Collective Patronage is not a new concept (heck, a quick Google search turned up this article from 2001 -- the author says "I can think of four local San Francisco-area bands, and one each in Minneapolis and New York, to whom I would happily give $25/year to support their music"), but only now is it beginning to be properly realized in the music industry. The idea is a return to the days of classical music, when composers were paid by their wealthy patrons to compose music that everyone could enjoy.
In a perfect world, someone richer than you would pay for your favorite bands to make lots of great music for you to enjoy for free. However, we live in a democracy with a free(ish) market, so we all have to do our part.
Artists are no longer confined by a physical medium (CD, cassette, vinyl, etc) as their flagship product, and fans have many options to avoid paying for music. Yet many, if not most, of us still pay for music that we like. In talking to others who work in the industry, the standard routine seems to be to download a number of albums without paying, take them for a few spins, and pay for the ones you like.
Had I said that 5 years ago, I would've had the RIAA all over me. As it stands, however, much of the fear of file sharing has subsided -- heck, there are even "marketing" companies who will seed your album on torrent sites.
While many of the barriers to entry for artists to produce and distribute music have diminished, they have not disappeared. Artists still need to cover recording costs, equipment costs, gas costs, etc. Claiming "oh, they can make that money on the road" only applies to a select few bands (and that number is diminished with high gas prices and harsh economic conditions).
Artists need fans, and they need some of those fans to pay some money. Yes, those "some"s are intentional. Fans can pay in many ways (eg - pay attention, pay permission to market to them, etc), but some of the fans do need to contribute money for the band's survival.
Some services have sprung up with the concept of Collective Patronage in mind -- SellABand.com, SliceThePie.com, etc -- but those are focused exclusively on unsigned, relatively unknown artists, and instead of fostering a true relationship between artists and fans, they are more of a game for the fans and a one-time "make or break" for the artists. In other words, they're not focused on long-term, sustainable growth. They also fall short in extending the concept of Collective Patronage to larger, more established artists.
"Oh, but the big artists have labels to cut them big checks!" Sure, sort of. But even large artists could do better for themselves taking checks directly from their fans rather than from labels. Think about it: with how much they're struggling, and with all their bureaucracy, would major labels make a major investment were they not almost positive they could recoup? Not likely.
Take the David Byrne - Brian Eno release Everything That Happens Will Happen Today -- by contract I can't speak to specific numbers, but the goal was to recoup recording costs and make as much as they would have made from a major label advance. Perhaps that was a bit audacious, considering the amount of marketing money a major label would have dropped, but guess what? The album hit that goal in well under the three months it's been out -- long before it even hit traditional retail outlets or iTunes/Amazon. Not only that, but both artists draw from a slightly older fanbase that isn't as likely to dig for music online.
Even ETH was a fairly traditional release -- digital only, digital plus CD, and digital plus limited edition tin with bonus disc. To move to a system truly based on Collective Patronage, a group of fans would all pay an agreed-upon sum to an artist each year to ensure that artist continues to produce music. In exchange, they receive access to all the artist's output for that year, plus maybe a few extra bonuses. Essentially, it's a subscription or membership to the artist.
Josh Rouse posts an album of some sort each month for his patrons (okay, subscribers) to download. Jubilee recorded an EP, gathered patrons based on that EP, and put the money they collected towards further recording (which, of course, the patrons receive for free).
I've probably belabored the point more than I need to, but I encourage fans to become patrons of their favorite artists, and artists to seek out patrons -- we all want to make each other a little bit happier and bring a little more beauty to the world through music. Some have the talent and inspiration, others have the money.