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Save the Artists, Inc.
Andrew Leonard | Photo: David Schwen | April 27, 2016
Crowdfunding startup Patreon helps fans support artists. But can a tech company fix what the tech industry broke?
It’s the spring of 2015 and I’m watching Jack Conte, one-half of the art-pop San Francisco band Pomplamoose, make a music video about a lovesick drone. It isn’t going well. Conte is trying to capture a shot of the drone peeping through a second-story window at Nataly Dawn, the other half of Pomplamoose. But a strong spring breeze blowing in off the bay over the Oakland flatlands is tossing around the low-powered quadcopter like a dandelion tuft. After a crash damages the drone, Conte and Dawn are forced to call it a day.
But they don’t give up. If you want to make it as a Bay Area artist in the 21st century, you aren’t going to let one broken flying robot stop you. A few weeks later, Conte and Dawn try again, this time with the assistance of a more powerful drone. The second shoot is more successful. Pomplamoose releases a haunting electronica-tinged cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” illustrated by a sad video narrative of unrequited quadcopter love.
And then Conte and Dawn sit back and watch $6,800 roll in from the 2,000 or so fans who support Pomplamoose through Patreon, a startup founded by Conte that helps fans give cash to their favorite artists. Pomplamoose’s fans had previously pledged to have their credit cards dinged by whatever amount they felt comfortable with: a dollar, $5, $100—every time the band released a new video. In 2014, after Conte was already devoting himself full-time to Patreon, the band still managed to release 15 music videos. Since they averaged $5,000 to $6,000 per video, we’re talking an annual shared gross of $75,000 to $90,000—not exactly rock-star cash but a decent income all the same.
Patreon is crowdfunding, with a twist. Instead of bringing together a mass of people to support a single project, like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, Patreon seeks to create ongoing financial relationships between fans and artists. Artists choose whether their fans will pay them each time they release a work—whether that be a song, a podcast, a cartoon, an article, or a music video about a drone—or pay a certain amount a month (about 80 percent of the service’s at least 18,000 creators choose this option). The model is intimate: Fans are directly supporting the artist. In short, Patreon is an Internet-mediated version of one of the oldest-school ways to support the arts: pure and simple patronage.
Conte started Patreon to fix something that the Internet broke: the ability of creative people to make a living from their talent. “The equation that converts art to money fucking blows right now,” he says, referring to the way that Internet distribution models have steadily undermined the ability of musicians to support themselves selling music.
Conte and Dawn experienced this firsthand. The couple, who are romantic partners, met at Stanford and founded Pomplamoose in 2008. Without ever signing to a record label, they made enough money in the next five years to live comfortably, buy a house, and build a music studio. But the industry-wide transition from downloads to streaming, Conte says, gutted direct music sales and reduced Pomplamoose’s royalty payments to a trickle.
The financial crisis Patreon was invented to address is far from limited to music. Free content on the web has also posed an enormous challenge to photographers and writers—it eviscerated newspapers and gave rise to an army of below-minimum-wage bloggers—and may eventually threaten established television- and film-industry business models. A tech sector that has overwhelmingly put consumer convenience above all else has been fantastic for listeners and readers, but terrible for creators. Conte believes it is long past time for Silicon Valley to start giving the latter access to the same kind of friendly infrastructure that it has lavished on the former.
Both artist and entrepreneur, Conte brings to his mission a blend of pixie passion, sincerity, and geekiness that makes him the quintessential 21st-century San Francisco man. At one remove, he slots neatly into classic tech stereotypes. He’s a 30-year-old white male with a degree from Stanford (in music, science, and technology with a focus on composition) whose business acumen has enabled him to raise big bucks from venture capitalists. Founded in 2013, Patreon—which makes its money by taking a 5 percent cut off the top—most recently secured a $30 million round of Series B funding from a half dozen VC parties. As a young, affluent techie entrepreneur, he’s the kind of guy accused of displacing San Francisco’s artistic community.
But Conte’s also an artist, a multi-instrumentalist who writes songs and makes videos—exactly the kind of creative person the region has long cherished. He grew up in the Bay Area, his father a doctor at UCSF and jazz piano player, his mother a jazz singer. Pomplamoose’s idiosyncratically goofy offerings stand in a long tradition of Bay Area boho experimentation. “I’ve never loved anything as much as I’ve loved music,” he says, a point underlined as soon as one walks into Patreon’s SoMa offices and sees the grand piano and drum set in the lobby.
After graduating from Stanford in 2006, Conte and Dawn struck musical gold. By 2013, they had sold hundreds of thousands of songs on iTunes and received 95 million total views on YouTube. (A Conte-authored Daft Punk/Skrillex remix alone has 12 million views.) They did Christmas commercials for Hyundai, and their cover of “Mr. Sandman” featured in a Toyota ad. Dawn appeared on a Barry Manilow album, and Pomplamoose made it onto NPR’s All Things Considered, billed as a “YouTube sensation.”
