Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that lets fans become “patrons of the arts” through regular payments to artists, has signed up 125,000 patrons in its first 18 months – and is now paying over $1m per month to creators.
Unlike most crowdfunding sites, which are used to bring in funding on a project-by-project basis, Patreon aims to generate a regular income and method of payment for creators listed on the site, allowing them to continue creating in a time when so much work is published on the internet and expected to be free. Patrons can contribute a set monthly amount, or pay by creation – for example, every time a video is uploaded to YouTube or for every article or poem the creator publishes. Contributions start anywhere from $1 and, as with other crowdfunding platforms, artists can set varying contribution levels that come with different perks for the patron.
Patreon’s creators say that they are very encouraged by the response so far. “The public is demanding to pay creators,” said the company in a blog post. “As the cost of consuming digital media drops to zero, the masses are beginning to visualize the peril on the road ahead for creatives, and now they’re doing something about it.”
“The sum of these ongoing pledges constitutes sustainable, reliable salaries for professional creators around the world.”
At present, the moment is still in its infancy, and even popular artists on the site are generally earning just enough to get by or to supplement other income. But, as it becomes more popular, it may offer a tantalising alternative to the endless advertising on which many internet-based artists often rely.
Other “free” sites are taking note. The popular video sharing sites Vimeo and YouTube are both experimenting with “tip jar” features, whereby fans can contribute a small amount of money to the artist if they like their video or channel. Meanwhile, the advent of Netflix and similar streaming sites have seen many younger audiences shift back from a culture of illegal downloads to an expectation that high quality work does need to be paid for, and the popularity of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo means that many people are getting used to the idea of paying directly to get the things they want made.
In a way, the concept of Patreon is not new. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces were made possible by the patronage of the Medici and later the King of France, Duchess Anna Amalia funded Goethe and the chronically broke Schiller, Francis Bacon’s haunting triptychts (and hedonistic lifestyle) were sponsored by Lord Sainsbury. The difference is that, while in the past a single wealthy figure would often prop up their pet genius until they tired of them, innovations like Patreon aim to democratise the artistic process by spreading the responsibility for its funding among a greater number of people, engaging and investing them in its outcome. If it works, it will be a major coup for the creative arts, not only by making art financially viable for its creators, but by taking decisions about what kind of art is worthwhile away from the whims of a closeted few, and into the hands of its future fans.