Lately, I’ve run across more and more writers, singers, and other artists who have set up sites on Patreon to solicit financial support for their writing. There are even some non-profit publications and foundations asking for contributions through Patreon.

At least some of those writers and singers have set up such sites because changes in the publishing and music industries have reduced their sales, and thus their ability to support themselves off their royalties. As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, I’ve personally known some authors who used to be able to support themselves by full-time writing who can no longer do so. And many other authors, me included, now offer websites with blogs and/or information, in hopes of generating greater interest in and support for their work.

What many people who haven’t studied the history of writers, singers, and composers may not realize is that over most of history, very few of such artists could actually make a living from their art itself. The great composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and others, relied on the support of patrons, such as the Emperor Joseph, the Esterhazy family, the Catholic Church, or others. The only writers who could support themselves were playwrights, such as Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, who not only wrote the plays but performed them, and used the performance revenues to support themselves and keep writing – and many of them still needed some patronage, often royal.

Writers were in even worse shape. Not until the nineteenth century could any significant number of writers, other than traveling bards, support themselves by their writing.

So, the democratization of patronage, through internet entities such as Patreon, is really just a new iteration of a long-standing practice.

While it’s obvious why writers and other artists would turn to Patreon, either to start a career or to help finance one, Patreon, despite its more “democratic” approach to patronage than the traditional model, contains the same basic flaw as the patronage of Mozart’s time. What’s paramount is success in the ability to raise funds. Yes, a certain amount of talent is required, because over time people won’t support artists who aren’t very good, but it’s the mixture of fund-raising and artistry that determines success under any patronage system, not the excellence of the artistry.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that popularity is also a factor in traditional publishing. Years ago, the Christian Science Monitor used to publish a listing of the best-selling fiction books, and in that listing was a column with either a red arrow that pointed down or a green arrow that pointed up. That arrow represented the consensus of major published reviews. And guess what? Generally, but not always, the best-selling books featured red arrows. I’ve always had problems with reviews that attempt to direct popular tastes, and with reviews that are more agenda-driven than an effort to offer a fair assessment of a book, but the plain fact is that popular books are those that more people relate to… and many technically excellent books aren’t exactly popular.

That said, sales numbers at least reflect what the readers believe about the writer’s work. Patronage funding reflects internet sales effectiveness as much as the work produced.

And, under traditional patronage, the works of excellent composers who were often difficult as individuals, such as Mozart and Beethoven, were far less rewarded than the works of composers no one remembers and whose works are seldom performed. One of the dangers of any patronage system is that it tends to reward talents other than excellence in artistic achievement. And from what I’ve seen so far, Patreon is coming to resemble traditional patronage systems, if not totally, because it has enabled some outstanding writers to break in. And that aspect is good.

But it’s still a patronage system with many of the faults of such.

9 thoughts on “Patreon?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Patronage requires effective self-promotion. But a sales model also requires that, unless one already has a reputation sufficient for the publisher to accept the risk of doing significant promotion of their own.

    Mightn’t it be that the bigger difference is that feedback is personal rather than statistical in a patronage model, and with an online patronage system, often incremental? Both of those would tend to affect the art at least as much as the self-promotion and interaction skills required.

    Granted the skills are somewhat different. Some might be more effective with more impersonal model, while others might be energized by interactions. But any independent worker has to have skills not directly related to their line of work itself, to support it, interpersonal skills and self-promotion among them, and those will tend to influence the work itself. That could even be said to be true for e.g. someone who switches from time to time among various small government contractor companies, who certainly has to self-promote, often has to tiptoe rather than make blunt statements (even when the latter would be more appropriate), etc.

    How would it affect you if you didn’t have to do signings, conventions, this website, and all the other self-promotion needed even with a sales model? It would at a minimum give you more time, but reduce feedback significantly; and feedback likely has some influence on future work (would you have written “The Vice Marshal’s Trial” if people hadn’t kept asking about the founding of Cyador?). Or am I missing something?

    1. There’a definite trade-off between the time required for “support work” and the time devoted to writing/creative work. With the publishers providing less support, I definitely spend more time on indirect marketing and appearances than I did twenty years ago. Fortunately, since I was able to give up some other part-time work, I have that time, but I’m putting in far more time than I was when I was working a 60 hour a week job in Washington. The saving grace is that I like what I doing much, much more.