But as listeners moved to Pandora and Spotify, the band’s iTunes sales spiraled downward and their royalty income plummeted. Millions of streams does not mean millions of dollars. And since they didn’t do a lot of touring (which is how most musicians are forced to make money, now that nobody buys albums), their income began to dry up. “Our Spotify stream,” Conte tells me, “is irrelevant.”
Case in point: In spring 2015, around the time Pomplamoose is releasing its drone love story, Conte pulls up the band’s YouTube channel dashboard to show me the dismal details. In the last 28 days, the channel has registered 743,000 views for all of Pomplamoose’s videos—“1.4 million minutes of humans watching our stuff,” says Conte—but generated only $150 in advertising revenue. “It’s fucked up,” says Conte. “It makes me angry when I see this. It’s so broken. Unacceptable."
In 2013, he founded Patreon with the help of his former Stanford roommate, a computer programmer named Sam Yam. By the end of 2014, Patreon had distributed $10 million in total. By spring 2015, the company said it was distributing $2 million a month to around 10,000 creators who were supported by 250,000 patrons. By the end of 2015, the number had risen to 18,000 creators. By the spring of 2016, the company had stopped releasing figures on how much total revenue it was distributing, in part citing the “competitive landscape.”
Some of those creators are making serious money. Amanda Palmer, the musician famous for raising $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, set up shop on Patreon in 2015 and now commands $35,862 from her 7,907 patrons every time she releases a new work. The artist Sakimi Chan raises $25,591 from 3,458 patrons for each batch of her mildly not-safe-for-work anime-inflected “nude pinups.” At their website Wait but Why?, writers Tim Urban and Andrew Finn generate an impressive $13,062 per month for long-form blog posts on topics idiosyncratically ranging from cryonics to Elon Musk to the psychological characteristics of people who are always late.
Patreon doesn’t break down what the average creator receives, but randomly searching through Patreon pages suggests, not surprisingly, that Palmer, Chan, and Urban and Finn are outliers. Many Patreon creators have just a handful of patrons who have pledged a total of two digits per month. It seems safe to say that, at this point, a majority of the creators on Patreon aren’t generating enough to make a living, at least in a city as expensive as San Francisco.
But that doesn’t make these creators any less enthusiastic about the prospect offered by Patreon. Willie Dills, 36, is a podcaster who specializes in gaming commentary. He is one of three hosts of the Angry Chicken podcast, which covers all things associated with the wildly popular online card game Hearthstone. The Angry Chicken Patreon patrons have pledged a total of $1,093 per weekly podcast. Dills decided to start his own Patreon page in late March. Two weeks after announcing the news on Twitter, he already had 58 patrons pledging $483 a month for him to stream content on whatever topic he chooses.
This is not how he thought his career would go. Born and raised in San Francisco, Dills got a degree in broadcasting and intended to make a career in radio. But as an intern at KSAN (“the Bone”), he saw little future in traditional radio. A steady stream of layoffs was forcing the remaining employees to work multiple jobs. “The whole industry was starting to eat itself because it wasn’t willing to change,” says Dills. After his internship was over, he took a job at a podcasting company and started releasing his own podcasts and streaming gaming commentary from a home studio.
Dills was getting by in San Francisco, sharing a rent-controlled apartment with three roommates while holding down a full-time job and podcasting at night. But he wanted to take the plunge and become a full-time “independent content creator.” He thinks that by combining his cut of the Angry Chicken’s Patreon revenues with his own personal Patreon revenue and other donations he receives via Paypal, he’ll be able to make it work in the long run.
In the short run, though, he’s had to leave San Francisco. His incessant podcasting was beginning to rile his roommates, and he couldn’t afford a place of his own. He moved to Austin, Texas, where $483 pays more than a small fraction of the rent.
Megan Slankard is an indie rock musician. She’s sold over 35,000 copies of four albums. She tours. In April she started a five-week Tuesday-night gig at Doc’s Lab in North Beach. Her website has a link to her Patreon page, where she has accumulated 119 patrons who have pledged a total of $896 for each new song or video she uploads. It’s nowhere near enough to pay the rent on her San Francisco apartment, but it still makes a difference, she says, on a psychological level. She cherishes her patrons: “They like me as an artist and they want to see me grow.” Patreon’s contribution to her income is enough “to allow me to cut out those gigs that I don’t want to take, to say no to things that feel more soul-sacrificing.”
