In Defense of the Content Creator Who Turns to Patreon
January 04, 2019

I've recently seen condescending remarks directed toward people who turn to Patreon as a potential source of income, rather than employing "an actual business model." And I get it. Society has taught us that if people ask for money in exchange for creating content, they're fair game. Mock away!

But here's the thing: Patreon actually is a sort of business model, at least to the extent that any option available to artists can ever be considered one. It represents a slight but helpful twist on the oldest funding model creative sorts have had available for centuries: the patron. In ye olden days, a "patron" was someone with money who paid the necessary expenses so a creative sort (today referred to with occasional scorn as the "content creator") could afford to create while staying fed, clothed and housed. Artists for the most part were either independently wealthy nobles and/or members of the clergy, or they had patrons.

This is an oversimplification, but a business model essentially amounts to someone providing a product or service or otherwise beneficial outcome in exchange for the regular payment that will sustain it. In the digitally oriented year 2019, many creative sorts lack a physical product to sell. That condition leaves them with three likely "business models" available. Each of those models, including the patron system mentioned briefly above, has serious drawbacks, with the primary and sometimes exclusive perk being that at least there's money coming in and the creator can create. So let's look at the three models.

First up, there is the advertising model. This approach worked for years as a replacement to the classic patron model. You put out a creative work or a publication, and a business "sponsors" it in exchange for promotional consideration. The result is magazines with full-page ads for perfume or cars or clothes or alcohol, and occasional readers or subscribers enjoy the content while paying a relatively nominal fee for the publication that by itself wouldn't cover the costs to produce it. Provided revenue is sufficient, that publication then uses the revenue to compensate its contributors.

The Internet has severely damaged the long-term viability of this most common of models, unfortunately, and the situation continues to worsen by the year. There are so many publications out there now that the supply far exceeds the demand, even though the supply itself is often homogenized in ways that limit our exposure to unique perspectives. Advertisers are in one sense luckier than they've ever been, because they can pay literal pennies to reach thousands of people. However, they also don't know how "engaged" those people are, because keeping track of metrics is hard work and different parties--including the publishers themselves--might well game the system. There also are issues such as ad blockers, which on average prevent about half the potential audience from even seeing the ads, unless the people in that audience each agree to annoying requests to disable ads on a particular site. Effectively reaching the people advertising is meant to target might also tempt assorted companies to violate privacy, which just makes people hate advertising even more (and a lot of folks hate being advertised in the first place, for reasons that aren't always entirely clear).

Furthermore, the advertising model requires publishers to funnel a ridiculous number of viewers to their site, service, blog, podcast or whatever else in order to get enough impressions or clicks to generate the desired revenue, which they often resort to doing by posting content other than what they--and many intelligent readers or viewers or listeners--might find interesting. The advertising model encourages controversy for the sake of controversy, and prioritizes insipid "junk food" content while content of arguably greater quality is difficult or impossible to finance. Other methods of reaching a broad demographic are often costly, and might eat up more revenue than they would generate. There are issues enough with the advertising model to fill dozens upon dozens of articles at least as long as this blog post, so let's move on from that.

The next revenue source creatives might consider is outside financial investment. This most commonly takes the form of a cash infusion from a large company or a wealthy individual or investors with money to burn and a momentary lack of risk aversion. For instance, maybe some billionaire or corporation provides $2 million to pay a team of writers and web personalities to make an awesome video site for a few years. Supposing that happens, these investments aren't donations. The money is provided with the expectation that competent stewards will use it to fund a publication that eventually becomes financially viable, probably through traditional advertising models. While the cash infusion is helpful, it also increases the pressure to perform in potentially unhealthy ways. If the publication is a money pit, the funding has an expiration date and then failure is the most likely outcome. In the meantime, creative decisions are made not on the basis of what content is worthwhile, but what content will bring in revenue made possible by the attention of the masses. It's a different flavor of the same problem the advertising model faces.

Finally, you have the "patron" model itself, which as I noted above is the oldest of the three models discussed here. One big problem there is that when you seek out patrons, you look like a beggar and people make snide jokes about how you might as well just be panhandling on the corner. Or you're reminded--frequently--that "no one is going to pay for that." This is demoralizing, to say the least, and creatives hardly need the reminder that a lot of people don't think their output is valuable. The conventional wisdom says "true artists" will keep producing content even if no one pays them, just because they have this internal compulsion they can't resist. And there is some truth to that, even though the notion of a starving artist isn't particularly romantic to the artist. It should (but doesn't) go without saying that output an artist manages when basic needs are met and stress levels are healthy is often superior to what that same artist might produce around a full-time job and constant concerns over limited financial resources.

The patron model, when it works, allows the content creator to find people who might enjoy what he or she creates, enough that they will pledge money to make sure that content can continue to be created by that individual (or group). Rather than trying to appeal to a broad, unknown and often fickle demographic, the content creator produces quality content that is rewarded not for simply being too controversial to ignore, or too silly, but for providing interesting and valuable contributions within the relevant medium. There also is a greater likelihood the individual or group will have one of the most important luxuries of all: the creative freedom that is the bedrock of great content. Another potential perk is actionable feedback, which has value of its own.

As you've probably concluded, I am a reluctant fan of the patron model. I believe it is the most viable of the three options, the least of the three evils, despite the natural difficulties and sometimes outright hardship a content creator faces while struggling to find those people who are best suited to serve as ongoing patrons. I doubt you'll be surprised to learn I have my own Patreon campaign. So far I am proving absolutely terrible at connecting with an audience the size I need to make it really work. But at least I'm trying, like many other people who have turned to crowdfunding, and I hope when more people understand better the difficulties inherent in building a platform and distributing content of high quality, fewer of them will see fit to provide discouraging feedback. Certainly don't back a project if you don't believe in it or the content creator or you don't care about the potential results of a successful campaign. But maybe also don't add destructive criticism to the mountain of difficulty that already lies ahead of the content creators brave enough to put themselves out there.

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