Small Scale Patronage & When is it Okay to Beg For Money?
This post was originally published on my former AN blog in January 2019.
I admit now that I maybe got off on the wrong foot with the Patreon website but I still think this is a very necessary discussion. For anyone who hasn’t come across Patreon as a tempting way to live like a 21stCentury flâneur, it is a website that brings long-term crowd funding to the individual. Rather than asking for donations for a specific project in exchange for a fixed outcome, you can get tiny amounts to help you live, complete other projects, just for being you and for providing on-going titbits to your saviours etc. The Patreon website sites important benefits of its system, such as ways to get a sustainable living, have a more direct relationship with an audience and get recurring revenue.
It is easy to see how this could be a good financing model for content producers such as bloggers and vlogers, who work on labour-intensive ongoing happenings they can’t sell as items. Before you ask, nope sadly nobody is paying me to just be myself on this blog. For anyone who wants to sell one-off paintings or sculptures it might be less appealing a model, for both artists and audiences, but the idea of patronage is not new to any of us artists.
Facilitated by the overwhelmingly collaborative nature of the digital, the concept of micro funding in this way doesn’t sound too bad, right? Which doesn’t explain why I practically came out in hives when I discovered it a few years ago. I had been reading the Twitter feed of an established journalist who had decided to quit the day job on a newspaper to go off on a jolly around Europe and write (another) book. Said journalist apparently needed people to give a few pounds a month to enable this.
Now I am willing to admit that much of my reaction might have been fuelled by envy. I would love to write another book, spending a whole summer gazing thoughtfully in to the middle distance, sipping strong coffee in the cafes of Vienna, Berlin and Riga. I just don’t have the gall to ask anyone to give me a few quid to do it, when I already have a job here that I am grateful for both in terms of bills paid and fulfilment.
And let’s be honest, I also suspect that I do not have the public profile necessary to generate enough patronage to fuel the café lifestyle. I also fear anything that looks like a popularity contest. As an artist, writer, educator, I don’t really care if people like me enough to give me money. I’ll happily engage with an audience but it’s the work that I hope might prove interesting or useful for someone one day. I am used to seeking to improve my skills before my personal marketability.
As a professional I’m fine with taking money for my contribution, especially because art, writing and education have been redeeming enough in my life for me to believe they are essential to all of us. Yet if creative success relied only on an outgoing persona, ability with kitten heels, or stylish mug shot it would go much worse for me than just looking a bit weird eating a bacon sandwich, and look where that led.
In the book-holiday scenario there was also something confusing about having the money upfront for the lifestyle needs, although I know that’s what music and book publishing companies used to do when business was better. An advance seemed a sensible thing if it would give someone time to develop their piece of work, rather than what we all do now, which is hold down 20 jobs and develop our work at the pace of a snail or not at all.
I still think it’s an okay system. If I had the money, I would be happy to give an advance to someone whose work I wanted to publish, but to also polish up in the interim. Big publishing companies still do seem to give out meaty advances, but the only one I know of personally in recent years was a six-figure sum given to an already well established journalist to write a novel off-topic. Most of us aren’t already that far up the chain, so I think this really has ceased to be a reliable model.
Yet I do recognise that the world seems to have changed. A mixture of economics and new technology has contributed a lot to this change and I just don’t think that things will go back to what they were.
With this in mind, one of the reasons I started this blog was to try and look at practical possibilities of sustaining a professional creative practice right now where, as creatives, we’re left needing to negotiate the new situation while paying ever increasing living costs. I also hoped to investigate what the advantages are in our newer system, that we as artists are not yet managing to leverage to create a sustainable industry for us all. I believe that part of this formula will come from independence but am not sure that these types of schemes really offer the independence they seem to.
