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How musician Ben Folds is making money while quarantined in an Australian apartment

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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 wakes up early in the morning, has breakfast and a cup of coffee and then heads to the guest room, where a mattress is flipped on its side to make space for an electric piano, microphone, laptop and a camera.

It’s 9 a.m. in Sydney, Australia, 14 time zones ahead of his home in upstate New York. From his makeshift studio in a 550-square-foot apartment, Folds starts an online songwriting tutorial for his fans on Patreon, a website that creators use to raise money for projects. On some days he offers an over-the-shoulder piano class. Or he might just answer questions, tell stories and play a few tunes. 

This has been his routine since mid-March, when the spreading coronavirus put an end to group gatherings and abruptly forced Folds to cancel the rest of his concerts for the year.

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

Folds is now hosting four live streams a week, performing a concert from his apartment and posting bonus archived footage, all for $10 a month per fan. With close to 1,400 patrons, as Patreon customers are known, Folds earns enough money from the site to cover his rent in Sydney, along with costs of his cheap new keyboard, a guitar and some other gear needed to entertain and educate his followers.

Folds says that in a month he makes about half of what he’d earn from a single gig, but it’s sufficient to keep the lights on while he writes his second book and works on his next album.

“For now all I know is, it’s my way of being useful,” said Folds, who rose to music prominence in the 1990s with his band Ben Folds Five. “It’s part of my job.”

Covid-19 has devastated wide swaths of the music industry, including the clubs, bars and arenas that have no way of generating revenue as rent payments continue to pile up. Most professional musicians generate very little income from album sales and Spotify streams, counting almost entirely on live shows and the merchandise they sell while on the road.

With social-distancing practices in place, the live music business appears dead for the rest of the year, and many artists are writing off much of 2021.  

While Patreon was never designed to be a hub for quarantined musicians, it’s turned into a refuge for Folds and many others, providing them a way to be creative for an audience and make some money in the process. 

Patreon 2019 SXSW showcase

Patreon

The seven-year-old company says that the number of musicians joining the site tripled from March to April, and that the number of total patrons across all categories, including film, podcasts and comics, has just surpassed 5 million, up from 4 million in November. 

Replacing the live show

Kevin Devine, a singer-songwriter in Brooklyn, New York, is among the new musicians on the site.

“We read the tea leaves and saw touring was going to be a non-factor for perhaps as long as two years,” said Devine, who typically performs for a couple hundred to a couple thousand people in clubs and at festivals.

Devine now spends most of the day with his four-year-old daughter and then turns his attention to music, largely on Patreon. He has 476 patrons, paying between $5 and $20 a month for three different packages, with those in the top tier getting access to a monthly Instagram Live concert and a handwritten lyric sheet every year.

After Patreon’s revenue cut, which is typically 8%, and the 15% that goes to covering various business expenses, Devine says he’s taking home over $5,000 a month, more than enough to keep from starving, and comparable to what he would often make in more normal times. 

“It’s an opportunity to have some structure. There are things I have to get done on a weekly basis to fulfill my part of that,” said Devine, who performs cover songs and reimagined originals for his fans. “And it affords us the opportunity to get creative with what that looks like.”

Doomtree, a seven-member hip-hop collective out of Minneapolis, has almost three times the number of patrons as Devine, but also has many more mouths to feed. Aaron Mader (known as Lazerbeak), a member of the group and CEO of the label Doomtree Records, said the $700 a month that he’s able to send to each bandmate is really helpful when it comes time to pay rent.

In addition to exclusive content, Doomtree patrons get a t-shirt that says, “I Keep the Lights On At Doomtree Records.”

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

Meanwhile, La Luz, a female surf-rock band, is just two weeks into its new life on Patreon after canceling a tour that was scheduled to start in late April. Its page is up to 73 patrons, and the most popular $15 tier includes access to one song tutorial a month from the band, tabs and sheet music and music video commentary.

“The goal is to get some money in our account for when we’re able to get back to work and to supplement our income losses,” said singer and guitarist Shana Cleveland, who lives in Grass Valley, California, and has a part-time job as an herbalist. “It’s really encouraging to see fans come out and let us know that what we’re doing is valuable to them and that they want us to keep going.”  

Party on Slack ‘when these bands launch’

For Patreon, Folds is a different kind of artist  he’s famous.

His 2005 solo album, “Songs for Silverman,” reached No. 13 on Billboard’s 200 chart, seven years after the release of Ben Folds Five’s “Whatever and Ever Amen,” which spent 40 weeks on the chart.

He’s not the only established musician flocking to Patreon, now that bands need new ways to engage with their followers. Indie pop band Of Montreal from Athens, Georgia, recently launched a profile as did New Jersey’s Saves the Day. Both groups have been around since the 1990s. 

“We hadn’t really been acquiring bands like that before this thing happened,” said Carlos Carbrera, the company’s vice president of finance, who is also a pianist and percussionist. “It’s a party in the office, or our Slack channel, when these bands launch.”

It hasn’t all been a party in recent months. The San Francisco-based company laid off about 30 employees, or 13% of its staff, in April. Cabrera said the layoffs anticipated likely challenges in raising money, and concern that skyrocketing unemployment would lead patrons to cut back on spending. But he said the company is hiring for certain positions, where it’s focusing on growth.

Ben Folds on Zoom call with CNBC

Ari Levy | CNBC

Folds has known about Patreon for a long time. He’s friends with founder and CEO Jack Conte, who studied music at Stanford and was performing long before starting his company in 2013.

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

Folds said he started using the site a little bit in the pre-coronavirus days, sometimes putting his phone next to his piano at a live show for a segment he called “fly on the wall.” Or he’d hold “Scotch and vinyl” sessions, pulling out a bottle of whiskey after a show and chatting about record production.

His use of Patreon changed dramatically in March, as he was traveling around Australia playing in front of symphony audiences with live orchestras while also tracking the spreading pandemic. He realized that the days of playing packed houses were numbered and that getting back to the U.S. safely would also be a challenge.

“I said, this was my stand on the internet and if I never play another gig again, I will certainly have to build something up,” Folds said.

Every Saturday night, Folds performs an apartment concert for free, and halfway through he turns it into a short piano lesson for kids. 

“People need music and they need something to do and something to be inspired by and I would prefer it that people learn to play piano,” he said. “If we come out of this stuff and there’s any silver lining, let it be that someone learned something or created something they wouldn’t have done.”

Folds says he has no idea how long he’ll be in this predicament or when he’ll return to the U.S. At least one of his Australia shows has been rescheduled for February 2021. But Folds isn’t pretending to know what the world will look like eight months from now.

“I don’t have an exit strategy,” he said.

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