No, Legacy Musicians Do Not Have To Tour To Make Money If They Don’t Want To

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Donald Fagen | Photo by Fred von Lohmann

I’m sure you’ve read by now the piece that has been shared relentlessly discussing how 69-year-old Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) was “forced” to go on tour because his album sales money has dried up.

Fagen told the Wall Street Journal:

“When the bottom fell out of the record business a bunch of years ago, it deprived me of the luxury of earning a living from records. I don’t sell enough albums to cover the cost of recording them the way I like to. For me, touring is the only way to make a living.”

Ok, yes. Musicians today cannot make money in music the same way they did in the 70s (or the 90s). If this is news to Fagen then I’m sorry he’s only now getting that memo. Someone on his team should have warned him this was coming. Speaking of his team, has no one discovered a direct-to-fan service he could utilize to earn from his die hard fans by just getting a little bit more creative than selling records or going on tour?

For the record, I’m a huge Steely Dan fan and it pains me to see that he feels he has to do something against his will to support his art. If he wants to tour, great. But it seems he feels the only way he can make money off of the incredible career he has created is to go on tour when he really does not want to. Which is a travesty.

If you want to make it in the new music business, you have to get creative and understand what your fans want. It is no longer a one size fits all industry.

The sole definition of success in the new music business is not record sales like it once was. This should be no surprise to anyone.

So what is the solution? Well, one route that Mike Doughty has taken is with Patreon. Mike Doughty is 20 years Fagen’s junior, so he seems to be a bit more with the times.

Doughty is best known for his 90s alternative rock act Soul Coughing. But he has had a successful solo career since their disbandment in 2000. And, by no means, am I calling him a legacy artist. But legacy artists can learn a thing or two from what he, and literally thousands of others, are doing.

Last year he joined the ongoing crowdfunding/subscription service Patreon. He now earns $5/mo from 565 patrons.

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You can think of Patreon like a fan club. After Patreon’s 5% cut and transaction fees, Doughty is walking with just over $2,500 or so. Not the rock star income of the 90s, but this ain’t bad for simply writing and recording songs from home (not to mention the other revenue streams he has). And he’s only getting started. He only utilizes one payment tier ($5), though, which is definitely limiting his earning potential.

Other successful Patreon campaigns utilize multiple pricing tier options to welcome in more affluent fans who are able to support at higher amounts.

Take Amanda Palmer for instance. She has over 11,000 patrons paying around $40,000 per creation (and she releases multiple creations a month from songs, videos, blogs, drawings, etc). Her tiers range from $1 per “thing,” as she calls it, to $1,000/thing. My guess is she is earning well over $80,000 a month (people can set monthly caps).

Or take Peter Hollens. He has 3,700 patrons supporting him with amounts ranging from $1 – $750. Or Cyrille Aimee. She has 158 patrons supporting her with amounts ranging from $1 – $500.

Patreon isn’t the silver bullet of the new music business, but it definitely can be a very healthy way to make a good living if you have the fans willing to support you. You don’t even have to leave your home.

Mike Doughty has committed to writing a song a week and releasing it exclusively to his patrons. Some of the songs make the official albums, but, of course, most don’t.

I caught up with Mike to get a sense of his experience on Patreon so far:

Ari Herstand: How did you first discover Patreon and what attracted you to the service?

Mike Doughty: I don’t remember how I first heard about it – I’ve been doing Patreon for a year, and I used Drip for about a year before that, though less successfully. Really, what attracts me to the subscription model is that I do a new song every week. Patreon is partially like NPR, partially like Netflix. I’m more engaged by the latter.

AH: How has running a Patreon campaign changed your workflow?

MD: It is absolutely galvanizing to my songwriting to write a new song every week. I’m constantly writing. I am a big fan of deadlines as motivating factors, and this is really the ultimate.

AH: Engagement with your fans?

MD: I like that they get a view of the width of my creative world – from beat-based stuff to experimental electronic pieces to pop songs to plaintive country ballads. I work on something new every week.

AH: Doing some quick math, it seems you’re earning just over $2,500/mo (after fees), is this right? Why did you choose only one backer tier when adding higher reward tiers would inevitably make this pot much bigger?