So practically and morally can small-scale patronage replace large advances handed down in anticipation of future sales? This is where I feel it’s okay to plug my already published book of short stories and say that I don’t mind people who like my writing to give me some money after the fact, but only because they’ll be going home with a book and that feels fine. So if you like any of this ever, please consider buying a book…
Maybe it’s because of my high-end lipstick sales background that I really believe in handing over already packaged value at the point of receiving the money. Selling expensive cosmetics was one situation that you didn’t need to feel bad about asking for money in: Nice lipstick makes people feel good so can be worth the money, plus a ‘no thank you’ wasn’t a personal slight. Someone telling you they hate your painting style and wouldn’t give you 50p for it is maybe more hurtful than a boutique customer drawing the line at a new blusher brush.
One good thing about Patreon type schemes seems to be that at least they are encouraging artists to ask for money, and that’s not something we are necessarily good at, even if we do have that finished piece rather than a flâneuresque lifestyle aspiration borne of dollar contributions.
What other ways might there be when getting comfortable with asking for money to live the creative life? I used to go to a lovely meditation retreat run by a Buddhist group who taught via donations rather than charging a fee for the retreat. They also allowed you to lie down to meditate, which is something worth killing, let alone paying, for. Held in a beautiful silent house in Sussex, you would pay for your bed and board up front when booking but the teaching was given for free to start with, and you could choose to pay an anonymous donation at the end of the week. I suppose there must have been some people who didn’t pay, and others who felt gratitude enough to pay over the odds.
One of the teachers explained the idea of asking for money so well, and it has been a constant comfort to me in the years since, when people look perplexed at the thought someone (maybe even me) should charge for a painting because it was possibly enjoying to make. Much like spiritual teaching, we might indeed do these things for love but that doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit the world and are worthless, and love doesn’t get a roof over your head or food in your stomach.
I realised then that something as intangible as spiritual teaching or time to meditate could be worth exchanging something else for, without any soul searching. It would just depend on what it was worth to you. At the moment whether some people like it or not, money has become a unit of exchange for us, and it saves bartering. I suppose I could have learned to make shoes, and then given a pair to the teacher for her children back in Spain, but it was a much better exchange to pay some money; gratefully because I always felt I got some real benefits from those weeks.
Whether it is a cd or a painting, or something less solid such as Buddhist teaching or perceived psychic healing, all parties accept that you are giving money in exchange for the receipt of something else. It is not charity, and it is not theft.
That is what was probably causing me discomfort about my first experience of Patreon, which was to support a lifestyle choice. I didn’t see where the exchange was really because if you wanted the book at the end of it, you would still have to buy it. Not to mention the fact that I know it is possible to write a book at home and in between other jobs. I might be wrong but at the time, all I saw was some already privileged and opinionated person, in a good job that pays a lot more bills than mine does, going off on holiday and expecting people to donate their morning coffee once a week for it, while they stayed tied to their desks and dreaming of being artists. Art for the few.
Since then I’ve learned that Patreon benefactors often receive extra things in exchange for their help, such as access to an early podcast, a competition or the chance to buy a piece of limited edition merchandise. Maybe Patreon is just a digital version of the old-fashioned fan club you could send a yearly subscription to in exchange for a magazine and maybe a key fob or set of stickers. In that way it doesn’t seem too bad. It still seems too precarious a system to really do anything useful like pay a mortgage or rent, but I might be completely wrong about that too?
Two things that made me question my attitude towards people using Patreon came along in 2017 and 2018, and since then I have started to believe that these things have value even if they are not some ultimate answer to our current predicament. One is a vlogger who does the usual sort of fashion-music-makeup-philosophy with a really nice personality mix, and the other is a political podcast I have been listening to, to soothe the woes of knowing that 90% of my better paid freelance work this year came from partially EU funded UK arts projects. (Some people might consider that patronage too, and it might be, but these grants are usually for community projects centring around things like social cohesion and physical and mental health. So the idea is that they are spending some money to get a benefit for all of us society).
I really like the vlogger and I know she doesn’t earn money from much else at the moment, so I feel that the micro funding is a real help in this situation. For anyone following the Youtube earnings debate, there was something a while back people were calling Admageddon, which saw many Youtubers have their advertising income slashed due to changes in the platform. More about those types of earnings in another blog.
