Patreon has become kind of a household name. If you’re on the internet at all, you’ve heard of it. It’s a platform that allows creators to get money from fans in the way of per-creation or monthly payments from fans. On the surface, it’s great. Patronage was a wonderful thing back in the day. Some wealthy person or group would decide they like what you do, and they’d pay you to do more of it. Instead of relying on unit sales, you just got paid to do what you love. Unfortunately, Patreon, and human selfishness, have twisted patronage to become something that’s often more stressful for creators than it’s worth.
If you don’t understand the history of patrons and artists, this article is a pretty easy-to-understand historical recap. Basically, the idea is that if you like a creator’s work, you pay them to keep doing it, because you want more of it in the world. In the really old days creators were expected to make some things specifically for their patron, but by the 16th century, it was less about receiving something personal, and more about the pride and status that came from supporting a talented individual. (or more than one if you were really wealthy) Creators were free to do what they loved, to let their creativity bloom without the stress of wondering how they’d feed themselves or the fear of homelessness. Then for a time, patronage went out of fashion.
Around a decade ago, the idea of being a patron came back into the public eye. There really weren’t may ways to make it happen, so it didn’t really take off. In 2013, Patreon came on the scene, and creators rejoiced at the idea of being able to do what they love, and have folks pay them for it. The dream of an artist, come true. Unfortunately, that dream’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
You see, in order to get patrons on Patreon, you have to be known first. You’ve got to get eyes on your work and get people interested. Patreon really doesn’t do much to get what you do in front of people who want to pay for it. So, you’re left to slave on social media, blogs, sites, and whatever else, like it or not, to even get seen. Then, what’s worse, is that (according to many Patreon creators) less than 0.1% of people who know your work will convert into Patreon supporters. Yes, that decimal is in the right place. Less than one-tenth of a percent of people will become patrons. But it gets worse.
So you’ve gotten that measly 0.1% of people who know you exist over to Patreon. You’re expected to ask somewhere between $1-20 per month on a monthly scale, and most donations are on the low end. (I’m ignoring per-creation pricing right now, for the sake of brevity) Only 4.1% of Patreon users make over $100 a month. (that’s based on 8000 of their 195000 users receiving that much in 2020) You’re most likely to make money as a podcaster or video creator, and least likely if you’re an artisan. Now, from whatever money you make, which is probably less than $100 a month, Patreon expects you to give merch to your patrons. When I logged in today, a full 2/3 of the initial page was pushing me to use their system to provide merch to patrons.
Why is that a big deal? Well, think of it this way, let’s say you’re lucky enough to get 10 high-tier patrons giving you $10 each, for that $100 a month. Now, you’re expected to give them each some kind of prize for supporting you. It’s not enough that they’re supporting what you do, you’re expected to make it possible for them to virtue signal by giving them gifts. Buttons, books, CDs, letters, it can vary, but that comes out of your $100. Now, you’ve already got to pay Patreon anywhere from 8-12% in usage fees, depending on the tier you choose. For this example, let’s use the 8% bottom tier. So now you’ve got $92. From that you’ve got to deduct 2.9% + $0.30 for payment processing, per donation. (You may have to pay VAT too, but I’m going on US fees right now.) Now you’ve got $94.18. Then you pay another 1% to get your money out of Patreon, so $93.24. Out of that, you’re expected to give some merch to your patrons. If you offer the cheapest merch Patreon has to offer, at $5 including shipping, you’re putting out $50, leaving you with $43.24. You’re not expected to give merch to the lowest tier patrons, but for people who pay more, it’s considered standard practice. If you don’t use Patreon’s merch system, you may end up losing more profit by creating and shipping benefits of your own.
No matter how you look at it, you’re losing a lot. In this example, you’re getting 43%. (Maybe less, I could be missing some costs) Then you have to deduct the cost of everything you’re doing, and you’re probably not even making enough to be worth the time you’ve invested. Just getting your work in front of enough eyes to gain that piddling 0.1% has taken you weeks of work, maybe months, and you didn’t get paid for any of that.
So, how could it be better? Well, for one thing, creators shouldn’t be pushed to offer so many perks to their patrons. Supporting the artist is the point, not getting something personal you can brag about. It seems like Patreon is looking for an excuse to have something else they can make money from, instead of thinking about what’s best for the creator. Beyond that, Patreon should make it easier for people to find creators to support, and surface the lowest earning creators instead of the highest earning. If a creator is lucky enough to be pulling $2k a month, they don’t need more money as much as someone who’s only getting $2 a month. But again, Patreon appears to care more about its own profits than actually supporting the creators. They could rotate creators on the front page for exposure. They could randomly pitch less-succesful creators on social media. They could take steps to equal the playing field so artisans, writers and performers have as much chance at earning as podcasters and adult content creators. There could probably be other improvements.
Patronage should be about someone who has spare money supporting someone who does cool things. Maybe you like a specific creator, and you become their patron. Maybe you just want to see more sculptures or horror novels, or whatever, in the world, so you randomly support that kind of content. You shouldn’t need a pin or drawing or song written just for you. That’s taking away time, money, and effort that the creator could be putting into what they really want to do. You shouldn’t expect a ton of personal engagement either. It’s fantastic if the creator can and wants to give that to you, but is an introverted hermit creator less worthy of support than an extrovert? Should a creator not receive support because they have social anxiety or don’t want to learn to use Discord? (The requirement for creators to learn social media is a whole other rant entirely.) At any rate, if you like a creator, you shouldn’t expect anything from them except for them to do what they do, with your support.
I think folks also really need to think about how much a creator puts into their work, and what that’s worth. We put so much time and effort in that we never get anything back for. It’s a lot more than just creating a song or design or trinket. It’s the creative process, marketing, research, learning, materials… the list is incredibly long. Not to mention all the actual fees we pay out. $1-2 is better than nothing, but if you’ve got the money to support someone, you should consider giving as much as you can, and encouraging others to do the same.
**If you’re wondering why I still have Patreon links on the site, even though I have issues with them, it’s because I can’t afford to cut off a potential income stream. I’m holding out hope that they’ll improve their practices.**