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Old-school patronage might be the solution for keeping artists employed

A visitor at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art views a painting titled "Adele Bloch-Bauer 1," on April 4, 2006, in Los Angeles. Photograph by Ric Francis — AP

Centuries ago, virtually all painters made their money from wealthy patrons who commissioned paintings from them — a portrait of the family here, a summer landscape there. But today, mass and free digital distribution have made it much more challenging for artists of all kind to make a living from their craft.

Drip, a company that’s been around for a couple of years and focused on independent music artists, said on Wednesday that it’s expanding its online patronage service for any and all kinds of artists and their endeavors. It also said it raised $1.5 million in new funding to support the expansion.

Through the service, fans can pay a monthly subscription fee for a particular creator’s work, and get access to the exclusive content that creator has released. Drip carefully selects which artists it allows on its site, having only featured 50 of them since its inception. It takes a cut of between 5-20% from each artist’s proceeds.

“We built this out of our own need,” Drip co-founder Sam Valenti told Fortune. Valenti started an independent music label 16 years ago and the first version of Drip grew out of his artists’ need to connect with fans more directly. “When I first started my label in 1999, I was using Napster and Limewire,” he said of the progress in digital tools since then.

Drip’s approach isn’t entirely new, however. Patreon, based out of San Francisco, provides a similar service and also has a founder who hails from the music industry — CEO Jack Conte is one half of indie band Pamplamoose. Earlier examples of the idea that die-hard fans will shell out a lot of money for their favorite musicians’ work can also be traced back to British band Radiohead’s seventh studio album, “In Rainbows,” for which it let fans pay whatever they wanted.

As online playlist service 8tracks’ director of communications and marketing, David Johnson-Igra remarked to Fortune, “they’re trying to monetize the support of the top 1% fans,” he said of Drip’s model. “The premise is this: ‘mobilize your die-hard fans because they’ll pay you a lot of money,” he added.

But in contrast to Drip and Patreon, which focus on the top most die-hard fans, online radio and streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and the like, focus on the rest of music listeners. More general crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo have also been popular with various artists looking to fund individual projects.

However, Drip’s model also adds grist to the debate of whether music exclusives are detrimental to the fan experience. In recent months, big music names have signed deals to exclusively release some of their music through a particular music streaming service, and exclusive content is the primary focus of rapper Jay-Z’s own streaming service, Tidal. Pop singer Taylor Swift also famously pulled her music from services like Spotify in protest over their free and ad-supported services, and only agreed to make it available on Apple’s service after the company agreed to pay artists even when users listened to their music during their free trial period. It’s effectively forcing music fans to subscribe to — and pay for — multiple services to be able to listen to all their favorite artists.

For his part, Valenti said he agrees this fragmentation of music is not optimal for music fans, and Drip doesn’t encourage artists to use the service with that as a core goal. He does, however, find that certain types of content, especially material that accompanies and adds context (think “behind the scenes” content) is what fans truly get out of subscribing through Drip.

Instead, Valenti hopes his service is providing value to artists by making easy-to-use tools and helping them gain more supporters by featuring them through its discovery page and free tier.

Uber co-founder Garrett Camp’s fund Expa led this round in Drip, with additional participation from Collaborative Fund, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, and angel investors Andy Weissman, Josh Stylman, and Pandora’s Tom Conrad, among others.