The Great Patreon Debacle, and What it Means for Independent Creators

By January 7, 2018 Business, Creativity

I’ve raptly followed the recent Patreon controversy, eager to understand why one of the lifeblood services of so many independent creators inadvertently alienated and infuriated the very creators and patrons they serve.

How did this happen? What does it mean for creators?

What Went Wrong in Patreonland

A few weeks ago Patreon suddenly announced an impending change to the financial relationship between creators and patrons. It sounded reasonable on the face of it — simplifying some complexity in how and when payments occur — but it actually upended some core values of their community, and destroyed an enormous amount of trust in the process. After a swift and strong negative response, Patreon ended up reversing the change, but it’s surfaced a lot of issues around creative funding and the infrastructure that powers it.

I saw Patreon’s initial email announcement and my first reaction was curiosity, not anger. But then, I’m not a creator relying on this platform for my livelihood — and as I realized how big a mess this was becoming I became very interested in the deeper reasons why this announcement sparked such a backlash.

I've read an assortment of takes on this whole thing, with reactions ranging from knee-jerk to conspiracy-minded; from sad and scared to hopeful; from measured critique to blistering ire. There’s no single explanation for what happened, but several tweets caught my eye, including this one:

This rings true, and the thing here is not simply that these companies are clueless about their technology, or about how to make money (though, yeah, that's sometimes the case too), but that they don't — perhaps can’t — fully comprehend the social dynamics that power these platforms. They don't grok certain norms and values that undergird the communities their platforms enable, and this makes them fragile, vulnerable to just the sort of unforced error that sparked this recent brouhaha.

Where Does Patreon Add Value?

One simple insight about Patreon: it’s nice having a business in your corner! Not just people who support you, but hefty corporate infrastructure that feels like it’s on your side too. Patreon felt like that; now they don’t as much.

Another simple insight: Patreon dramatically lowers friction for anyone supporting multiple creators. Many patrons support many creators, which means backing most of those creators at lower tiers, to spread one’s money around. Creating a working micropayment system is hard! — and Patreon somehow did it, but without fully understanding the implications.

Some people downplay what Patreon does, saying basically “they're just a payment processor, they don't really do much of anything…” As an approximation this isn't entirely false, but it greatly oversimplifies. Because — to start! — one big important thing Patreon has done is normalize everyday creative patronage. They've made it a common and familiar thing for average middle-class people to provide ongoing monetary support to the creators they love. While Patreon wasn't the first to do this, they’ve played a huge role, particularly when it comes to recurring support.

Amanda Palmer has a great post where she explains why she wants to believe in services like Patreon and Kickstarter, and see them succeed for a wide range of creators:

i also knew i had the option to build something similar to patreon on my own website and do, basically, what people like maria popova does on brainpickings.org: ask people to simply give me a monthly recurring contribution. my fans would have done it. everybody wanted to help.

but one major thing stopped me from doing that, and it was the same thing that stopped me from just doing a DIY-crowdfund via my website when i pre-sold "theatre is evil" instead of turning to kickstarter.

it was this: i knew that i, amanda palmer, could afford to build a whole system of fancy web-based, passworded, paying-for-things-to-keep-an-artist-afloat, because i had a goddamn staff and an office and an internet team on retainer. however the vast majority (like, 99%) of my music friends did not have that. i wanted them to be able to have what i had: a system of freedom from labels and middlemen.

i did not want to build my own island. i wanted to build a hut in an interconnected village, next to my friend's huts, with tons of spce for anyone to set up shop. i wanted to be part of a larger community of DIY artists carving out their own paths, making art directly for the people. i wanted to be a leader in a movement that i really, truly, deeply believed in: a movement where artists could make their own music, sell their own stuff, connect directly with their own audiences without some prick telling them what to do, when to do, and how to do it…a community where artists could be FREE TO WORK without feeling enslaved to some higher power.

It’s a great insight: crowdfunding and patronage platforms lower barriers to entry for the multitude of creators that don’t have the resources to set up their own custom ecommerce and communication infrastructure. Ideally, their existence supports a whole ecosystem of sustainable creative work.

Okay, So How Did They Screw This Up So Bad Then?

It’s somewhat ironic that the issue of handling recurring payments is what Patreon was trying to "fix" here. Their idea was to unbundle transactions, so that each individual patron-to-creator payment is separate, rather than combining payments to multiple creators into one monthly charge. While this increases transaction fees it arguably makes the payment infrastructure more stable and transparent.

The thing is, such a change risks destroying some subtle but important network effects. Not only does it add disproportionate burden on small pledges, it also diminishes a key part of the Patreon experience: feeling like part of a larger movement, of collective support, the feeling of participating in an ecosystem that positively amplifies your hard-earned dollars, feeling that everyone on this platform is helping each other build a more sustainable creative practice.

