CAREERS + ED Another day, another crowdfunding website. Another Facebook friend asking you to pledge $100 on Kickstarter or Indiegogo or GoFundMe or JustHandOverYourCashNow to help them self-publish their new hardcover coffee table book about the history of moustaches, or start their organic vegetable juice delivery service, or produce their Zach Braff movie. For $300 and up, you’ll get a shout-out in the acknowledgements!
Even if you want to support your local artists, it’s easy to get burned out on crowdfunding these days; on the other hand, making art ain’t cheap. This is the frustrated fork in the road where Jack Conte, a San Francisco-based musician, artist, and the founder of Patreon, discovered himself about a year and a half ago.
“I’ve been a professional creator for about eight years, in that I make my money from putting my work online,” says Conte, one-half of Pomplamoose, alongside his girlfriend, Nataly Dawn; the band’s known for its popular, prolific output of “video songs” — music in which everything heard in a song is also seen on screen.
“About a year and a half ago, I just got so frustrated with the system, with the fact that an artist could have half a million fans online but be making $200 a month. How can someone’s work that so many people enjoy be worth so little to the world? The economics of it were just broken and frustrating to me,” says Conte. “So I sat down one night and wrote out a website and a system of funding that would allow people to pay artists per work of art, and I realized immediately after drawing it out that it wasn’t just for me. All these creators are in the same sinking ship.”
He called up his college roommate, a developer, and Patreon launched three months later, after raising over $2 million from angel investors and venture capitalists, with three employees: Conte, Sam Yam (the roommate/developer) and Dawn. The idea: Let consumers decide how much they want to pledge to support their favorite “creators,” and have them pledge per work created. With no lump sums exchanging hands, no rewards to manage, no physical items to ship, the system was designed with artists who only create digital products in mind.
Less than a year later, Patreon has over 10,000 creators (artists) and 30,000 active patrons (people supporting artists). With a staff of 12 and an office in Noe Valley, the company has caught on quickly among musicians and visual artists of all kinds — videographers make up a good deal of the site’s fanbase.
Distinguishing the site from Kickstarter or Indiegogo, et al., has been one challenge for Conte. While he admires what both sites do, he says, it’s fairly simple: “I have no reason to do a Kickstarter. I don’t need $200,000 up front. I’m not producing a new product, or a book or a movie. I don’t have the bandwidth to take on customer service, or reward fulfillment; I’m not sending out a physical product.”
“What I need is a salary,” he continues. “I need the people who like my work to pay me for it on a regular basis. And if that comes out to $5,000 or $10,000 to pay my bills, that’s all I need.” People can sign up to pledge as little as $1 every time a favorite musician releases a single or new music video, with an option to cap their total donations per month. The average pledge, Conte says, is $7.
Drawing its name from the word patron, of course, the company is theoretically riffing off one of the oldest ideas in the art world: That creative people should be financially supported (or at least subsidized) by those in a position to make contributions; that art is for the good of society at large. “People have been making money like this for thousands of years,” says Conte. “It’s only very recently that the idea of patronage for the arts kind of dropped off.”
The musician says he’s been pleasantly surprised — not by the number of users who enthusiastically signed up initially (“I did it because I knew it was needed”) — but by the rate at which it’s taken off, and the range of subcultures and niche arts communities he’s discovered because of it.
For example? Several creators are using Patreon to fund videos they make for people who experience autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, a physiological phenomenon in which a person perceives distinct, pleasurable feelings in the head, scalp, or back when they hear certain sounds, such as whispering or crumpling paper.
“There’s one woman who’s been doing this for a while, and she puts up 45-minute videos for people — and she’s getting financially supported for it now,” says Conte. “That’s the kind of thing that makes me proud to be part of Patreon.”
Other niche markets you might not think of as having a ton of online financial support? A capella groups — Conte knows of one that’s now making a few thousand per video — and webcomics creators.
The potential for nonprofits to fundraise is there, as well: Children’s Hospital of Orange County is using Patreon for its partnership with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, in which patrons sign up to pledge $10 to CHOC every time the baseball team wins a game. It might not seem like a lot, but the page currently has 119 patrons, meaning the hospital gets $1,177 per win.
In terms of future goals, Conte — who hasn’t taken a salary from the company, and is still using Patreon to fund his own work — seems to be thinking big.
“We want to fundamentally change the way people get paid for their work,” he says. “I think right now the web is a very quantity-driven, metric-focused environment: It’s based on page views, the number of users, the number of clicks. And I think what Patreon is proving is that’s not necessarily the best way to measure anything; that it’s really about how much people enjoy what they’re watching, how much the creator appreciates the fan base and vice versa.”
“It’s our mission to fund and empower this creative class that’s emerging online, where people are realizing they can quit their jobs and make a living from their art…and hopefully we move into an era where that’s the norm.”