Earlier this week one of my favourite bands, The Airborne Toxic Event, announced they were launching a new platform on a subscription basis to allow fans special access to some of their output. For a monthly fee, members get unreleased tracks, members-only shows, VIP access to gigs, videos of concerts, contact with the band etc. Lead singer Mikel Jollett put out a video explaining their reasoning behind the move. In it, he makes a lot of very valid and persuasive points, delivered eloquently and passionately, about how the music industry is changing, the importance of the band’s relationship with its fans and their search for new ways to connect with us.
Aside from logistical questions about how access to in-person shows would work for those of us not US-based and the practicalities of livestreams scheduled for 5pm PST, which is 1am UK time, I’m struggling with the whole concept of payment for access.
I have no problem with the general idea of crowdfunding, or the Patreon type model. I know it can work well for creatives and fans alike. Spotify notoriously pay artists shockingly little for streaming their music, and other platforms aren’t much better. I pay for a Spotify account but I always try to support bands I listen to on there in other ways, especially if they are smaller or newish and haven’t got a massive record deal. I personally have signed up to Patreon and support a couple of smaller-scale musicians and have subscribed to a podcast to get extra content. I’m also a subscriber to Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women project which I strongly believe in. Today, on International Women’s Day, that kind of action is more meaningful and productive than posting some soon-forgotten social media meme. I also like the Bandcamp model of accessing music, where you can buy direct from the artists who get to keep more of the funds for themselves. Some have a “pay what you can” arrangement which allows fans to contribute according to their means. I like that there are these new and innovative ways to access and own content that artists produce that are less reliant on big corporations and offer more control to those who create the work.
The Airborne Toxic Event have been a firm favourite of mine for over 10 years, and exactly as Mikel says in his video, from the first time I heard them, I felt an instant connection to the music, the lyrics, the storytelling and the *vibe* of the band in general that ran deep. I absolutely understand why a band, especially a band like this would opt for such a venture. My instinct was to say yes, sign me up! And yet…I have reservations about the whole idea.
I’ve never had a large amount of disposable income. I put myself through 4 years of university then a Masters. In London. I worked in the voluntary sector for years, then in education. I gave up my salaried job to go freelance in a new career then 6 months later the pandemic hit. I have 2 kids and have been a single parent for the last 7 years. I’ve worked hard my whole life but have never had much spare cash at the end of the month. I don’t go out much, don’t drink or smoke or get frequent take-aways. I’m pretty frugal but the one thing I would happily spend any spare money on is music, whether that be buying albums, concert tickets or merchandise. But these are one-off expenses and if I was a bit skint I would buy the album but not the ticket, or the ticket but not a t-shirt. When you have limited funds you make judgments about which albums or gig tickets to buy. This can be more frequent in good times and something you sacrifice in hard times. The subscription model asks for a regular monthly payment, or an annual fee (often discounted compared to monthly but obviously a significantly larger amount in one go). This is quite a commitment. Each individual band might only ask for ~£10. Ok, so I’m a fan of TATE so I hand over my £10. But what if other bands I like adopt similar models? Then it’s another £10, then another £10 and before I know it there’s a financial commitment of £50 to £100 a month, which is just not feasible on my budget and nowhere near what I would have spent on music related things before. Does that mean I’m any less of a fan of those bands that I can’t afford to patronise? Not at all. Any less committed to supporting the band? Absolutely not. But it does mean that I’ve been priced out of offering my support and have become a 2nd class fan, while only those with the financial means get the privilege of higher-status super-fan.
It’s this idea of there being segregation among fans that doesn’t sit right with me. Those who can afford it get top tier access while those who can’t, miss out. The one good thing about going to gigs was that we were all in it together. Fans from all backgrounds could come together, put differences aside and enjoy the collective experience of being fans of the same band. Now with VIP access, early access, special areas, backstage passes etc for the select few, a 2-tier fandom has been created for the haves and the have-nots, separated by disposable income levels and not according to loyalty or enthusiasm.
Covid hit us all hard, and as we were locked down, staying at home and wanting to be entertained, most musicians and other performers were unable to make any kind of living. Furlough schemes often didn’t apply to them and as venues shut down, some of them for good, those in the creative industries were left without a living or a lifeline. Understandably, many have looked to these alternative means to earn an income. However, at a time when food prices are rising, energy prices are rising at an alarming rate, covid is still having an effect and we still don’t know the economic impact of the war between Russia and Ukraine, we are living in very uncertain times. Asking fans to make a regular commitment is, I think, asking too much.
So how do we square this? Musicians, bands and artists need to make a living in difficult times. They want to keep creating and sharing their work with fans. But if playing live, touring and international travel is going to continue to be affected by covid and/or war (ffs this is seriously a thing) in the coming months and years, they need to find a way to get that connection with fans back, as Mikel said. Fans want that connection too. We want to see our favourite bands perform, either live or recorded. We want them to create new music and be creatively fulfilled. We want them to continue to earn a living from their craft and we want to support them. I’m sure no band sets up such a subscription scheme with the aim of excluding a portion of their fandom, but they inevitably will. I’m sure they think that as long as some of their output is available in the traditional way that fans are still being served. However it really feels to me as though this is only going to create a system that is inherently unequal and unfair. The best music, live experiences and access to bands will end up behind a paywall and that is a very sad prospect indeed.
And don’t get me started on NFTs…