MD: That’s right – that’s the gross, though, that’s not the sum that goes into my pocket. Honestly, I just don’t have any great ideas for higher reward tiers. I want this to revolve around a quid-pro-quo, that seems like honest work to me. That being said, I’m considering ways of adding higher tiers.

AH: Have you noticed any other shifts in your career since joining Patreon?

MD: I used to rely on an advance from a record distributor for a portion of my income – now that part of my income comes directly from a very small group of fans. The downside is that the lump sum advance funded more extensive recording – but the silver lining of that is that I don’t have to cram my entire recording process into an album process.

AH: What does it mean to ‘make it’ in the new music business?

MD: If you wake up in the morning and immediately start doing what you love, that’s making it in any field, not just music.

Support Mike Doughty on Patreon


22 Responses

  1. David Love

    Um, what about the multitude of sidemen, crew, techs, managers, bookers, venue managers etc. that benefit when legacy acts are forced to tour again?
    Should they all take up an instrument and produce a “thing” every month?
    Or should we all just go to hell for being too old?

    • DS

      Exactly… not to mention that:

      1. NOT all musicians are SINGLE songwriters, but there are actual BANDS with 5-6-7 members!

      2. NOT all bands can make AND record a song AND a video within 1 month. For example if you have a Latin band, it’s not just singing over a guitar chord, but ARRANGING and orchestrating a song takes time (horns, bass lines etc.). So composing, arranging and recording, mixing ONE song can take WEEKS.

      It pisses me off when a single guy with a guitar tells how easy is to make money with music… guess what, there are actual BANDS in the world too! It would be extremely poor if every musician would be a single guy with a guitar.

    • Bob Jones

      How ’bout being not just a musician but also a business savvy entrepreneur, taking care of your retirement during the years that you’re most active and save up for a rainy day before you really are too old? Legacy acts being ‘forced’ to tour again has many reasons, but being ‘forced’ tells me that the ones using those words didn’t save up properly during the golden years when they really were able to put some dough aside. It’s a well known fact that there are artists out there who had to go back on tour, since they couldn’t cough up the college funds for their kids. And that’s not because ‘the bottom fell outta the biz’.

  2. George Johnson

    Wow! Steely Dan needs to get on Patreon? That is the solution? Great point by David Love. DMN, please stop publishing this snarky nonsense. This could be the worst article ever as streaming apologist Ari pummels Donald Fagen for simply saying there is no money in recording albums and has to tour.

  3. Versus

    Patreon is like begging for money from fans.

    When there is serious demand for an artist’s recorded music, that artist should be able to make a living income based on just that alone. Like in the “old days”…before music was pirated and exploited and devalued into fractional penny plays.

    The demand is certainly there; people listen to recorded music more than ever.

    And don’t say there’s no money in recorded music. It’s just not going to the musicians; it’s going into the McMansions of the leeches who own and control various piracy platforms, sites, search engines, and apps.

    • Bob Jones

      I can’t believe the b.s. I just read coming from your reply. Are you an industry shill or just a troll? Platforms making money off of you? Is your music being pirated? ‘Cause if it ain’t, it means that your output doesn’t mean jack shit to anyone. My music, which I paid for with blood, sweat and tears to have it recorded, is available online for free or as ‘pay what you want’ and I’m living well. I have fully booked live shows week after week after week. My fans discovered me ‘for free’ and nowadays, their loyalty pays the bills. I do not care for your neverending whining. I adapted thanks to the internet and I’m making a living. You did not adapt and you’re scrambling. Your fault. You missed the starting gun and now you need bad regulation to pay your rent. Shame on you.

  4. James Forest

    What stupid, condescending, click-bait-ish, ignorant and completely irrelevant nonsense. So- the music business has gone from producing bespoke products that appeal to individuals to a one-size-fits-all industry cranking out widgets? That- in one sentence- is why record sales don’t mean as much now. And this jack-ass thinks that instead of making unique artworks, we should get on board the beige train and conform to the rhythm.

  5. Sara

    We use a much better way to chat with fans and most importantly do it without begging. We have an app that 1. Let’s us collect the data of each fan and 2. Let’s us get subscribers that fan to listen to our music. It’s worked really well for us so far. I wouldn’t consider Patreon as, like someone has just commented, is a begging platform. Check out of app by searching the App Store for The Pearl Harts. We got it from Check em out

  6. Sara

    music. It’s worked really well for us so far. I wouldn’t consider Patreon as, like someone has just commented, is a begging platform. Check out of app by searching the App Store for The Pearl Harts. We got it from Check em out

  7. Sara

    We use a much better way to chat with fans and most importantly do it without begging. We have an app that 1. Let’s us collect the data of each fan and 2. Let’s us get subscribers that fan to listen to our

  8. Leon

    More stupidity and bad math disguised as being “with it.”

    Nothing new about the 21st century record business. No one gets to make a dime except the big players.

  9. Illinois Elohaynou

    Some artists don’t wanna spend all their time interacting through a flipping website, for “donors” seeking a window into their process, and glimpses of selfies with whatever they are having for lunch today… And they cringe at how self-absorbed many young musicians have become. The was a time when pros didn’t have to busk and beg. This article foolishly suggests that if DF doesn’t do it, he is behind the times. Yeah right.

  10. Will Buckley

    Ari, stick to what you’re good at. Advising primarily young bands how to maximize their chances of success through social media.

    • Not on topic

      Mike Doughty is not young. Neither is Amanda Palmer or Peter Hollens. What’s the problem here? Why can’t the author illuminate new ways for artists to make a living with their art? I’m confused what your issue is? You think the only way musicians should earn a living is by touring and selling records? Why are you against helping artists make more money?

  11. Cait O'Riordan

    The snide, unpleasant tone of this is a real surprise. This could have been another really useful article if you’d taken out your sneering ad-hominem comments about Donald Fagan. He’s certainly not doing things just to make your life difficult so why would you write about him as if he is either lying or stupid? Not too late to edit the article and re-post minus the unnecessary spite.

  12. dhenn

    Spoken like someone who hasn’t been on this planet long enough to even know who these artists are. You are dead wrong on this one pal. Stick to your hype techniques for the 20 somethings or better yet stop blaming the artists and start educating younger artists and fans that MUSIC HAS VALUE and should NOT be free. People should pay for the products we create. We are the only industry everyone thinks should give their product away for free. That’s like Target never paying for the clothes they sell. That the government shouldn’t control 75% of our income as songwriters. That we shouldn’t fall under the purview of the damn Dept. of Justice! No other US industry is as heavily regulated. None! Do us all a favor and check out SONA, Grammy’s on the Hill and everyone else fighting to be properly compensated for our work. None of us have our heads in the sand and think we shouldn’t be embracing new avenues but we are sick of tech companies and people in the industry who should know better ripping us off and journalist who only have one viewpoint.

    • Not on topic

      Huh? Did you read the article? Mike Doughty is 47. What 20 somethings are you talking about? Where does this article state that music has no value? Or that the government should own the music? It seems these artists are adding value to their fans lives and their fans are supporting them in new, interesting ways – without going on tour. What am I missing here?

  13. Jesse

    to all the dissenting commenters, how are you gonna act like there aren’t the same amount of big artists today making a ton of money?

    do you think historically people just make “gems” in their basement, walk outside, hold it to the light and then get a record deal??

    Everyone has had to solve the music business of their time. This is the current one. Call it unfair, maybe it is. but it’s the game you have to play in these decades, it’s that simple. get creative. that’s all Ari’s saying here – get creative with what reality is now.

  14. orgillian

    The major issue being ignored is simply that Fagen and other “legacy” artists no longer create material that the record buying public finds as good as the songs that got them famous and beloved in the 1st place. Nothing wrong with that, except that no record company is going to pay you as if you still are (although for years Miles Davis got paid a significant for the day yearly check from Columbia Records, whether he made an album or not) and to expect so is being very short-sighted. Billy Joel makes over $ 1million a night for playing 40 year old songs and seems to have made peace with that. Why Fagen’s comment is viewed as a negative is puzzling – he’s found a way to make good money for (still) playing music – what’s the problem?