It seems to be that starting a Youtube blog only leads to riches / a moderate salary for very, very few people. So someone who went to film school, putting a bit of effort in to crafting entertaining videos, while working in a range of other jobs, has to be respected for at least doing something to keep making art in a challenging economic system. After Admageddon I noticed she was plugging her Patreon account more, and this was someone I actually felt I could give a dollar a month to. Yes the beauty of crowd funding is that patronage can be as low as a dollar.
So there I was confronted with the confusion of still nearly going in to anaphylaxis every time I heard about Patreon, while actually finding someone I wouldn’t mind giving a dollar to if it helped her to keep entertaining me and have the career she wanted. I would like to note here that I don’t consider platforms like YouTube ‘free’ content because you pay with the slices of your brain handed on a platter to advertising. Even if you always click to skip the ad after the first 4 seconds, you still got to watch the bit that advertisers put all of their efforts in to.
The podcast I liked was a completely different idea. All of the people hosting it, as well as guests, have really good jobs and the kind of public standing that meant they could launch a political podcast and get it to be popular quickly. I think at the moment that the Patreon contributions must go to running the podcast rather than paying them a salary. I felt that it was a valuable podcast and that in principle I also wouldn’t mind contributing a few pounds to its running, whether the money went to salaries or production, or something else. I think they offer the podcast a couple of days early to subscribers, and it is for a defined project, so seems like the kind of exchange I would be comfortable with. It’s probably worth noting that I haven’t actually subscribed to either of these examples despite thinking I could.
So over the years, I have softened a bit to the idea of Patreon but I still have problems accepting patronage in general as a viable business model for artists in the 21stCentury, especially when it comes in the form of a regular drip of income as opposed to the way to complete a specified project, or pay for a particular job.
It might help support a YouTuber or two, provide pocket money for a modern troubadour to pitch their performance tent at various points along the Interrail map but I’m not sure that it matures in to somewhere stable to live, regular healthy food, bringing up a family etc. What do people reading this blog post think? Is this something that you have delved in to, or do you know any people who have had success with this form of funding?
One thing I do think that’s good about these initiatives is that they give people on moderate incomes the chance to be involved with art projects and artists’ careers. I am sure that most people who contribute their dollars to Patreon are really happy to do it, which is something that should be taken seriously. I am still happier about this type of crowdfunding of tangible projects though, like books, films, exhibitions etc in the style of platforms like Kickstarter. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the type of project I would feel happier running, and I think this model has led to some great events, projects and products.
My bottom line at the moment is that in principle, regular subscription patronage may be a useful thing to have around but it isn’t stable enough to be a real option for most. However, it is certainly making use of the digital to throw a lifeline to independents, and aren’t most of us indies these days?
Any time you work for a big entity, whether government or privately run you realise the greater part of all budgets seem to lead to to administration and marketing. Digital platforms have facilitated these types of micro crowd funding opportunities that speak of independence. However the plethora of content and data generated means that it is easy for artists to get lost, and the dream of success still seems as limited to a few, as it was when we had better-funded patrons. Maybe we’ll have to bring back the middle men again at some point?
My main problem with this model is that it too often still relies on benevolent support than on the idea of an equal exchange. Art is not a frivolity, or a bit of fun. It is worth something. In our economic system that means it is worth money. The precariarity of relying on kindness is not suitable to allow most people to actually sustain a whole career this way.
For someone who is truly independent, building up enough micro benefactors might take years so this is not a solution for anyone wanting to become a professional artist, who also needs to pay bills the normal way for the decade or so it takes to become a bit more financially successful.
Neither does this model value art for the intrinsic part of civilisation that it is. If my car needs fixing I pay a mechanic once they’ve done the job. When I want to watch a film, why should I download it for free then pay $1 a month to one of the people who contributed to the making of it?
I wondered if anyone reading this has had an experience with this type of funding model, and what your opinions might be? Is there a way that we could use these very good principles of micro-funding, public engagement and independence in a way that is more empowering and sustainable for artists?
Would you feel comfortable ditching a paid job to ask people to support you create your dream art project, or do you feel more comfortable making something then selling it? Do you feel that patronage is important for the arts or do you, as an artist after the 20thCentury dream of agency, resent begging for scraps?