How to be a modern day patron of the arts
The idea of the starving artist now seems truer than ever, writes Meadhbh McGrath, but emerging online patronage systems are giving creatives exciting new earning opportunities
From Michelangelo to Jackson Pollock to Tracey Emin, much of the world's greatest art wouldn't exist without the support of patrons. But where patronage once relied on the generosity of wealthy benefactors like the Medicis, Peggy Guggenheim or Charles Saatchi, now any of us can donate our pocket change to help creators we enjoy.
The artistic landscape in 2019 can appear bleak: the internet has changed creative industries forever, and art, music, films, words and games can be accessed online instantly, and for free, all over the world. The cliché of the 'starving artist' seems truer than ever, but a new wave of modern-day patronage systems aims to change all that.
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Consider one Irish success story. Early last year, Andrew Mangan was facing a dilemma. His hugely popular Arsenal news site and podcast, Arseblog, had reached its 16th birthday, but it was becoming more and more difficult to sustain the site through online advertising and podcast sponsorship alone. As with much digital media, Arseblog was being hit by ad-blocking software, and Andrew didn't want to resort to putting content behind a paywall.
When he heard that Irish podcast network Second Captains had started using a subscription service called Patreon, it sounded like a potential solution. "You could see people were very comfortable with it, so I was happy to look at that as a platform, rather than building our own membership system," he explains.
You can still read and listen to Arseblog's output for free, but for $6 a month (Patreon payments are charged in US dollars), you are treated to some additional perks, including exclusive podcast episodes, long reads, live-streaming videos and a newsletter. Arseblog launched on Patreon in February 2018, and has close to 3,000 subscribers (patreon.com/arseblog).
"It was a way of creating a new revenue stream, but retaining the audience that I had and the integrity of the site, and it was also a bit of a challenge to create extra content for those people who are paying," says Andrew.
Founded in 2013 by a YouTube musician named Jack Conte, Patreon is one of a number of online payment services, including Ko-fi and Substack, that aim to help independent creators "regain creative freedom" and stabilise their income. The platforms are designed to look like a social network, but instead of friends or followers, users gain "patrons". Where Kickstarter and GoFundMe are dedicated to specific projects, services such as Patreon allow you to show ongoing support for individuals through regular payments.
By day, Eimhin McNamara from Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, is an animator at Paper Panther, a Dublin-based stop-motion studio currently working on Wolfwalkers, Cartoon Saloon's upcoming feature film for Apple. In his spare time, he creates tutorials, mini animations and drawings for his Patreon subscribers (patreon.com/eimhinmcnamara). "Between projects, you don't have a lot of time to do your own exploration, so having a bit of a fire under you with the Patreon helps to fuel a bit of that experimentation," Eimhin explains.
Patreon allows users to establish various "tiers" of support, and they can decide what to give subscribers in return, such as a social media follow or custom video greeting. For example, Eimhin's $1 tier grants access to his feed of patron-only content, but for $5, he offers a Google Hangout with his pet lurchers, who feature prominently in his work, or for $10, subscribers get two mini prints each month, and so on.
While there are a select group of users earning a living through Patreon - such as Brandon Stanton, who runs the Humans of New York photoblog, and political podcasters Chapo Trap House, who have more than 20,000 patrons each - for most users, the site doesn't provide an effective replacement for salary.
"It's not really a moneymaker for me, it's more of a reason to be doing things and it covers a few material costs," says Eimhin. "If I'm getting €150 a month, then I know I can sit down for a couple of Saturdays a month and put together something more comprehensive."
Ko-fi operates slightly differently to Patreon: while there is a monthly payment system for 'Gold' or paid account holders, most users using the free service treat it like a traditional tip jar. Creators direct fans to their page, where they can leave a 'tip' of $3, roughly the price of a coffee, along with a note of support or a request.
