Why artist subscriptions won’t save music

Alrighty everyone, it’s time for some nuance.

Last week, I posted this tweet:


Yes, this is a subtweet of James Blake’s new direct-to-artist subscription on Vault.fm — which grants you access to Blake’s unreleased tracks and a private group chat with fellow fans, in exchange for $5/month and your phone number. Blake is positioning Vault as a hub for creative experimentation, a source of financial stability, a direct communication line to superfans (and their data), and an antidote to the growth-hacking hamster wheel on social platforms that don’t pay.

The hype around Blake’s Vault seems to have surpassed that of new annual trade reports from major players like Spotify, MIDiA, and the IFPI. To me, this signifies two important points: 1) People listen when artists talk, and 2) people are hungry for alternatives to the zero-sum status quo. At minimum, the Vault launch is commendable for moving beyond critique and towards tangible, engaged experimentation with new solutions. (Notably, Vault is owned by the same parent company that operates music NFT platform Sound.xyz, so this isn’t the tech team’s first rodeo.)

However, the notion that a direct artist subscription model is a template for the future of music is flawed.

There’s a graveyard of attempts to scale direct artist subscriptions over the last decade, across sites like Patreon, Twitch, and the now-shuttered platforms Ampled and Drip. Many of these subscriptions launched early on in the COVID pandemic, to provide a much-needed financial lifeline to artists who could no longer tour. Many also called themselves “memberships” and not subscriptions, to suggest that fans were opting into a more intimate, mission-driven community and not just another broadcast feed.

But in almost all of these cases, there were ultimately misaligned expectations about what fans actually wanted, and/or a significant underestimation of the amount of effort it takes to maintain subscriber satisfaction under a recurring payment model.

The reality is that James Blake isn’t most artists, and most artists don’t have the mindset, the energy, the resources, the fanbase, or the staff to make this model work.

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