Patreon’s About page features the tagline: “Finally, creators get what they deserve” (Patreon, n.d.). But what exactly do creators deserve? And who gets to decide?
Patreon was founded in 2013 by YouTube musician Jack Conte and his college roommate, software developer Sam Yam, as a solution to a problem framed thus: “millions of people loved [Conte’s] videos, but only hundreds of dollars were hitting his bank account” (ibid.).
It’s always the zeros that make the difference. Patreon hosts two million monthly active patrons, over 100,000 monthly active creators, and expects to pass on $300 million in creator earnings in 2018 alone (ibid.). Creators, many of them YouTubers like Conte, use the site to supplement, or for the highest percentile of earners, fully support (Knepper 2017), their work and livelihood. Despite Knepper’s rather more reserved, critical view of the site, superficially evident in the title of his article, No One Makes a Living on Patreon, Conte himself has argued that “it’s the fucking best time ever to be making art”, with creators “establishing ongoing, reliable salaries [through Patreon] which not only fuel their creative endeavors, but legitimize their efforts as respectable, value-generating operations that contribute to society and enrich humanity” (Conte 2017).
This article will cast a critical eye over the degree of the transformative effect Patreon claims it has had on creative people and their audiences. While it has certainly gone some way to ameliorating “the web’s systemic abuse of creative people” (ibid.), it is important not to romanticise the amount of labour that goes into growing and sustaining one’s presence on the platform, and to consider how the expectation of this labour is intimately related to such a systemic abuse. I will argue that it is not enough to simply hail the democratisation of arts patronage as a means of emancipation, and that Patreon’s affordances still exist in a neoliberal, capitalist landscape, one that will never be conducive to the creative utopia Conte describes.
The labour of sustaining an audience
As a membership platform, Patreon allows creators to tailor subscription content by tying it to a tiered rewards system. Depending on how much patrons pledge, they may receive a reward in the form of an acknowledgement, experience, or product (Forst 2016). Receiving these rewards is contingent on the work of the creator, who, with what little automated assistance offered by Patreon, easily find themselves spending (nominally unpaid) hours each week or month in order to maintain the loyalty of their audience. As songwriter Molly Lewis puts it, “Patreon is constantly selling itself as something other than [a payment processor], something much more intensive and demanding” (in Knepper 2017).
The intensive and demanding labour that Patreon’s business model frames as requisite for earning a living wage as an artist is more broadly reflective of a culture in which art is “sanctifie[d . . .] as an under appreciated cultural value and simultaneously position[ed] as a commodity commensurate with other ‘capitalistic ventures’” (Gehring 2016: 58). In other words, it is not enough to be making good art. One must “also [be] good at marketing their stuff and themselves” (Knepper 2017).
In practice, self-promotion is most commonly operationalised through a “behind-the-scenes look into the artist’s process” (Drmay 2018: 23). The commodification of process — of “personable, diary-like tidbits” (24) — makes coming up with patron rewards difficult for creators who cannot or are not willing to aestheticise and give value and extra labour to their process. Alternatively, creators may choose to create an exclusive finished product for their patrons, which represents even more labour-intensive audience engagement.
Conte himself alludes to the sheer amount of time and money that goes into making art; one of his own examples is “over $10,000 [. . . a]nd three months of [his] life” (2017). Although Patreon intends to alleviate creative stresses, as well as push back against the culture that invisibilises them, the work that is actually involved in making the creative process visible and fundamentally lucrative in most cases negates its benefits. At its worst, the labour of sustaining an audience can be disempowering to the point where creators terminate their Patreon accounts (Knepper 2017) or, perhaps still worse, willingly self-identify as involuntary agents of capital: “I don’t think I’m a business person particularly, but since I’ve chosen to be an artist, I have to be” (Taylor in Drmay 2018: 23).
