Journalism Advice From A Musician

Aug. 13, 2020

As you know, dear readers, I'm always looking for new or interesting business models that publications (and entrepreneurial journalists) can learn from as we try to ensure that journalism not just survives, but thrives.


So last week I reached out to a musician.  


Why? Well, I reached out to singer-songwriter Mike Doughty because he's done some interesting things on Patreon the past four years to build his own audience  – a paying audience — to help fund his career. And, as it turns out, he has some thoughts on the future of journalism, too.


Here's a quick look at the pricing structure of Doughty's Patreon page:

Doughty's "Patrons" will receive a new song from him every week for a low price of $5 a month. Four songs for $5. Not a bad deal if you dig Doughty's style of music. And people do. He currently has more than 1,000 Patrons on board and has posted hundreds of songs.


"It is fabulously successful," Doughty told me. "It has replaced income from record deals entirely. It pays the mortgage and pays for food."


For those who followed Doughty's career from his early Soul Coughing days, or for those who happened to catch one of his songs on an NPR station or online and liked what they heard, becoming a Patron is like Christmas four times a month. 


But, of course, there are the less-than-hardcore fans who also support Doughty on a monthly basis. 


"A lot of people are just voting for me to exist," Doughty said. "Certainly that's true for how I pay for journalism. I read the New York Times every day, and the Post some days and Economist and the Wall Street Journal fewer than that. They're all things I give money to. Well, the Journal through Apple News, but that's another story.


"I want them to exist," Doughty continued. "I don’t take advantage of (reading) them, other than the Times, every day.  But I want you to be there."


Doughty sees the same sort of thinking with his Patreon fanbase. Even if they're not taking advantage of listening to each and every song, they still find it worthwhile to subscribe.


That song-a-week offer is key, Doughty said. Without that incentive, he doesn't think people would be willing to give him $5 a month, if anything at all.


"It wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a quid pro quo," he said.


But at the same time, Doughty also learned that there is a sweet spot for content with his Patreon audience. For a while, he was posting new songs as soon as he created them, so the audience sometimes received more than one a week. But it turns out that was overwhelming.


"It drove subscribers away," he said. "The more I put out, the more cancellations I got."


Doughty learned to stick to the script.


"One a week is the contract, and you send out one a week," he said.

During the pandemic, Doughty found himself ahead of the curve among musicians. When touring went away, many songwriters and bands scrambled to set up online concerts on platforms like StageIt.com. And a lot are struggling with the virtual setting.


"I am so ahead of the game," he said. "And I'm so lucky to be good at this.  And being good at this means you’re absorbed and fascinated by it and engaged with it."


But the big question: Will it work for journalists? Jarrod Dicker of the Washington Post thinks there is a strong connection between the current music industry and the future of journalism (See this and this for reference). Dicker sees individual journalists building their brands and fanbases on platforms like Substack — much like Doughty and his Patreon fanbase — and media companies acting more like record companies or talent agencies.


Doughty was hesitant to say that vision of journalism is a slam dunk. He still thinks there is good value in an overall journalism brand and a newsroom of journalists. He pointed to The Daily Memphian, based where he resides in Memphis, Tennessee, as an example.


"They really cover the boring shit," he said. "It’s all journalists who used to work at the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer.  They go to school board meetings and know zoning laws. I don’t read every single article, but I vote for them to exist. They are well worth the $10 a month."


Doughty also said the Patreon model won't work for everything. He said to make it successful, you really need a "base of members who are intensely interested from the jump." Without that, he said, you have no way to grow a business. For him, he feels a minimum of 1,000 Patrons is key.


Even though he has found success with Patreon, Doughty is actively looking for a record company. It's not because he believes his Patreon will be short-lived, but because a record company can handle a lot of the behind-the-scene tasks (like finding someone to design an album cover) while he focuses on the creativity. (This does fall in line with Dicker's journalism vision in his Medium posts, by the way.)


"My goal is to work with a record company and have a conventional recording career, and have Patreon run parallel to it," Doughty said. "You're never going to be on a label for the rest of your life. I want to have that member base on Patreon. I feel this is a thing I can do until late in my life."


Unlike other artists who are trying to make a quick buck online during the pandemic by offering up a live show, Doughty is looking way into the future.


"I'm looking for people who will pay $5 and stay with me for a really long time," he said. "That’s my model. It works for me. Because it suits the way I work and the way I think about what I do. But I don’t know if it works for everyone."