Rebecca Reynolds, a Dublin-based illustrator and comic artist, first came across the site on Twitter and Tumblr, where other artists were using the platform to offer commissions for a small fee. "I liked the informality of it," she says. "Compared to something like Patreon, people don't need to subscribe to a tiered system or donate a monthly fee, it can just be a once-off donation."
Last summer, she decided to set up an account, offering sketch commissions for $6 (ko-fi.com/rebeccareynolds). If fans want more complex pieces, such as multi-character sketches, they add extra money.
Rebecca initially spread the word on social media, and her Twitter followers, mostly based in Ireland and America, were quick to get on board. "I feel the low price is appealing to people who perhaps can't afford to commission more complex pieces from me, or support me via my shop. I think it offers another level of accessibility for them," she explains. "It doesn't provide much of an income, it's mainly something nice to do on the side. As I work full-time, I can only open more complex commission slots temporarily, due to time constraints. But with Ko-fi sketches, I'm free to take them whenever."
Another budding platform is Substack, which supports paid email newsletters. For Jeanne Sutton, who runs communications for non-profit organisation Women for Election and studies Science Communication part-time at DCU, it seemed like an attractive alternative to freelance journalism. "I was doing a spot of freelance writing in 2018, but it wasn't rewarding me personally or the publisher in terms of clicks and reach," she explains.
"It took a lot of energy and I was never really happy with the result. Working full-time and writing on the side is so hard, I reasoned I might as well really enjoy what I'm writing. And I do find my newsletter personally satisfying."
Jeanne's newsletter features short personal essays, and she offers two tiers: free subscribers receive one newsletter a month, while paying subscribers get at least two. She charges $30 a year - the minimum fee available on Substack - of which she earns about €22-€24, once platform and payment processing fees are deducted. She now has close to 200 subscribers (jeannesutton.substack.com).
"I wouldn't have set up a newsletter without charging for it. If I was setting up a café, I wouldn't be offering people free breakfast," she says.
"I've made about as much since October, when I launched the newsletter, as I did all last year freelance writing. I'll probably make a grand in 12 months. Unless I go back into journalism, I don't ever see writing being a full-time income stream."
Jeanne previously worked as a journalist and editor for image.ie and STELLAR magazine, across digital and print media. "I've experienced both sides of the free- versus-paid-content debate. However, I think that debate fades depending on your audience," she says.
"Substack has some really popular economics and politics newsletters. That audience has been paying for outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times for a few years. Paying for expert analysis is their norm. Meanwhile, online women's media is very saturated," she says, pointing to the collapse of women's lifestyle website The Pool earlier this year.
"There are so many places to get content for free, why would a reader pay? How do you start that conversation and conversion? I've actually started to reward my paying subscribers with more content than they were originally promised. I find money legitimises and encourages my writing."
Where creators can struggle is in building a following on their respective platforms. Ko-fi offers an Explore tab, mostly featuring Gold accounts, while Substack is developing a discovery tool, which will allow subscribers to browse other creators' content, but for now, it can be difficult to grow an audience.
Patreon doesn't make it any easier - the site insists it is "a membership platform, not a discovery platform", so it won't recommend accounts to patrons of other creators or feature creators on its homepage.
This means that it's up to the creators to get the word out, largely through their own social media. The model tends to work best for creators with a healthy existing fanbase, such as Arseblog. Jeanne notes that she used social media to announce the launch of her newsletter, but her accounts are set to private, so the reach was limited.
"I don't have the energy at the moment between working full-time, studying part-time and trying to survive in Dublin to invest in profile building," says Jeanne. "That takes real graft, saying yes to every opportunity."
It may be tricky for creators to expand their audience, but persuading us to part with our money is getting a little bit easier. "I think there's much greater awareness in readers or listeners that it takes time, money and effort to produce a daily blog and two podcasts a week," says Andrew, founder of Arseblog. "Even a couple of years ago, it would have been a much more difficult sell. People's perception of what they spent in real life and online was very different - a fiver in your pocket was nothing, but a fiver spent on a website was 'a bit expensive'. Now, people are much more prepared to subscribe."