Crowdfunding for a neoliberal future
But I want to shift to discussing how the fundaments of Patreon’s business model are themselves difficult to reconcile with an allegedly innovative or unique view of the world of the creative professional, and are in fact closely related to a problematic turn towards crowdfunding in many areas of creative and noncreative work. I see this turn as consistent with the prevailing global logic of neoliberalism, which within the ambit of this article I define as an ideology of free market fundamentalism-cum-naturalised ontology of the atomised, individual, entrepreneurial self as the ideal agent which, above all else, ensures an idealised trajectory of ever-accelerating growth (after Pepinsky 2013 and Harvey 2005).
Crowdfunding fits neatly in this definition. Individuals, often in the capacity of a startup or grassroots group, bypass the arcane, traditional routes of securing public or private funding by appealing to a disparate group of contributing individuals. Many crowdfunding platforms follow an “all or nothing” approach, meaning that projects are only funded if they reach a preset funding target, which further entrenches an absolutist “market knows best” attitude. Overall, crowdfunding platforms benefit from the circulation of funding through their channels, which, along with a lack of regulation to reduce consumer risk, make crowdfunding as a corporate model very appealing (Gehring 2016: 64). True to form, the crowdfunding sector is growing rapidly (Herther 2016: 30–31), with countless campaigns coming from many different areas from academic research to individual healthcare needs.
Some of these campaigns are in and of themselves problematic, or indicative of the shortcomings of the state. University of Toronto tenured professor and noted trans/misogynist demagogue Jordan Peterson makes over $66,000 a month on Patreon (Smith and Kaag 2018: 52). Setting up GoFundMe pages has become a popular strategy for people, particularly Americans, “addressing the extraordinary costs of health care”, with crowdfunding having “rapidly become institutionalized as part of the health care financing landscape” (Berliner and Kenworthy 2017: 233); extreme structural shortcomings in public healthcare and austerity measures are overlooked due to the foregrounded narrative and individualised labour of “producing a worthy illness”. Furthermore, the discourse surrounding the use of platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo to fund arts projects risks “aligning with neoliberal ideological language”, with Brabham noting similarities “between pro-crowdfunding sentiments and anti-public arts funding advocates” (2017: 983). Similar tensions are observed in the crowdfunding campaigns of indie game developers, namely “between [a] genuine desire for subversion and the underlying neoliberal logics which drive many of their entrepreneurial business practices” (Vanderhoef 2016: 22).
In these examples I deliberately elide the subscription-based business model of Patreon into the broader label of crowdfunding as they are, at least from a cultural standpoint, two sides of the same coin. I see Patreon’s break as “membership and community management” (Conte 2017) from other sites such as Kickstarter and its subsidiary Drip, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, Pozible, and so on, and which themselves all differ significantly, as first and foremost a marketing strategy for entrenching its “uniqueness”, and secondly as a way of describing the provision of funding as ongoing rather than related to the fruition of a discrete project or venture. This is not enough to distinguish it from the label of crowdfunding, which, as we have seen, can take many different and often wretched forms.
Swords (2017: 65–68) offers a typology and brief history of patronage that illuminates how crowdfunding is but another iteration of the many ways in which creators have historically sought funding and assistance for their projects. From poets attached to households in 12th century Wales, to religious orders, guilds, subscription lists, private and public commissions, and government and corporate patronage, crowdfunding is not in and of itself innovative as much as it simply reflects the cultural and technological moment in which it has arisen. Globalisation and the Internet facilitates a “large and global” network of patrons, the majority of whom patronise artists across international borders, with the exception of those in the United States whose patronage is primarily circulated domestically (69). The top destination for almost every other country’s patronage is the United States (70). These two statistics alone show that crowdfunding does not simply offer a flat democratisation of patronage worldwide but aligns with broader cultural flows of power.
Patreon is a particular intermediary in the broader ecosystem of these flows. Supported by venture capital investment (ibid. 63) and a number of partners (Patreon, n.d.), Patreon also skims a 5% commission fee and arbitrary transaction fee off every pledge. As discussed, it offers little room for any automation of the frequently gruelling labour creators must endure in order to sustain a worthwhile presence on the site. Its central position beneath the umbrella of “broader crowdfunding culture” in the simple visualisation below mirrors, if you like, the primacy of American neoliberal ideology in influencing the way others do business and relate to one another. Studies of other crowdfunding platforms may prove to be more or less coherent with this ideology, even if crowdfunding is as a concept a priori a neoliberal one.
