Patreon: Can A Tech Company Really Help Artists Make More Money?

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The first rule of the internet: anything and everything will piss people off. It’s a lesson Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte, the duo behind the band Pomplamoose, learned the hard way: a naive Medium post about not making money on a tour that seemingly spared no expenses, which resulted in scathing takes from national and local media alike, and a memory that continues to plague them.

Fast forward to two years years later and Dawn is about to release her third solo album and Conte — now her husband — is in his third year as CEO of a company that is trying to help artists become part of the middle class: Patreon. Yet their biggest claim to fame still seems to be that Medium post.

The post in question was actually more of a thinly-veiled marketing attempt for Patreon. Dawn makes it clear that while she didn’t write the post, she’s obviously bound to it. “I still maintain that all publicity is good publicity,” she says. Though she now understands that they should’ve been clearer with Conte’s association with Patreon. While critics may still lurk, the two have moved on from the backlash and are focusing their efforts on a musical career and Patreon as a platform to support artists, respectively.

Patreon is similar to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and GoFundMe, except that its model is built around continuously supporting an artist – not just once. People can choose to support someone either “per month” or anytime they release something new. The tech company takes a reasonable five percent cut and the hope is that an artist can set up a Patreon page and fans will love their work enough to support their creative endeavors on a recurring basis.

Patreon’s inception coincided with Conte’s work on Pomplamoose and trying to make money off of the band’s popular YouTube videos. In a 2014 interview with Time,  Conte said that “There’s great ways for people to build an audience right now,” but added that “There’s no great way for people to make a living.” With that ethos, Patreon was born and it largely catered to creators with existing fan bases.

For someone like Dawn, Patreon was the next logical step in her career, even though she previously used Kickstarter to launch her first album. “The reason I didn’t do that this time is that I decided I’d rather have a smaller amount of money over the course of the year than a big chunk all at once,” she said. “It’s a way for me to make a living every single month.” And this is what makes the company different in her mind; artists can begin to budget or plan their lives around how much their patrons are donating versus asking every few weeks or months for more money.

Yet despite a strong community of people who believe in and use Patreon, including artists like Amanda Palmer and Jean Grae, along with a number of podcasts, writers and other creatives,  it’s still a relatively unknown platform in comparison to the Kickstarter and GoFundMe’s of the world. And this reliance on an existing community is where Patreon missteps with artists; it’s a place where people can set up successful campaigns if they are a little well known already. “I think the branding of Patreon is geared more towards people who have a large web following,” said Dawn. 

In an era where your brand needs to have a significant presence on YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and whatever new social media platform pops up, Patreon seems like it may not be the best option for artists who are just starting out. The company disagrees with this notion. “A common misconception about running a Patreon page is that it might take a lot of extra work and time,” said a Patreon representative in an e-mailed statement. “The truth is, Patreon is built to work perfectly with your current workflow, not disturb it. Since creators are already making stuff and sprinkling it elsewhere, Patreon can be used as a hub where all their work comes together.”

Liz Ryerson, an artist with 165 patrons and earning $921 a month on Patreon, agrees with Dawn, yet she still has some reservations. She believes she came to Patreon “at the right time,” when writing about Gamergate in 2014 and says she earned a lot of her patrons from people who supported her during that time.  “Though I really appreciate the support sometimes, it feels like pity dollars,” she says.

She also doesn’t like the expectation that Patreon creates; people originally supported her when she was a videogame critic and she thinks if she tries to do something else, she’ll lose her patrons. “Another weird thing is I feel like after my Patreon, less people actually engage with my work than they did before and I feel less freedom to do wild experiments that people might not find “good,” said Ryerson. She’s grateful for the support but feels slightly limited by it.

And while a divide with understanding an artist’s needs is a noticeable trend within tech companies, Patreon touts an internal team called Creator Care. The goal of Creator Care is to “maintain wildly close relationships with our creators, making sure that we understand their wants, needs, and struggles as artists so we can help give them the most successful career possible,” Patreon says.

For now, we’re living in a new era of music, where it’s created and funded in novel ways. Chicago’s Chance the Rapper has risen to massive stardom, despite having no label and now even has the potential to be nominated for a Grammy, despite not putting out any physical music releases. Dawn too looks to continue on a similar path as her album comes out in September. Created independently and without a label, it’s another example of how the music industry is being shook – and her ability to release an album this way is all thanks to her Patreon, or so she expresses.

“I’ve been watching my Patreon page grow tremendously over the past week and feel so freakin’ lucky that every dollar is a person,” said Dawn. While Dawn has found a way to make Patreon work for her, it’s clear that the growth of the company will be directly tied to making the platform a successful one for emerging talent.

Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter, focusing on smartphone and social media companies,
internet culture, and viral trends.

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