Subscription and Membership Businesses: A How-To Guide for Indie Artists

Everyone you know is crowdfunding something. Your local co-op is adding a coffee shop. Your cousin wants to buy her first car. A dude in Nebraska got busted for faking crop circles in some farmer’s field and needs bail money.

That’s not you, though. You’re an artist. You create beautiful things out of nothing but time, talent, and tears, and while you’ve been happy doing it for free for a long time, you’re starting to wish it was your full-time gig.

In other words, you’re ready to get paid.

But how do you do that?

You could go the one-shot crowdfunding route a la Kickstarter. The trouble is, although it’s a fat payday, Future You is wondering where the next cash injection is coming from. These campaigns are one and done. Great for completing a standalone project, but less helpful for creating a sustainable business from your art.

Fortunately, there’s another option.

Subscription and membership businesses are on the rise, particularly among independent artists such as yourself. They allow you to generate reliable income from your work as your fans provide recurring support (read: money). You win, they win.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Let’s dive in and see how you can make this model work for you.

What’s a subscription-based business?

Essentially, the subscription/membership model of business is a way for your audience to personally contribute to the work they love and the person that makes it. It bypasses traditional gatekeepers like publishers and labels, establishing a direct pipeline from creator to fan. In addition to putting power back in the hands of artists, it also typically rewards your audience with better art, faster.

What’s the difference between a “subscription” business and a “membership” business? A membership business is a type of subscription business. A “subscription” business involves getting paid on a recurring basis. “Membership businesses” is a catch-all term used for a certain type of subscription business — usually, those in which content is delivered to members that isn’t publicly available, or in which there’s some kind of a community/member-to-member interaction, or both. Throughout this post (and other posts that deal with creative businesses), we’ll be using them interchangeably.

How does it work?

There are plenty of variations on the basic structure for this kind of business, but they all boil down to one simple concept: charge people money, on a regular basis, in return for something cool. The price, the schedule, and the cool thing? Those are all up to you.

When it comes to creative businesses and indie artists, the service most people are familiar with is Patreon. The upsides of Patreon are that it’s relatively easy to learn, has name recognition with a lot of customers, and has one platform through which you manage tiers/rewards/posting content.

However, there are some downsides, too, which are why some creators use other alternatives for subscription/membership-style businesses. If you’re somewhat tech-savvy and already have a website, you might consider this and weigh the pros and cons of each option. Just make sure you’ve got a solid recurring billing system on board. It’s hard to get paid when you can’t, you know, get paid.

Ideal creator profile

You’re a perfect candidate to run a subscription business if you:

  • have an established fanbase that’s engaged with you and your work
  • regularly produce and share your work
  • aren’t relying on income from donations to fully support you (yet)
  • are eager to increase interaction with your audience

Since you’re still reading, I assume that person is you. Congratulations! You’re in a great position to start getting paid on the regular for your art.

Even if that doesn’t sound like you, keep reading. This next part will help you focus on where you’re going, so you can tweak accordingly.

Perks and pitfalls

Subscription businesses are ripe with benefits for independent artists, but they also have easily-overlooked traps, some with spikes in the bottom. Knowing what’s good and what to watch out for will greatly increase your success in acquiring — and keeping — subscribers.

Perks:

  • Recurring revenue. Unlike one-shot crowdfunding, subscriptions and memberships give you the peace of mind of knowing what you’re making each month.
  • Community building. Your subscribers are your superfans; their investment creates a natural community where you can make deeper connections. If you take the time to engage with them, it adds value to the subscription and to your work.
  • Freedom to create. Knowing there’s regular money coming in gives you time and financing to produce the work you most want to make at your own pace rather than rushing unsatisfying pieces out the door to make a buck.

Pitfalls: 

  • Going all in right away. It’s tempting to put all your business eggs in the subscription basket, but that can be risky, especially if you have a slow start. Diversify your baskets early on to ensure better coverage of your rear.
  • Underestimating time required. If you offer rewards to your supporters, keep an eye on what it takes to fulfill them. You don’t want to spend all your profit or time on things that aren’t creating more art. That sort of defeats the purpose.
  • Underselling yourself. Just because you’re new to charging for your art doesn’t mean you’re not worth the investment. Set your prices a little higher than you’re comfortable with (but not so high you look like a snot).

Remember…

  • You are your best promoter. Your website and social media outlets feed your subscriber base, so be sure you have an engaged following to talk to about signing up. (Want to learn more about what you need to set that up? Head to this post.)
  • Consistency beats quantity. The most successful subscription businesses aren’t those with the most supporters but the ones with the most reliable delivery rates.
  • Patience is a virtue. This model is designed for the long game. Take your time and don’t rush to declare failure if you aren’t a millionaire by Christmas.

Dos and don’ts

Talking about getting paid for your art can be deeply uncomfortable, but once you’re ready to take that leap of faith, it’s a must-have conversation. You’re working hard at producing meaningful, beautiful things, and a subscription business could be the key to unlocking your next level of creative success. So be excited!

But before you break out the multicolored pens and fancy planner, here’s a quick reminder of the dos and don’ts of choosing a subscription-based model:

Don’t:

  • Count your money before it arrives. Remember that your supporters are humans, too. Credit cards and pledges get declined all the time. Plan for both shrink and growth in your accounting.
  • Change up your rewards, focus, or tactics too soon. Give the model time to work. You’re building a business, not redecorating your apartment.
  • Get so caught up filling rewards or doing admin that you can’t create. The whole point of this model is to fund your art, so make sure it comes first.

Do:

  • Research. Find out how other artists run successful subscription businesses. Amanda Palmer (musician/provacateur), Myths & Legends (podcast), Vicki Tsai (artist), Seanan McGuire (writer), and Issa Rae (filmmaker) showcase the wide variety of creative work that can thrive on this model. See what’s possible so you can figure out what best fits your needs.
  • Find a trustworthy platform. You need one that handles memberships, payment processing, and customer support all in one place. That way, you can focus on your work and your people instead of juggling admin tasks all day.
  • Offer exclusive content. If you want subscribers to get extra stuff, great! Options include newsletters, posts, art prints, sneak peeks, bonus episodes, apparel, and ephemera just for insiders.
  • Be consistent. No matter what release schedule you’re working with, stick to it.
  • Be cool. Act like this is totally normal and you’re super chill about how much you’re growing as an artist and business owner.

Now get out there and start getting paid for what you’re great at. The world is waiting.

If you’re ready to start your own subscription or membership business, but aren’t sure how to get going, check out our Six-Month Success Checklist. Download it today and set yourself up to win:

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Ellie Di Julio is a freelance writer and editor who began entrepreneurial life as a personal coach and grew up to be an urban fantasy novelist. She splits her time between getting fellow writers unstuck and devising ways to entertain her toddler. Find out how you can bend her talents to your will at EllieDiJulio.com.