Patreon’s #KanyeOnPatreon Video is Missing Kanye West’s Point

This isn’t just about Kanye. This is about how hip-hop and POC artists are treated financially on the platform & beyond.

A couple of days ago, in response to this tweet by Kanye West:

Jack Conte made a video inviting Kanye to join Patreon:

In the video, Jack assumes that Kanye solely wants the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page to be his patrons or subscribers (since he made Tweets to that effect), and says that being on Patreon will help him get the funding he wants.

However, if you read through Kanye’s actual Twitter feed, you’ll quickly find that Kanye isn’t really talking about his personal income — or, at least, that’s not his sole concern. Rather, he’s trying to address the inequalities Black musicians face in getting paid for their creative and intellectual labor:

Rap and hip-hop music, while being highly popular, still does not earn as much for their creators as other forms of music. In Race and Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, Michael Roberts says that racism against Black musicians has been an ongoing problem since the early days of the recording industry, and still continues despite hip-hop’s growing popularity:

According to Kelley (2002), rap and hip-hop music — a predominantly black musical form — is now the second largest musical genre in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of all record sales, but black musicians still earn a miniscule portion of the income from the music they produce. Worth more than $1.8 billion in annual sales, hip-hop and rap music is still controlled by White-owned establishments. Compare that with the figure for the entirety of revenues generated by black-owned entertainment companies: $189 million dollars in the year 2000. There are a few profitable black-owned record labels in the music industry such as Def Jam records, owned by Russell Simmons, and Bad Boy records, owned by Sean Combs. But even those labels are still dependent on white-owned and -controlled record companies for distribution. There are no fully independent, black-owned major record labels anymore since the 1993 sales of Motown records, which is now a subsidiary of the giant multinational corporate conglomerate Universal/Vivendi.

The widening income inequality along racial lines has been a double-edged sword for people of color and crowdfunding. On the one hand, the lack of access to other income sources makes crowdfunding a more attractive prospect for many POC, since it’s a direct source of income with relatively less exploitation. However, that same income inequality also makes it difficult for projects by POC to get crowdfunded; this gets worse for those who are minorities on multiple identity axes, such as Black trans women.

Platforms like Patreon rely on the creators already having strong networks of people willing and able to pay for their work. They claim to “help creators find patrons”, but other than providing a host and a payment processor, they don’t actively connect creators with patrons. In my experience: I’ve been on Patreon for over a year, only have 7 patrons with a maximum of $30 per piece despite having a strong online following, and not once has Patreon reached out to me to help get new patrons. This may be different for those who are more successful — but then the need to be more successful before you get help in getting more successful presents a Catch-22 situation.

Patreon does have a Featured Creators section, but it’s not very diverse. Just looking at the Music section alone, all except one — acapella group Duwende — are white or white-presenting artists, and none perform hip-hop.

It’s unclear how the Featured section works on Patreon — whether it’s automated based on analytics, or involves manual curation. An automated system suffers from the same Catch-22 of needing prior success to ensure future success. Manual curation largely depends on having a curation team diverse enough to be able to capture a wide range of work to feature. While there are POC on Patreon’s team, including Black staff, the titles are so cutesy that it’s hard to figure out what exactly they do and the sort of impact they have on Patreon’s operations.

LinkedIn searches are more instructive: Shane Zackery works on Creator Discovery. Angela Raiford works in Community Happiness, which seems to be a customer service role. Cornell Martin works in Creator Relations.

OK, so two of the POC staff members we found work directly with creators. According to the Creator Discovery job description, they reach out to creators to encourage them to join Patreon, and then “convey best practices to creators to help them strengthen and grow their communities”. How active is this role? Do they directly help creators strengthen these communities, or do they just give advice and expect the creators do all the legwork? Do they directly suggest particular creators to particular groups of fans? Their job description involves hosting creator-centric gatherings, but do they hold gatherings for creators to meet with prospective and current fans?

They are actually in potentially very powerful positions to provide support to POC creators if they are actually empowered to make such decisions. It’d be interesting to know more about what their day-to-day work entails and how hands-on their roles are both with creators and with the company.

Another issue with Patreon’s #KanyeOnPatreon video is their choice of artist as a success story: Callie Crofts, a White indie folk-rock musician. Why not feature a hip-hop artist — or even a Black artist —when trying to market to a Black hip-hop musician?

A search for “hip-hop” (Patreon’s search function doesn’t allow easy sorting) shows that the most successful creator is hip-hop reviewer Rap Critic, who earns just under $500 per video:

The most successful hip-hop artists I could find were Necro and Jesse Dangerously, two White guys making $100-$200 per project:

Everyone else, asides from the occasional outlier, makes about $0-$1 a project.

Hell, even a White hip-hop FITNESS INSTRUCTOR is being paid much more:

Kanye West would probably do well on Patreon because he’s Kanye and already has a strong audience of people willing to throw money at him. In a way, he doesn’t need Patreon; Patreon needs Kanye. The extra customers/patrons that Patreon will gain as a result of people who joined to support Kanye will give them more opportunities to highlight other related hip-hop and Black artists and connect them with more people. Also, the fees they get from Kanye’s supporters will likely be humongous — he’s be one of their most profitable creators.

But the potential increase of support for hip-hop artists on Patreon is dependent on Patreon actually supporting hip-hop and Black artists to begin with — between the video and the numbers, I don’t have any confidence that they know how to support hip-hop and POC artists beyond just letting them set up accounts to collect money.

So Jack: instead of trying to convince an international superstar to join your platform in the guise of “helping” him earn money, maybe direct your attention to the creators already on your platform who could use all the help they can get.

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