A new release strategy for a new music economy
Saturday August 12, 2017. 03:44 PM , from DiscMakers (Recording)
By Disc Makers' Author Keith Hatschek
Indie artist Megan Slankard is finding success in the new music economy through the fan-support platform of Patreon – reducing risk and rewarding trust among her steadily growing fan base.
For any indie artist who is serious about developing a long-term sustainable financial strategy for his or her career, the approach Megan Slankard is taking represents an excellent model of how to be successful in an increasingly decentralized music economy. Through the fan-support platform of Patreon, Slankard pushes herself to create new music each month, which dovetails with her regular forays of touring from her home base in San Francisco. It’s a model that reduces risk and rewards trust and longevity among her steadily growing fan base in the new music economy.
Since her 2001 debut, Lady is A Pirate, Slankard has built a strong reputation as a dynamic live performer and talented recording artist. She was the subject of a previous Disc Makers Blog post in which she explained how she developed a successful indie touring model that combines club dates with her full band with solo tours that include intimate venues and house concerts with occasional road shows in larger venues.
Slankard has released five albums of original music over her decade and a half in the business, impressively selling more than 35,000 albums along the way, a tribute to her nearly non-stop touring and the close ties she builds with her audience.
A new release strategy
In the fall of 2014, while Slankard was in the latter stages of finishing her 2015 release, Running On Machinery, she decided to experiment with a new music patronage platform, Patreon, to see if her most loyal fans would be willing to subscribe to a steady diet of new tunes available exclusively via the Patreon fan-funding platform. (Read “Crowdfunding 2.0: From Project Funding to Career Planning” for an in-depth look at Patreon.)
She made a simple video to invite her fans to join her in the experiment, and the response was positive. Based on the early feedback, she decided to pivot her future release strategy, from being an album-oriented artist, with a few years in between releases, to focusing on writing, recording, and releasing a new self-produced song every month for her fans. The results so far have been noteworthy.
“It’s so rewarding to get pretty much instant feedback from the new song I release to my fans each month,” she says. “I’m using Patreon as the means to get the new songs out to a small group of people, friends and fans who are supporting me by contributing a regular amount each month to access the new material. (Slankard currently has nearly 200 monthly “Patrons” on Patreon.) They also tell me what they like or don’t like about the song and help me zero in on what’s working. This has allowed me the freedom as an artist to expand my genres, I’ve done a punk song, an a capella song, some fun Andrews Sisters jazz vocals and some pop.
“I feel like my growth as a songwriter and lyricist continues to improve as I keep putting out current music and getting feedback and support from my Patreon family. Patrons also choose a per-song amount they’d like to contribute each time an artist releases new material (in Megan’s case, either $1-$5-$20), which serves as a great motivation to continue to write and put out new quality songs and recordings. Being paid for my art feels incredibly rewarding. And it also helps me, as an indie artist, afford things like touring, instrument repair, recording studio updates, and food.”
One feature of this model is that an artist no longer needs to wait for, or strive to gain, third-party validation from anyone in the music industry. For an artist with sufficient Patreon support, there are no gatekeepers in the way of an artist finding the means to connect with an audience and earn money in this new music economy.
Slankard agrees. “As consumers of music, we rarely have time any more to put on an album and sit down and listen to the whole thing. Also as an artist, I would spend a year to a year and a half recording an album and for me, it’s been this huge, long process. When I release it, people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, new music, this is wonderful!’ But pretty soon it gets old… because people are busy, other things come into their life. So if I can have a model using Patreon where I can release little bits of new music constantly, then people will hopefully stick around and remember who I am, and not have to wait a year and a half for me to release new music.”
As to the new recordings she’s been creating for her Patreon followers Slankard offered, “I consider them demos and they vary quite a bit. I play all of the instruments on them, so it could be just me playing guitar or trying out all sorts of new instruments. I’ve played mandolin, bass guitar, cello – and I want to put this in heavy air quotes – ‘played violin’ and percussion, which could be me banging on a glass or anything else that’s handy. By putting out a new demo each month, I’m also getting better as a producer, engineer, musician and songwriter. I know I have so much more to learn, but doing a new song for my fans each month allows me to continue to develop my art and my craft and to stay on top of my game and try new things. I even get feedback on my production. It’s one of my favorite things to do now, sit down for a few days, coming up with a new idea for a song and then putting it all together for release.”
When Megan heads out on one of her frequent tours, she doesn’t miss a beat in meeting her monthly release schedule. “I have a mobile recording unit when I’m on the road, and I’ve done many songs from people’s houses as I’m touring through. Also, my Patrons appreciate knowing what I’m doing and where I am. There is a sense of freshness to each release. For example, I might say, ‘Hey guys, I’m in Philadelphia right now and it’s raining really hard here today, but I wanted to bring you this new song which I just put together for you.’”
