New platforms are making the artist-fan connection more intimate — and more lucrative

Article by Paul Donoughue /
November 21, 2020 /
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Recently, the Melbourne singer-songwriter Didirri Peters was asked to play for an audience of one.

The musician, who plays under his first name, received the request via a platform called Serenade, which lets fans order a personalised video performance of a song direct from the artist.

“It was, ‘Hi Didirri, my friend is quite sick and one your songs is his favourite song, would you please perform it for them’,” Didirri told the ABC.

And so he did, from his bedroom, where he uses a piano and a guitar, a $17 LED strip from Bunnings and bedsheet to soften the light. (He has cellophane, too, if the occasion calls for it.)

“There was minimal conversation in terms of talking about [the situation] on camera, but I think that’s kind of what they are after. Just someone to say ‘Hi, I am checking in, and here is something special for you’.”

Music has never been more ubiquitous, but its value remains under threat.

Streaming might have knee-capped piracy, and 12 million Australians use a service like Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube Music.

But the amount each fan pays — about $14 a month, if they don’t opt for a free ad-supported version — is likely less than what a passing fan would have parted with in the days of CDs and vinyl.

Over the years, as the value of recorded music has dropped, playing live became more important to an artist’s bottom line.

Then 2020 happened.

This year, musicians have been trying to recoup some of that lost cash, which could collectively amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, through live-streamed gigs, though that is difficult.

So, for professional or semi-professional musicians — the people you hear on the radio but who still need to hold down a job — what are the options?

One is to sell your most loyal fans personalised videos and performances, a microeconomy a few new platforms have created, and for which the pandemic lockdown has been a boon.

“I knew that fans really wanted those unique, intimate experiences,” Max Shand, who founded Serenade earlier this year, told the ABC.

“And I thought there is surely a way to wrap up the songs that fans love in a new experience that they’re willing to pay more for than they are [on] another platform.”

Shand had a background in tech and music. After working at Afterpay and for a management consultancy, he launched a venture capital syndicate, Strangelove. He’s also on the board of Sydney radio station FBI.

At the outset, Shand consulted artist managers about what a new platform should look like.

Since Serenade’s soft launch two months ago, they have sold $10,000 worth of performances, with an average value of $300. Artists get 75 per cent of the fee.

There are currently 75 artists on the platform. A smaller act with a local following might charge $50 for a video-recorded performance of one song. That rises to $400 for someone like Killing Heidi singer Ella Hooper, or $1,000 for Sydney band Lime Cordiale, who have a big fan base (they lead the nominations for next week’s ARIA Awards).

“We give benchmarks around what we expect a fan might be willing to pay,” Shand said.

“However, an artist has autonomy in setting their price.”

Didirri, who charges $400 per video, was initially apprehensive about how the performances would work, but has found the intimate nature rewarding, particularly when the videos are gifts.

“And unlike [playing] a wedding, it’s not an entire day where I have to stand there, not knowing someone. It’s a small part of my afternoon. I can sit down and tailor it to them in my own space.”

While fans are able to order serenades for friends or family, they are discouraged — and possibly restricted by copyright — from sharing them publicly.

It’s meant to be a “private love note from an artist”, Shand said, not something to post on Instagram.

“That might not make every fan completely happy, but it’s all about giving them something that is meaningful that is just for them and doing so in a format that makes artists willing to provide it.”

Serenade is not the only company vying to become the artist’s side hustle.

Community, which launched in July, uses the “sacred space” of text messages, in the words of its founder, to let artists speak directly to fans. While Post Malone, Green Day and other big names are on it, it’s not currently available in Australia.

Cameo lets celebrities — musicians but also actors, comedians, and athletes — earn income by recording personalised shout-outs to fans.

For users, “it’s a kind of celebrity ventriloquism — the opportunity to project your voice through a famous host,” cultural critic Amanda Hess wrote.

You might solicit a birthday message for your mate from Eamon Sandwith ($30), the mulleted frontman of Queensland band The Chats, or a congratulatory note on an anniversary from Perth singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly ($20).

“She flippin’ loved the birthday shout out,” one user wrote in a review on the Cameo page for Shannon Noll ($87).

“Keep up the great work thanks Cobba!!”

Donnelly, the West Australian singer-songwriter, who joined Cameo a few weeks ago, said her experience on the platform had so far been positive.

“It’s allowed me to get to know the people that listen to my music better,” she said.

She’s recorded shout-outs for essential workers in the UK who need a pep talk and for people in the USA who have been disheartened by the election.

While it is early days, she can see herself using it when she’s not on tour — and that, more generally, it could be a useful supplement to a working musician’s income.

Right now, though, all the money she is making — about $1,000 so far — is to going to the Difficult Birds Research Group, which is studying the habitats of endangered birds. (Stella, you might not know, is an avid birder.)

While this is a relatively new income stream, it comes with a caveat common to the creative industries.

“The kinds of artists who make the most money are the ones with an established profile,” said Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in the school of social and political sciences at the University of Melbourne.

“It’s much harder for up-and-comers to use these platforms to make the kind of revenue that established artists with large fan bases can. We shouldn’t therefore pretend that these platforms are a solution for all artists.”

Cameo’s CEO Steven Galanis has said that “the celebrity selfie is the new autograph”, and some autographs are more cherished than others.

Social media had already reset the expectations for the artist-fan relationship before these platforms came along.

“Fans want — and expect — more engagement” these days, Dr Rosewarne said.

In some ways, they are not dissimilar to the deluxe boxset or the backstage meet-and-greet: they let musicians “play to the front row”, as one artist described it to Shand, targeting the die-hards willing to pay more for a premium experience.

While social media might be the precursor to these new platforms, Shand does not see them as a threat, even as Facebook begins letting artists charge for their live-streamed performances.

“While I celebrate Facebook and Instagram giving artists the tools to commercially benefit from their work, I don’t see them as competition in initiating individualised relationships because they’re all about broader audiences and broader communities.”

Serenade, he said, “[is] meant to be the ultimate experience that a fan has never before been able to receive and an artist is now very kindly willing to offer”.