Crowdfunding Site Brings New Patrons to the Arts

Patreon cofounder Jack Conte works in the living room of a Noe Valley apartment that served as the company's headquarters for eight months. His girlfriend and Pomplamoose bandmate, Nataly Dawn, is in the kitchen. (Grace Rubenstein)

Artists who publish their work on the Internet might hit it big and find millions of fans. But in a world where online content has become virtually free, fame doesn’t necessarily come with fortune anymore.

Now, one San Francisco company — Patreon — is making it easier for fans to financially support working artists.

Musician and music video producer Jack Conte founded Patreon last year with his friend Sam Yam, a former roommate at Stanford University.

“I had been working on this music video for three months straight,” Conte recalls. “I drained my savings account, it was like 10 grand, and I just watched that slowly whittle away.”

Back then, Conte had around 100,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.

“I knew I was going to post this video, and I knew it was going to generate a hundred to 200 dollars of ad revenue for me,” he says. “And I knew at the same time that my fans were going to really like it. And I thought that was worth more than $100.”

Patreon's engineering and product departments have taken over the living room of the company cofounders' Noe Valley apartment
Patreon’s engineering and product departments have taken over the living room of the company cofounders’ Noe Valley apartment (Grace Rubenstein)

So Conte and Yam hatched a website plan. Fans on Patreon could enter their credit card numbers and pledge a few bucks every time Conte published a new video. Unlike Kickstarter, where people chip in for a one-time project, this would be ongoing support for continued work. It’s essentially patronage, only crowdfunded.

Yam designed and coded the site, which launched in May 2013. “Within a few hours I passed over $1,000 per video that I uploaded,” Conte says. “So I was making over 10 times what I was making on YouTube. In like 4 hours!”

Soon creators and patrons were flocking to the site. Now, he says, Patreon plays host to 85,000 paying patrons and more than 25,000 creators ranging from musicians to web comic illustrators to short story writers. The company takes a 5 percent cut. And it just got $15 million dollars in venture capital.

Conte thinks all the enthusiasm reflects a problem that the Internet sort of created, by driving down the value of creative content. “Media these days is free,” he says. “That’s not an opinion at this point. It’s a fact.”

Yet he feels really strongly that creative people deserve fair pay. “We need to look at other income streams for people, and I think patronage is where it’s going,” he says.

The content that’s funded through Patreon is free for the world to see. But creators give their patrons little perks, like live chats or behind-the-scenes photos. Some of them are making serious money. Conte’s band, Pomplamoose, gets more than $5,000 dollars per video.

Still, most creators have more modest audiences and incomes.

Kiki Sanford records her "This Week in Science" podcast from her basement in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood, and funds it via Patreon.
Kiki Sanford records her “This Week in Science” podcast from her basement in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, and funds it via Patreon. (Grace Rubenstein)

Kiki Sanford is a neurophysiology PhD who publishes her “This Week in Science” podcast out of her basement in San Francisco. Sanford has been broadcasting for more than a decade, and she’s built an audience of around 10,000. She joined Patreon four months ago.

“We went from covering our basic costs with $200 to $300 in Paypal donations per month, to now almost bringing in $2,000 a month with Patreon,” she says.

Now she’s hoping to realize some long-held dreams, like creating daily content. That is, if the support holds up.

“It’s humbling and amazing to me,” Sanford says. “But at the same time I go, can I count on this? Is this something that people are going to really keep doing?”

John Maeda says Sanford’s right to be cautious. He’s the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design and now the design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capital in Silicon Valley.

“We believe that there’s infinite money in the crowd. You know, ‘crowdsource’ this, ‘crowdfund’ this,” he says. “The crowd gets tired, the crowd gets poorer.”

So while Maeda likes the idea of crowdfunding the arts, he says it’s too soon to say if Patreon’s model will have staying power.

Patreon does have limitations. First off, it won’t necessarily get you fans if you don’t already have them. And there’s no guarantee of artistic quality, since the site is open to everyone. But that’s the way Conte likes it.

“Our mission is to fund the creative class,” he says. “If Lady Gaga wanted to use the platform, fine. But that’s not who we’re building products for.”

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