As to the level of each song’s production, Slankard states, “They aren’t iPhone recordings, I spend close to a week on each one, depending on how much production is needed for each tune. So I work hard to make each one the very best performance, recording and mix.”
And while quality is critical to her, she says that switching from focusing on stockpiling her songs for the next album cycle to this every-month-creative-challenge “has really saved my life as a songwriter and reignited my passion for what I do. It’s made me love it all over again. Working as an indie artist, it’s so easy to get disgruntled sometimes, you know, you can think ‘there are millions of us out here and there’s no way I’m going to get noticed in this crowd.’ But with the Patreon model, you don’t have be famous to be successful. Honestly, I feel successful now.”
New model, new opportunities
The security provided by the regular cash flow from her Patrons has given Slankard the freedom to try new things. She explained that Patreon provides a reliable system for the payment and collection of money that has allowed her “to cut out some of the things that were detrimental to my career. Some of those long, crappy gigs that you don’t actually want to do, that kind of suck a part of your soul. I can now say ‘no’ to some of those things that I didn’t really want to do. So this provides me more time to create and spend on my music.
“And because I’m making a good enough living to buy food and pay my rent, I was able to do a tour recently in Europe (March 2017) with my producer, Alex Wong. It was so great! We were able to do a number of shows together in Germany, England, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, and France. I could afford to take a risk and say, ‘let’s take a chance and see if we can make some money on this, but if not, it’ll be ok.’ But you know what? We did it, the response was fantastic and we ended up with a successful tour! So successful, in fact, that we’ve already begun booking return dates next spring for a longer follow-up tour to Europe that will involve more production.”
Beyond Patreon, Megan has landed music placements in advertising and videos, including writing a new song for a granola bar commercial. Due to the competition for synchs, “it’s a long, slow push into that area, every time your music house submits some of your music for consideration, there are usually 25 other artists whose music is being reviewed. But it’s another way to get paid and when you do land something, the smaller placements supplement your income and the larger ones allow you to upgrade your gear or buy that ‘thing’ that you really needed.
“My manager, KC Turner, and I are continuing to concentrate on touring, but I’m also starting to think of some kind of public release soon, as most of my recording efforts have been concentrated on Patreon because, well, I’m in love with it. So I’m planning to record some of the tunes I’ve written for my Patrons with my band, as I’ve been working with them for 10 years and I love these guys, they’re super-super great. They really help me get my rock ‘n’ roll sound all on. When we play together, I play more electric guitar and I even run around some and ‘Robert Plant-it,’ just hold the mic and sing and have fun with the audience and my band members.”
Running On Machinery, is part of a continuing evolution in Slankard’s sound and songwriting. From Lady is A Pirate, which she began recording at home at the age of 16, Slankard has evolved from predominantly acoustic recordings to an expansive modern alternative sound built around her evocative vocals. Machinery’s predecessor, A Token of the Wreckage (2011), was a major milestone in that shift and benefited from the production assistance of David Bryson (Counting Crows) and Jerry Becker (Train).
“As I was thinking about working on the songs that would become Running On Machinery, honestly, I had in mind the sound of a female-fronted Led Zeppelin – but that would still sound like me,” says Slankard.
As her thoughts began to develop about this new album, her path crossed with Nashville-based producer, Alex Wong, whose credits include numerous albums for indie artists such as Vienna Teng, Delta Rae, and Miguel Bosé, for whom he produced his Latin Grammy-nominated album, Papitwo.
“I got the bug that maybe Alex and I should work together after hearing some of his own projects and the ones he had done with other artists,” Slankard explains. “He came to one of my shows and picked out one of the songs I played and said he’d like to record it. That led to a meeting where we talked through a lot of ideas, after which I decided to pull the trigger and have him produce it.
“Alex is a great listener, and helped me and my band deliver the most honest performances for each song. Alex has so many good ideas, you can feel the creativity humming in everything he does. He’s also very innovative, for instance on ‘Bones Live Forever,’ he came up with the idea of using a suit of armor at the recording studio as a percussion instrument, that clanging sound is something that really added to the track. He would push everyone to make sure we got the very best result from everything we were doing each day, whether it was the perfect relationship between the bass and kick drum or experimenting to put the guitar amp out in a hallway to get a bigger sound.
“Still, throughout the album project, his priority was for me to be happy with the results and to sound like me. I was, and it did.”
Check out Megan’s Patreon page at www.patreon.com/meganslankard.
Photo credits: Main image at top by John Margaretten; Studio photo of Megan and band by Kumiki Enatsu Shafer.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to the Disc Makers Blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.
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