Who’s Afraid of Being Patronised?

The idea of patrons supporting creatives has a long history. Traditionally associated with wealthy individuals backing artists to produce masterpieces, the model, like so many areas in life, is being disrupted by the arrival of digital platforms and, as a result, becoming more diverse and democratic. More and more creatives are drawing upon this model to enable them to create, connect and monetize their work so is it time you considered it? In a series of posts on the topic we will explore all the angles.

Personally I have never been entirely convinced that the historical model of patronage was all it was cracked up to be. I mean, did Michelangelo or Botticelli wonder if their latest creation might be greeted by a cold stiletto from Lorenzo de' Medici if they interpreted a Papal Bull incorrectly? Maybe Richard Strauss got tired of saying nice things about King Ludwigs latest fairytale castle? Ruskin and Paul Durand Ruel might have been easier going, who knows, but either way keeping one or two well-healed backers happy with your creative output seems a bit, well, limiting.

Fortunately, things have moved on a little and, in keeping with the trend of digital disruption that has so radically changed many other aspects of the creative sector in the last 20 years, patronage has also undergone a makeover.

The “long tail” has wagged, sweeping aside the prevailing model of small numbers of significant backers and happily announced the age of a crowd of distributed backers, or lots of small backers, as the new norm.

The emergence of sites, plugins and apps that are enabling creatives to access large numbers of supporters to back their efforts is beginning to change the model of financing the creative process. These tools are increasingly common with many like Patreon, Membermouse, Podia and MemberPress becoming part of the lexicon of blogs, pods and streaming activities of those producing original material as they encourage their fans and followers to convert to become fee-paying “backers”, “patrons” or “members”.

The fundamental principle behind all of these approaches is that you can draw on the reach available in digital technologies to find enough distributed followers sufficiently engaged and enthused about what you do to start to pay on a regular basis for access to that creativity.
The sums paid can be relatively small and essentially at the level of discretionary spending. The thinking is that if your average hipster is prepared to pay £6 for an exotic coffee construct to mark out their individuality, why would a fan not commit to the price of a coffee every month to get something a bit more unique, creative and satisfying? If you secure enough members, patrons, subscribers - whatever you choose to call them - you will have a sustained income stream as the individual incremental cost of collecting the funds is very low and cumulatively lots of small sums become one large one.

In many respects, it is an extension of the crowdfunding model, except that it has an enduring financial relationship with a backer as they should, hopefully, keep on giving rather than make just one payment. The parallel with crowdfunding goes further as typically the membership or patronage will be offered at different tiers at a range of values, each offering different levels of engagement and different combinations of content and benefits, not unlike the varied “reward” values in a typical crowdfunding campaign.

But for that to happen the creative needs to keep on providing and this is the important first consideration here. This is not a retail transaction where a creative sells multiple copies of the same single item. No, if you are the creative you need to feed a consistent supply of value to your backers that they consider sufficiently compelling to make them keep on giving. Are you able to do that?

It is not for nothing a lot of patronage sites offer advice on how to get a “work-life balance”! No one ever said this was going to be easy.
But, in truth, what you offer these super fans can vary considerably. It’s not as if you are expected to produce a new album every month to keep them happy. Exclusivity, personal and behind the scenes content and bonus material can all be of value to a fan. For the less creative or more intermittent creator expertise, curation, education amongst other things can also make compelling and valued offerings.

Understanding what mix and what value goes with your own membership model is key to success.

Whatever the mix of value you are thinking of proposing to offer to your members, you need to be sure that whatever platform you select to manage this process, from the many offerings out there, is able to adequately service that - and we will explore the practicalities of choosing between them in a later post.

Another key consideration for this model to work once again finds a parallel in crowdfunding and that is you need to build your crowd. If you already have some “crowd asset” to draw on in the form of social media followers, mail list subscribers, previous purchasers you are in a better place to begin than those with none. But, only a limited number of that base are likely to convert to being fully-fledged patrons so when considering throwing in all your other funding activity and concentrating on this because you have 1000 twitter followers I would urge considerable caution - this is unlikely to immediately become your root to financial salvation. 5% conversion of higher touch followers into paying patrons would be considered very good. So you can do the arithmetic and create some targets for yourself and the potential for monetisation that might go with that.

But, it is unquestionably something that is here for the long term. Whilst video and podcast creators typically top many of the earnings brackets there are many others using their creativity to great effect. Jeph Jacques, for example, is a comic maker with a Patreon account and 11,000 members. Even if these patrons all just took the base tier backing rate of $1 dollar per month then Jeph is probably fairing better than your average jobbing illustrator.

Over the next few months we will delve into the world of patronage further with a look at the practicalities, speaking to folks already active in the space all to help you decide if it is an option for you.

Tim Wright: XpoNorth Digital Sector Specialist

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