There is reason to why people believe crowdfunding constructs “regulation as an enemy”, and “defines human value along economic lines” (Ruffino 2016). It is firmly situated in, not separate from, global economic circumstances of high volatility, low (or nominal) regulation, corporatism, and the proliferation of individualistic, entrepreneurial, meritocratic narratives that ultimately prove unrealistic and disempowering.
For those who make art and for whom Patreon is successful as a means of creative emancipation: all power to them. But realising the creative utopia envisioned by Conte and Patreon will take far more than corporate intermediation. Truly utopian conditions require truly utopian thinking. And though I have not made the case for alternatives here, some possibilities to flag for further consideration include a global UBI (universal basic income) and greatly increased, ongoing, public subsidising of the arts at all levels, both of which would largely obviate any need for crowdfunding. In the end, it comes down not just to what we believe creators deserve, but what we all deserve as human beings.
In the meantime, we must always be suspicious of the language of innovation. It is impossible to argue for a technological transformation as divorced from neoliberal capitalist oppression when it patently thrives on those same systems of power. This is not to say that Patreon is not an avenue for creators themselves to explore; rather that they should participate with a critical awareness, and temper their expectations (and their labour) accordingly.
Berliner, L. and N. Kenworthy (2017), “Producing a worthy illness: Personal crowdfunding amidst financial crisis” in Social Science & Medicine 187: 233–242, accessible at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.02.008.
Brabham, D. (2017), “How crowdfunding discourse threatens public arts” in New Media & Society 19(7): 983–999. DOI: 10.1177/14614815625946.
Conte, J. (Jan 10 2017), “Creators Have Made $100M on Patreon”, in PatreonHQ blog, accessible at https://patreonhq.com/creators-have-made-100m-on-patreon-ddfcc9338662.
Drmay, S. (2018), “Patrons, Perks, Payout?” in Broken Pencil (Winter 2018): 23–24.
Forst, B. (2016), Crowdfunding: Prosocial Motivations of Funders Participating in Music Campaigns, University of Colorado [thesis]. ProQuest no. 10247886.
Gehring, D. (2016), “We Can’t Do This Without You!”: Crowdfunding Campaigns as Cultural and Economic Negotiations Within Neoliberal Culture, Old Dominion University [thesis]. ProQuest no. 10126281.
Harvey, D. (2005), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press.
Herther, N. (2016), “Crowdfunding: Research and Academic Fundraising’s New Era” in Searcher’s Voice (Sep/Oct 2016): 30–36.
Knepper, B. (Dec 7 2017), “No One Makes a Living on Patreon” in The Outline, accessible at https://theoutline.com/post/2571/no-one-makes-a-living-on-patreon?zi=lgeg6tq5&zd=2.
Patreon (n.d.), About, accessible at https://www.patreon.com/about.
Patreon (n.d.), Partners, accessible at https://partners.patreon.com.
Pepinsky, T. (Dec 4 2013), “Defining Neoliberalism”, accessible at https://tompepinsky.com/2013/12/04/defining-neoliberalism/.
Ruffino, J. (29 Sep 2016), “Digital start-ups may seem efficient, but are really terrible role models for running a country” in Sunday Business Post, Cork Ireland, accessible at https://ezproxy.library.usyd.edu.au/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/1904860201?accountid=14757.
Smith, D. and J. Kaag (2018), “Thus Spoke Jordan Peterson” in Foreign Policy 227 (April 2018): 52–54.
Swords, J. (2017), “Crowd-patronage — Intermediaries, geographies and relationships in patronage networks” in Poetics 64: 63–73, accessible at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2017.09.001.
Vanderhoef II, J. R. (2016), An Industry of Indies: The New Cultural Economy of Digital Game Production, University of California Santa Barbara [thesis]. ProQuest no. 10190949.