Geeta Dayal is a San Francisco–based freelance arts journalist who has been writing for a decade and a half for outlets including NPR and Rolling Stone. The 36-year-old Dayal specializes in some of the more obscure neighborhoods of the music landscape—she is, she notes in her Patreon bio, “an expert on ‘Krautrock,’ for what that’s worth.” Like most freelancers, she’s never gotten rich, but the bleak economics of online journalism definitely have made her life tougher. Pay rates have declined, and editors, she says, are more interested in quick-hitting, high-traffic-generating stories that default to lowest-common-denominator titillation. Dayal had spent years building up an audience of appreciative readers, but she was facing “mounting frustrations” in her attempts to find outlets for her more offbeat work. When she saw that a musician friend, Palmer, had made the jump to Patreon, she decided to see if it would work not only for musicians but for journalists who cover music.
Through social media outlets—Dayal has almost 9,000 followers on Twitter alone—she put out the word. She also received an extra boost when Palmer recommended that her own fans check Dayal out. Patreon, says Dayal, isn’t just a desperately needed source of income—her 336 fans have pledged $1,433 a month to her—it also encourages her to do the kind of work that she’s most drawn to. “Patreon allows me to focus on more long-term stuff, more thoughtful essays. Why not just go directly to the people who love you rather than constantly be begging?”
In a sense, of course, everyone who uses Patreon is begging. Patrons do get limited “rewards” for their pledges, from early access to songs to interactive chat sessions with artists. But basically they’re putting money in a tip jar. I ask Dills, Dayal, and Slankard whether it’s embarrassing to ask their fans for money.
Slankard acknowledges that “it’s always a little difficult asking for money,” and says that makes her determined to make sure her patrons get something tangible in return for their pledges, like their own MP3 versions of her songs, or access to rare recordings. But Dills says he finds the relationship “empowering,” not least because it frees him from being “influenced by sponsors or some broadcast company.” As for Dayal, she says Patreon is just part of the new online reality. “It’s not embarrassing at all. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are very acceptable and mainstream concepts now. You’re simply asking your readers for their support; you’re not forcing anyone to support you. Readers are proud to support writers that they like and trust.”
Jamie Hill, a Wisconsin resident who runs an Internet marketing company with his wife, is just such a patron. Hill tells me he spends about $450 a month supporting half a dozen singers, including $150 on an early Patreon user named Peter Hollens and $50 on Hollens’s wife, Evynne. Hill saw a pitch for Hollens’s Patreon page at the end of a YouTube video of the singer. He says he was attracted to the platform because if a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter fails to meet the required funding goal by its deadline, the creator loses all of the pledged money. (Indiegogo campaigns that select “flexible funding”—which most do—allow the creator to keep the money pledged.) But with Patreon, you are committing to an artist.
“The more I dug into it,” says Hill, “the better I liked it, and we’ve just been with them ever since.”
Patreon has its limitations. At least for now, it appears best suited to creators who are adept at using emerging Internet-enabled technologies, making YouTube videos, recording podcasts, or otherwise tapping into tech culture. Smooth McGroove, a musician who specializes in a cappella versions of video game theme songs, is probably a better fit for Patreon than a 60-year-old concert violinist. Making Patreon work generally requires a social media presence and constant care and feeding of the patrons. Patreon advises creators to set up rewards for fans and to set monetary goals. Regularly providing fresh content on your Patreon page is critical, as is updating fans on new work. And, of course, every time you release a video or publish a story or a work of art or send a podcast out into the ether, it’s a good idea to include a link back to your Patreon page. Peter Hollens, whose 1,634 patrons pledge $8,195 every time he releases a music video, says, “If I am awake and my phone isn’t out of batteries, I am engaging with [fans] on some type of social media platform. And it’s crazy, and I’m completely overworked and overstressed, but I get to do what I love for a living.”
But as each generation becomes more comfortable with the Internet age and social media—and, sadly, as traditional media and artistic outlets wither away—ideas like Patreon will become more and more viable. And in a more transformative sense, Patreon is just one of many ways that technology is cutting out the middleman, allowing a direct relationship between provider and customer—in this case, with the commodity purchased being creative content.
This deeper trend is part of the reason Conte believes that, despite current financial challenges, “I think now is the best time in the history of planet Earth to be an artist.” In part, he believes this because the technology to make and distribute your own film or video or song or interactive cartoon or article has never been cheaper or easier to use. But he also believes it because he’s convinced that technology, which has so far failed to help artists make money, will eventually be their friend. He’s convinced that something like Patreon will prevail for the simplest of reasons: “Because people love being artists, and people love art.”
Where there’s great demand, supply usually follows. If society really wants art, it must pay for it. The Internet has democratized a great many things—access to information, taxis, spare rooms. If it can democratize access to humanity’s oldest method of supporting the arts—patronage—that might be its neatest trick yet.
Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco