2 completely misunderstood the direct-to-fan model when it released its latest album “Songs of Innocence”. When U2 planted the album in Apple users’ iTunes libraries, the group had no idea what  fans wanted and decided what was best for them. U2 talked to  fans without listening. Quick access to the album on a smartphone, an apparent benefit to the user, was also an invasion of users’ privacy and a  big PR blunder (in this Apple was guilty too).

U2, of course, was trying to lower the barriers of entry to their music. Anyone who wanted to listen to it, could. This is  a common theme as well for younger artists with very small  fan bases. But direct-to-fan marketing for young, independent bands requires a very different type of tool-set–and that would definitely not include an Apple Conference as part of a promotional package.

The most common way for young artists to give  access while growing their fan base is to trade free downloads of their music for an email address. Three of the most effective platforms here are Bandcamp, NoiseTrade, and Topspin.

Bandcamp is by far the most utilized platform by independent artists. It serves as an online storefront where artists can put up all of their digital releases, as well as vinyl, CDs, and t-shirts. Their ‘name-your-price’ model allows artists to put up their music for free, or at a very low cost, in return for an email address. Bandcamp reports that on ‘name-your-price’ albums, fans spend an average of 50% more than the minimum amount.3

NoiseTrade offers the same exchange that Bandcamp does. Fans can get a free download in return for their email address. NoiseTrade, however, has done something Bandcamp has not. They have released a twice-weekly newsletter called ‘New & Notable’, in which they choose their favorite albums from the NoiseTrade ‘catalog’. To be promoted in the mailer, you have to pay a small fee and be approved by the NoiseTrade staff. If you’re lucky enough to make it into the letter, your music will be blasted out to NoiseTrade’s 1.3 million fans.4 If only a tiny fraction of those subscribers download this music, an artist will still see significant growth in their email list in a very short period of time.

Topspin allows artists to place a widget on their website that gives fans the option to download a free song in return for their email address. These email addresses allow artists to talk directly to their fans through their email inbox.  As any successful independent musician knows, it is not enough to simply acquire fans’ email addresses. While these early fans have made the effort to download the artist’s music, they have likely not yet been converted from casual to loyal music fans. Getting them to make that leap is an especially difficult task as the independent music market is so saturated. Artists must make every effort to engage with potential fans and pull them in to the artist’s story.

One remarkable case study on direct-to-fan marketing is the Barbados-based band Cover Drive. Cover Drive came to prominence on YouTube—an incredibly saturated platform where breaking through the noise requires high-quality music, and a story to go along with it. As their name suggests, Cover Drive began by recording cover songs in their own unique “Baja” style and then expanding their branding with a weekly vlog series called the “Weekend Lime”. In this series they would show behind-the-scenes clips covering everything from recording sessions to pranks that they would pull on each other as they were answering questions from fans. An intimate connection between them and their fans developed as the fans began to see the story behind the music. By the time Cover Drive started writing their own music, they had a dedicated following of 29,000 active YouTube subscribers. All Cover Drive had to do was to continue the conversation.

Regardless of the level that an artist is operating at, or the number of fans they have, artists must make themselves available to their fans. Artists can no longer talk just through their record label, and certainly cannot talk down to fans. Social media gives fans the power to be heard just as loudly as the artists. If artists are smart, they’ll start listening.

By Dan Servantes



 “Markets are Conversations” Doc Searls & David Weinberger. In Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger. “The Cluetrain Manifesto”. 1999.

1. “Tony Lucca”. Patreon.

2. “Learn”. PledgeMusic.

.3. “Bandcamp empowers artists”. Bandcamp.

4 Coyle, Chandler. “The Coyle Report”. Music Geek Services. September 18, 2014.



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