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Patreon: The Arts and Beyond

Posted by on December 21, 2015.

Not every new idea succeeds and not every successful idea succeeds right away. Some of the most successful ventures and products can take years to get off the ground. This is not so, however, with San Francisco-based, crowdfunding platform Patreon. Patreon was founded in May 2013, and by October 2014, the website was processing more than $1,000,000 per month in pledges. Earlier this year, before Patreon was two years old, it had grown sufficiently to acquire subbable.com, a direct competitor for subscription-based crowdfunding for artists. However, despite its success, Patreon still attracts a great deal of controversy, and it’s not difficult to find detractors online who feel very strongly that its model is bad news.

The basic model and structure of Patreon can be thought of as a subscription-based Kickstarter. Rather than asking for funds to complete one project, creators on Patreon ask for donations on a regular or semi-regular basis. Depending on how much an individual pledges, the creator may have bonus content or extras on offer to encourage larger donations. Creators can ask for pledges either on a monthly basis, or whenever they produce and publish a new work. In the latter case, patrons are able to set a monthly cap on their donations to prevent highly-productive creators taking more than the patron can afford. There is also an analogue to Kickstarter’s Stretch Goals, as creators are able to promise additional features or simply to mark milestones when the total monthly pledges reach a certain point.

As far as the creators are concerned, Patreon has one major flaw in its core design;. the primary method of attracting greater pledges and therefore more money is to offer rewards to your patrons. This works exactly like the Kickstarter model, where creators can offer bonuses to those who agree to give a certain amount. However, while Kickstarter projects ask for a single payment for a single reward, the continuous, monthly nature of Patreon makes the process unfortunately exploitable.

Rewards can be virtually anything the creator imagines, including intangible or continuous benefits – for example, a digital artist might offer their backers access to live video streams of their works in progress. The patrons would have access to this for the whole month, but not need to make the pledge payment to gain the
benefit. This can, and certainly does, result in some patrons cancelling their pledge before the payment is taken. Not only does this mean that some creators end up giving some rewards for free, but it also means they get an inaccurate idea of their own earnings. Each creator’s page displays the total income the artist can expect to receive from the next round of payments, but it’s frequent to find that a relatively large proportion of that estimate is lost through unpaid, declined or cancelled pledges.

Patreon’s system does not only put the creators at risk, either. While the free- market nature of the site means that less productive, less talented creators are less likely to attract pledges, there are still vulnerabilities that consumers should be aware of.

For instance, until Patreon updated its community guidelines on December 21st, 2014, there was next to no regulation on what could be put up for patronage. This resulted in some Patreon projects being regarded as undesirable by many other users. While violating the law or the legal rights of others has always been against Patreon’s terms of service, this still allowed certain controversial creators a platform. National Socialist Weev, for instance, had a Patreon page to gather donations; although what he advertised directly on Patreon was within the community guidelines, he admitted elsewhere that he intended to use at least some of the funds for terrorist acts involving 3D-printed drones and explosives.

Patreon’s co-founder, Jack Conte, has expressed staunchly anti-censorship views in a Twitter discussion, but at the same time admitted to being very uncomfortable with some of the content up for patronage. The guidelines may have tightened up, but there are still some highly controversial projects on Patreon.

The questionable uses of Patreon are far from the whole story, however. People with artistic or creative talents are forever faced with the question of how to monetise their work. Advertising has been the go-to solution for the majority of the internet’s lifespan, but the profitability of this model has been shrinking over the past few years. In September of last year, a statistical infographic was published, claiming that the click-rate for internet advertisements was just 0.1%. Additionally,
users have been becoming increasingly resistant to and resentful of advertisements in general; between 2013 and 2014, the popularity of browser plugin Adblock – software which automatically detects and blocks pop-ups, banner and column ads, and even YouTube video advertisements – grew by 69%. Most of this growth seems to have come from the generation of internet natives, young people who have grown up with the internet, so the trend looks set to continue.

Advertising is growing weaker for the advertisers, and it is growing weaker for the websites that host it. Patreon allows creators a potential lifeline, not only to fund their creations but to keep them ad-free. There are many, many projects and pages with stretch goals along the lines of “quit my day job”, and some of these goals have even been met, showing that Patreon is a viable way of not just paying for hosting, but also earning a living. And creators don’t just use their earnings as personal funds, either – popular YouTube show Beer and Board Games used subbable.com to gather funds until moving to Patreon after the acquisition, and after less than a year on the new platform is on the verge of meeting its stretch goal to completely upgrade its recording equipment.

All this still leaves one problem. The success of a Patreon page doesn’t necessarily depend on the quality of content, but on how well it’s publicised. A project can have all the talent, originality and expertise in the world behind it, but if there is no awareness, there is no way to attract the funding it needs. This is sometimes used as an argument against Patreon in internet discussions, but consider the alternative ways of gaining an income from web-based projects. Whether it’s revenue from advertising, backing a project through Kickstarter, or selling something through PayPal, raising awareness for a project is always a challenge that creators need to resolve.

Amid all the successes and failures, controversy and good examples, Patreon has the potential for something truly unique, economically. Though the world is geared towards a very black-and-white view of economics, with East and West, Red and Blue, Marx and Milton always opposed and incompatible, Patreon’s model is not only a compromise between two ideals, but a combination of them that may have been thought impossible. The transparent relationship between consumer, worker and commodity encouraged by Patreon is reminiscent of Marxist economic theories, and since all things offered by creators are produced directly for consumption, it’s quite a socialism-friendly model. However, Patreon is still a marketplace, and a quintessentially free one at that. The success of a product is
governed only by the market’s demand, and the creator’s ability to fill that demand.

Patreon itself by no means deserves all of the vitriol directed towards it. Conceptually, it’s a fantastic idea, especially in today’s global economy, and if used correctly could be a huge asset to artists in the long run. However, it’s equally unfair to say that all criticism is just a knee-jerk, reactionary attitude to new ideas. The benefits of the system, both for patrons and the artists they support, depend on informed consumers and scrupulous, responsible creators – neither of which is ever going to have a 100% success rate. While many artists may balk at needing to tie their art down to such fiscal demands and pander to the demands of the marketplace, any more potential for support can only be of benefit to the arts.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |