Ben Folds uses Patreon to perform for fans amid Australian quarantine

Recording artist Ben Folds performs at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on September 10, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ethan Miller | Getty Images

Ben folds wake up early in the morning, have breakfast and a cup of coffee, then head to the guest bedroom, where a mattress is flipped sideways to make room for an electric piano, microphone, laptop and a camera.

It is 9 a.m. in Sydney, Australia, 14 time zones outside his home in northern New York. From his makeshift studio in a 550 square foot apartment, Folds begins an online songwriting tutorial for his fans on Patreon, a website that creators use to raise funds for projects. On certain days he offers a piano lesson on the shoulder. Or he could just answer questions, tell stories and play a few songs.

It’s been routine since mid-March, when the expanding coronavirus ended group rallies and suddenly forced Folds to cancel the rest of his concerts of the year.

“I don’t see how attractive a wonderful gathering of people who listen to music will be when you can see what a pandemic is and what it does,” said Folds, 53, at the time. a video chat from his apartment in Sydney. “The only way to think about making it work is to say I don’t play live music anymore, that’s not what I do. “

Folds now hosts four live broadcasts per week, gives a concert from his apartment and publishes bonus archive footage, all for $ 10 per month per fan. With nearly 1,400 customers, as Patreon’s customers are known, Folds earns enough money on the site to cover his rent in Sydney, as well as the costs of his new inexpensive keyboard, guitar, and other equipment needed to entertain and educate his followers.

Folds says that in a month, he earns about half of what he would earn from a single concert, but that’s enough to keep the lights on while he writes his second book and works on his next album.

“Right now, all I know is how I can be useful,” said Folds, who gained prominence in music in the 1990s with his group Ben Folds Five. “It’s part of my job.”

Covid-19 has devastated large swathes of the music industry, including clubs, bars and arenas that have no way to generate income as rents continue to mount. Most professional musicians generate very little income from album sales and Spotify feeds, relying almost entirely on the shows and merchandise they sell on the go.

With social distancing practices in place, the live music industry seems to be dead for the rest of the year, and many artists cancel much of 2021.

Although Patreon was never intended to be a hub for quarantined musicians, it has become a haven for Folds and many others, providing them with a way to be creative for audiences and to earn money. money in the process.

Patreon Showcase 2019 SXSW


The seven-year-old company says that the number of musicians who joined the site tripled from March to April and that the total number of patrons in all categories, including movies, podcasts and comics, comes to exceed 5 million, against 4 million. in November.

Replacement of live show

Kevin Devine, a songwriter from Brooklyn, New York, is one of the new musicians on the site.

“We read the tea leaves and saw that the tours were going to be a non-factor for maybe as long as two years,” said Devine, who usually performs for a few hundred to a few thousand people in clubs and festivals.

Devine now spends most of the day with her four-year-old daughter, then turns her attention to music, mainly on Patreon. It has 476 customers, paying between $ 5 and $ 20 per month for three different packages, those of the high level having access to a monthly Instagram Live concert and a sheet of handwritten lyrics each year.

After Patreon’s income drops to 8%, and the 15% spent on various business expenses, Devine says he earns more than $ 5,000 a month, more than enough to keep him from starving, and comparable to what he often did in more normal times.

“It’s an opportunity to have some structure. There are things I have to do on a weekly basis to fill my share of that,” said Devine, who performs covers and reinvents the originals for his fans. “And it gives us the opportunity to get creative with what it looks like.”

Doomtree, a hip-hop collective of seven members from Minneapolis, has almost three times more customers than Devine, but also has many more mouths to feed. Aaron Mader (known as Lazerbeak), a member of the group and CEO of the Doomtree Records label, said that the $ 700 a month he could send to each group mate was really helpful when it came to paying the rent.

In addition to the exclusive content, Doomtree customers receive a t-shirt that says, “I keep the lights on at Doomtree Records.”

“It really was a light in the dark for us not only financially, but also at the community level,” said Mader. “It opened my eyes to a new model. We connect with fans on a much deeper and more immediate level than even on social media.”

Meanwhile, La Luz, a female surf-rock group, is barely two weeks into their new life on Patreon after canceling a tour that was scheduled to start in late April. Its page has up to 73 customers, and the most popular level of $ 15 includes access to a group song tutorial per month, tabs and scores, and clip comments.

“The goal is to put money in our account when we can get back to work and make up for lost income,” said singer and guitarist Shana Cleveland, who lives in Grass Valley, California, and has a part-time job as herbalist. “It is really encouraging to see fans out there and let us know that what we are doing is precious to them and that they want us to continue.”

Party on Slack ‘when these groups get started’

For Patreon, Folds is a different artist he is famous.

Her 2005 solo album “Songs for Silverman” reached 13th Billboard’s 200 graphic, seven years after the release of “All and Never Amen” by Ben Folds Five, who spent 40 weeks on the graph.

He is not the only established musician to flock to Patreon, now that groups need new ways to interact with their followers. Indie pop group From Montreal from Athens, Georgia, recently launched a profile, as did New Jersey Save the day. Both groups have existed since the 1990s.

“We didn’t really acquire such groups before this thing happened,” said Carlos Carbrera, vice president of corporate finance, who is also a pianist and percussionist. “It’s a party at the office, or on our Slack channel, when these groups get started.”

Not everything has been a party in recent months. The San Francisco-based company dismissed about 30 employees, or 13% of its staff, in April. Cabrera said the layoffs anticipated likely challenges in fundraising, and the fear that soaring unemployment would drive customers to cut spending. But he said the company is hiring for certain positions, where it focuses on growth.

Ben Folds on Zoom with CNBC

Ari Levy | CNBC

Folds has known Patreon for a long time. He is friends with founder and CEO Jack Conte, who studied music at Stanford and performed well before founding his company in 2013.

“We were friends when he was a broken ass jazz musician,” said Folds.

Folds said he started using the site a few days before the coronavirus, sometimes putting his phone next to his piano during a live show for a segment he called “steal from the wall” . Or he held “Scotch and vinyl” sessions, took out a bottle of whiskey after a show and discussed record production.

His use of Patreon changed dramatically in March, when he traveled to Australia playing in front of a symphonic audience with live orchestras while following the spread of the pandemic. He realized that the days of playing crowded houses were numbered and that returning to the United States safely would also be a challenge.

“I said, it was my booth on the Internet and if I never play another show again, I will definitely have to build something,” said Folds.

Every Saturday evening, Folds gives a free concert in an apartment, and at the halfway point, he turns it into a short piano lesson for children.

“People need music and they need something to do and something to inspire and I would rather people learn to play the piano,” he said. “If we get out of this thing and there is a silver lining, whether someone has learned something or created something they would not have done.”

Folds says he has no idea how long he will stay in this situation or when he returns to the United States. At least one of his shows in Australia has been postponed for February 2021. But Folds doesn’t pretend to know what the world will look like in eight months.

“I have no exit strategy,” he said.

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