  2. JakeB says:

    I send some money to 4 different individuals via Patreon (not much, no more than about $25/month in total). In each case, I’ve only learnt they had a Patreon site after seeing some of their work and deciding I liked it enough to pay for the hope of seeing more. So for me at least, the patronage seems to be independent of the work. (Different from Kickstarters, which I have also given money to. Those seem to be more like a cross between microfinance and Silicon Valley startups!)

    A propos of nothing, I was just rereading _Flash_ and was unable to resist equations of the Grassley=Crosslin, Graham=Kennison sort.

    1. Daze says:

      Your brain is a pattern-recognition, analogy and narrative-generation machine. It makes these parallels all of the time, whether or not you particularly notice them. (I managed to make a reasonable career as a management consultant out of noticing patterns and analogies).

      I got a major blast of seeing parallels at a preview of the new Antony and Cleopatra at the NT with Ralph Fiennes when looking at Egypt’s desire to secede from the Roman hegemony!

  3. Tim Twineham says:

    I doubt that the Patreon model has the same faults as the traditional patronage you describe. The latter meant that the patron and the artist had a personal relationship and so charisma played it’s part.

    With Patreon however you get a dilution in that many people support one artist, and they come and they go.

    I support Vloggers mainly as I feel guilty watching their videos (usually travel and food) without paying anything. Yet Patreon allows people to subscribe for as little as $1 a month which means that young people can get involved and feel they are contributing.

    Personally I think the benefits far exceed the dangers.

    I just hope Patreon do not cream too much off the top like one famous UK charity was supposed to have done, but the mud stuck so no-one I know supports them now.

    1. With Patreon, charisma still plays a part; it’s just electronic charisma.

      1. Tim Twineham says:

        But surely if there are many people acting as patrons, then you are more likely to get a better balance than if one person is providing patronage.

        1. R. Hamilton says:

          “better” is a judgement call. Certainly a single wealthy patron can impose their expectations quite a bit (and often will expect some form of flattery). But some may be more hands-off, and a few may even have contributions to make toward a common vision.

          A collection of minor patrons requires paying attention to the group, but not too much to any one individual. If that’s done, the patrons may collectively suggest which of various projects should be worked on next, or something like that. For song covers (someone like Peter Hollens mostly, although he has done an original song or two), they may suggest songs they’d like performed. Not all minor patrons are equally engaged, regardless of how much or little they spend. I might look at what’s going on, but the odds of me getting into a chat or making suggestions are very low. An active minor patron has far more influence.

          Still, compared to an individual, a group will have something of an averaging effect, sometimes also a “least common denominator” effect. Unless the artist was already established in that mode, you’re not likely to get high risk or highly experimental esoteric projects, that’s for sure. Now that’s not always bad; obtuse isn’t effective communication, and density can be overdone (although see much of Palmer’s “Emergence”, written as if it were a journal in shorthand (but in conventional alphabet); it’s pretty dense with its condensed sentences, but still readable).

          But sadly, how much of the public cares that one made sure one knew what the phase of the moon was during certain battles, etc, notwithstanding that correct details and good research are important to accuracy and consistency. Only the people familiar with subject matter really know, and they’re a minority of the audience. Clancy, esp. in his earlier books created very plausible fiction just short of uncomfortably close to reality for those who knew the difference (and indeed sometimes he shot just a bit wide of the mark so as not to create guidebooks for bad guys); but an example of a tiny thing he missed: if talking informally just to people in your own agency, bureau, etc, that word by itself refers to your organization rather than CIA or FBI (although in a mixed group, those are the best known agency and bureau respectively, but the bare word would seldom be used except very informally when the context was unambiguous without being exclusionary, e.g. no need to offend the guy (or gal) from DIA or whatever). And insiders don’t tend to say “the” TLA (some three-letter-agency), they just say TLA, as if the abbreviation was a proper name (or more likely as if people are lazy when speaking). Even unusual access didn’t give him tiny details like that, perhaps because carefully crafted access tends toward rather formal presentation.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    Patreon makes it easy for me to support people and groups I like without having to wait for albums, videos, etc. AND have a chance to personally interact with them in a limited way – kind of like a blog discussion after a post.

    AND if LEM decided to crowd-fund (ugly verb there, BTW) his next book, I’d be in for PDF/epub, a soft cover, and a hard cover.

    Just sayin’.

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