THE ORIGINS OF PATREON
Kickstarter is useful for ambitious projects with a limited scope; projects with marketable premises but a nonetheless visible conclusion. Releasing a video game, a visual novel, or the printed edition of a webcomic focuses around an end goal. But releasing a webcomic indefinitely for an extensive period of time does not have an end goal, and ‘support me materially while I make something you like’ is not a compelling way to request crowdfunding money.
If ad revenue and merchandise are biased towards platforms rather than creators, then where are we to turn to for resources? Today, it’s the small donation-based subscription site Patreon, which came about when its cofounder, Jack Comte, had to ask himself the same question.
“It’s so demoralizing as an artist to feel so successful, and to have such a discrepancy between the impact you feel you’re having on the world and then the paycheck that you get at the end of the month,” said Comte in a 2017 interview with Wired. His particular frustrations originated with the vast discrepancies between the amount of work and ensuing fan response that went into the videos his band posted on Youtube, in contrast with the tiny sums – often less than 200 dollars, following a video’s successful release – he’d receive as a share of YouTube’s ad revenue.
PATREON IN PRACTICE
HOW IT WORKS
Comte’s wanted not only to ‘fund the creative class’ but to fund the creative class through the same drive that funds many of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns. He’s said that he saw a discrepancy in his YouTube career between the adoration he received from fans and the revenue that it translated into. Patreon, then, skips the middleman; it allows fans to directly fund the creators they love.
Like Kickstarter, Patreon centers on a sum of money that fans can pledge to creators; like Kickstarter, the possible donations exist in tiered increments and present tiered rewards. The difference lies in continuity: the monetary rewards are frequently smaller, but they exist on a monthly basis, like a subscription.
For fanbases, these rewards frequently replicate the feeling of being entered in a special patronage-based membership. Frequent rewards include personalized thank-yous, access to extra or behind-the-scenes content, and communication features, such as Discord servers with additional access to creators.
Newer creators have been sometimes able to build themselves up to mass success, with Patreon as a significant companion of theirs for a good amount of this process; older creators, though, including webcomic veteran K.C. Green, have been able to utilize their large pre-established following and their investment
“It helps a lot! It gives people a salary of sorts. It basically pays my rent and utilities each month,” he told The Observer in 2015, explaining that the base he’d built up on Patreon enabled him to quit his long-running webcomic Gunshow when he no longer felt creatively invested in it, and free time to pursue new projects.
Patreon, then, was founded with the goal of transforming admiration into revenue. How well does this hold up?
K.C. Green’s example introduces one of the most notable benefits of Patreon: its capacity to enable creative freedom. Creators who have generated investment in their work as a whole are able to switch projects rather than holding onto old ones for fear of losing access to a safety net and needing to re-establish an audience and revenue source. Creators with ideas outside of a cultural mainstream are able to be compensated for their work without fearing demonetization; for instance, several of Patreon’s top creators are left-wing YouTubers such as Natalie Wynn (“Contrapoints“) and Harry Brewis (“Hbomberguy“).
An article published in The Outline, while it is ultimately critical of Patreon, also points out that creators who are successful on Patreon are often vulnerable in other areas of life, whether that’s due to a precarious financial position or societal marginality. In these cases, supplementing daily revenue with Patreon revenue may be the difference between pursuing art and not pursuing it at all. Chicago-based transgender artist Ayla Arthur is quoted, saying, “It’s a way of keeping people most at risk of unemployment afloat while they do what they love.” Arthur was able to purchase a tablet through the $200 a month she earned at the time.
These benefits both stem from the same overarching asset that Patreon provides: granting creators the capacity to rely on an ongoing, predictable base of income. Barring a deplatforming by Patreon (which has generally only happened in the case of perceived hate speech), a large-enough scale social scandal that it removes large measures of financial support (a possibility discussed in the social media section), or an economic crisis that prevents large numbers of people from maintaining their standard ‘subscriptions’, a creator can rely on a predictable monthly base of income. This is not the case for advertising revenue or merchandise, the latter of which costs more at one time for an audience member but provides less revenue to creators.
All the same, Patreon is not a flawless model for generating revenue. Each site has a culture, and Patreon’s culture of personalized, ‘intimate’-feeling promotion is a better fit for some than others. In other words, in the same way that successful hierarchies develop hierarchies that are not based in pure artistic merit, there are artists with legitimate crafts for whom Patreon primarily generates extra work.
Any kind of revenue requires not only an artistic ability but the ability to market oneself; and Knepper says that this constant drive towards self-promotion requires its own kind of intensive, emotionally exhausing labor:
“Patreon filled my downtime, and became a full time job itself. I’d spend hours combing through photos, looking back on notes I’d taken on the road, researching where I’d been. I’d post on Twitter and Instagram with teasers, free stories, anything to attract my followers to my Patreon page. I made friends on the site, I shared their projects on my own social media, and kept up with all my subscribers’ projects. It was a lot of work for little pay, but I was determined. A year later my monthly earnings on Patreon have grown from $120 to $163.“
Jack Comte himself admits that Patreon makes room for a very specific variety of creator-fan relationship, one that not everyone has room for or a capacity to maintain. Comte uses the example of Patreon top-earner Amanda Palmer (ranked number fifteen on Patreon as of November 27, 2020), as an example of Patreon Wired describes his outlook as the idea that “by and large… Patreon privileges those creators who tend toward higher-frequency output and whose fans regard them as (mistake them for?) dear friends.”
Palmer’s Patreon certainly maintains such an image. Typing in an intimate, artistic all-lower case, she begins the description for her highest tier (five dollars a song) with “you’re supporting me a lot here, dear one.” Her updates (some of which are visible to non-patrons, but addressed to “[her] dear patrons” all the same, read like emotionally intimate, private journal entries. The front page of her Patreon features the following video, which uses fast-paced high production value to include her Patreon supporters in what she calls her ‘personal journey.’
While Palmer is mocked for these tendencies by her detractors, her fanbase is loyally devoted; not least, it seems, because she is able to frame people who are, in truth, strangers to her as a group of supportive friends. It seems that Palmer shares in this belief; quoted in an article that criticizes her Patreon model, she has said, “”I don’t think of my 15,000 Patrons as strangers, and I don’t think of my million Twitter followers as strangers,” Palmer said. “I recognize people on the daily; these are people who I have a two-way conversation with.”
It would be irresponsible to accuse Palmer of being ‘inauthentic’. Whether her blogging is a genuine insight into her life, and whether her idea of her Twitter followers as friends rather than strangers is a belief she genuinely holds, are not the point. The point is that Patreon depends on a specific kind of creator model: the illusion that if you support a creator and get insight into enough of their private life, you will know the ‘real them’, and that they have obligations to you specifically; the illusion that a fanbase is a kind of personal army, rather than a group of people who admire your works. This is not a model that works for everyone; this is not a model that the majority of Patreon creators are promoting. Nonetheless, this – which falls under the much-discussed category of the parasocial relationship – drives crowdfunding in artistic spaces, and drives creator relationships with an even longer-standing pillar of the Internet: social media.
Dale, Brady. “Webcomic Star KC Green on Why He Killed GUNSHOW, The Comic That Launched Him.” Observer, 7 July 2015, https://observer.com/2015/07/kc-green-gunshow-kickstarter-back-pinocchio/