The Patronage Economy and Fan Accessibility

Here's an enthusiastic TED Talk from Jack Conte, co-founder of Patreon and one-half of Pomplamoose:

Conte: What gets me super excited to be a creator right now, to be alive today, to be a creative person right now, is realizing that we’re only ten years into figuring out this new machine, to figuring out the next hundred years of infrastructure for our creators. And you can tell we’re only ten years in as there’s a lot of trial and error. There’s some really good ideas and there’s a lot of experimentation.We’re figuring out what works and what doesn’t.


More from The Verge on Patreon's promise:

Patreon isn’t simply a replacement for record labels or TV networks, though. Instead it’s the ideal incubator for niche internet subcultures, where a small but dedicated group of fans can directly support work they care about. That includes traditional arts and entertainment, but also YouTube celebrities, cultural figures, or even political actions — some inspiring, some troubling. The Patreon model encourages people to see themselves not as consumers, but as members of a private club, free from the constraints of mainstream gatekeepers or mass-market appeal. And in the process, it’s blurred the lines between art, artist, and audience in an unprecedented way.


I admit two things here: I share Conte's optimism and enthusiasm for being a creative person in this current era. I also quite like the idea of Patreon. It's been tough for me to warm up to crowdfunders like Kickstarter and PledgeMusic as I can't get over the perception of having to plead with one's fans.

Then there's the 'breaking the fourth wall' aspect. "Pledge $500 and the band will cook you dinner." I know this works for some artists and fits in their M.O., but is this the future for all creators? Maybe I'm old fashioned in that I enjoy an air of mystery from the musical acts I enjoy. I'd rather not have them cook me dinner or call me on the phone in return for some cash.

On the outside, Patreon seems different. The 'patron' is joining the fan club and getting perks. For musicians using Patreon, these perks could be advance peeks at songs, limited merch or physical releases, and glimpses into the creative process. But there's also the phone calls, the live chats, the guitar lessons. Again, that's fine if this intimacy with fans comes naturally, but the worry is it becoming an expectation from those who aren't comfortable. You know, like most artistic types.

From The Verge again:

Unlike their predecessors, internet celebrities thrive on a radical accessibility. {Musician Peter} Hollens, for example, has built his current a cappella career on subverting the rock star mystique. He’s got an easy answer for why there are so few fellow musicians topping Patreon’s charts: “Musicians are a product. We have a difficult time conveying to the audience that we’re people,” he says. “I’m a person first and a musician second, because that’s the best angle to take to succeed in the future as a musician. It’s very difficult to have that come across when you have, like, a slick produced audio and visual thing.” His music videos are complex and stylish, but he ends each one by earnestly addressing the camera, breaking the fourth wall between him and his audience.

In this system, it’s almost impossible to separate a work of art from its creator — or, at least, its creator’s public persona. Is there a future for someone who wants to be a musician, but not a personality? “No. I don’t think so,” Hollens says. “I don’t think the reclusive thing is going to happen anymore. That’s not the world we live in. Like, the Brad Pitts of the world” — distant celebrities who are loved from afar — “are losing value.”


I still think there's room for the aloof artist. With accessibility becoming the norm I'm entertaining the idea that aloofness might now be a marketable 'angle.' I'd love to see a mysterious artist use and exploit Patreon, or something like it, and subvert the platform's preference for approachability. Is there anyone out there presently attempting this?