It’s not clear to what degree this idealized creative support community has ever really existed, but I think it's hard to argue that Patreon hasn't made a substantive impact on how a whole lot of creators work, from the biggest stars down to those for whom an extra hundred bucks a month pays for art supplies, babysitting, whatever. And what these proposed changes made clear is that Patreon, the VC-backed company, doesn't always have the same priorities as their users when it comes to the structuring of this larger creative community and the mechanisms for positive reinforcement that help lift up all creators.

I don’t believe for a second Patreon was going for a pure money grab, or that they don’t care about small-scale creators. From all I can tell they're a company full of great people genuinely trying to help creators. But they may have different ideas about what tradeoffs are worth making. They clearly bungled the strategy and communication on this, and ultimately their intentions matter less than the effects rippling through the Patreon ecosystem.

Rebuilding After the Storm

I think one good thing that can come of this turbulence is creators more critically and urgently evaluating alternative ways of building audience and income. When forced to confront the reality that not only is Patreon not perfect, it may not even be the best option for a given use case, we can all take a hard look at other tools and ways of funding what we do. And, to take a step back, this means taking an even harder look at how we position our creative practices — now only how we make and share stuff, but how we can do so in a way that’s financially sustainable and resilient to decisions made by any given company.

Jillian Tamaki asks:

Patrick McKenzie offers a partial answer:

This doesn’t address larger thornier questions of building creative networks, but it does touch on one of the most important practical things for creators to keep in mind: the importance of autonomy. Wherever possible, it’s worth aiming to control as many components of that stack as you can.

For example you could host a membership site on WordPress, a store on Gumroad, run an annual Kickstarter campaign, send a monthly newsletter via MailChimp. That’s just one combination — there are many ways to approach this!

If not full control — because let’s face it, it's really hard and requires significant time and technical expertise — it’s at least worth considering how you might spread out your risk to make your overall creative platform more antifragile. It’s also worth keeping in mind that not all this has to happen at once; you can build your own personal platform of creative tools, supporter network, and more as you go, piece by piece.

Audrey Eschright wrote a great article listing some straightforward things both creators and supporters can do to participate in a sustainable ecosystem of creative patronage.

One important thing she emphasizes is that it’s often useful to consider your work in terms of tangible products, to position what you do as something more concretely consumable and “valuable” in economic terms. That’s not always something comfortable to do, but it’s great advice and will help you make more money!

One last recommendation for people who create things: turn some of your work into a product you can sell. If you do visual art, hook up a service like Printful and put that art on a tote bag or pillow. The same print-on-demand options let you offer prints. If you write, create an ebook with some of your favorite pieces (I’d try Gumroad for selling them). Musicians, make a mixtape. It’s capitalistic, but many people find being a customer an easier proposition than being a patron. You could add a payer-only mailing list or blog if you want to connect “gave me money” with “gets to look behind the scenes”. I’ve seen someone do this as a private message board too. A couple of times a year you can also try something I’ve started to categorize as a “stunt” — a special one-time item that costs a little more, or a limited batch short run that you plan to sell out.

Next Steps: Figuring Out How to Climb the Ladder to Independent Creative Success

I’ve only used Patreon as a patron, and I'm not an independent creator full time, but I’ve run a successful Kickstarter campaign, written hundreds of thousands of words for fun, and taken baby steps towards making products and building an audience for what I do. What’s more, at my day job I'm part of a small team that's spent years building an audience and figuring out some of the thorny issues when it comes to making it a business.

What I want to do in a subsequent post is share a few things I've learned about tools and strategies creators can use for running a sustainable business with recurring revenue in support of their work. I plan to write up something practical, with specific strategy tips, and simple ways to use complex tools. I also want to suggest ways independent creators can “climb the ladder” to a successful independent practice — how to build such a system progressively over time so it’s not so damn overwhelming to start.

While Patreon in many feels like a creative community, in many of the most important ways it isn't one, not really, not to the extent we want it to be. And I think the benefits of being part of this sort of larger network of creators may be less important than we might think. Patreon provides some solid default scaffolding, but it’s pretty inflexible as permanent infrastructure for building long-term relationships around your work.

For that, there’s a whole can of worms we can get into, including open source tools like WordPress and Discourse that you can use freely and modify as needed, with room to grow. There are also proprietary services like MailChimp, Zapier, and various membership solutions, that may work well. In general, free and open tools are great, but ease of use and interoperability with other parts of your stack is also key. Lots of things to consider, and possible solutions will look a lot different depending on what stage you’re at!

So, if this is something you're thinking about as well: what do you have the most pressing questions about? What part of building a sustainable creative practice do you find hardest? What do we need to talk about more and work to figure out together?