State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

The Perils of “Hope Labor”: How Patreon Is Failing Starving Artists

Hope labor: “a motivation for voluntary online social production; ‘un- or under-compensated work carried out in the present, often for experience or exposure, in the hope that future employment opportunities may follow’.”
— Kathleen Kuehn and Thomas F. Corrigan, Hope Labor

Like many writers and content creators these days, I’m on Patreon; and, like many of them, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Mike Errico writes:

“It looks like such an easy call — if you’ve ever had a subscription to a magazine, you’ve basically used this model, already — and yet there is something about it that stops me, and many other artists I’ve spoken with.”

Although a handful of creators have found success on the platform — most notably Amanda Palmer, who earns around $30,000 per month from 7,000 patrons — they’re mostly artists who have a large following already. (At a more realistic level, basic income advocate Scott Santens earns around $1,000 per month from just over 150 patrons.)

I think the patronage model is a great idea — when it works. But not if it just replicates the inequalities inherent in our current system.

Artist Molly Crabapple writes:

“The number one thing that would let more independent artists exists in America is a universal basic income.…This is because artists are humans who need to eat and live and get medical care, and our country punishes anyone who wants to go freelance and pursue their dream by telling them they might get cancer while uninsured, and then not be able to afford to treat it.”

Patreon seems like a way to address this issue—a way for the private sector to step in and do what the government won’t yet do. But I’m worried that it’s just another case of Silicon Valley profiteers skimming a cut off of people at the bottom of the labor market. It’s a kind of get-rich-quick scheme that seduces people into creating content for free.

In an interview at Chronicle Vitae, Miya Tokumitsu discusses the concept of “hope labor,” as coined by media scholars Kuehn and Corrigan:

“[H]ope is really a powerful force that keeps people working for low wages.…The veneer of meritocracy requires that they be passionate about work, that money isn’t the reason for doing it, and that they project affability and eagerness, which is exhausting.”

In order to be a successful creator on Patreon, one first has to take several steps “on spec”. This might involve posting free content to Patreon; writing content elsewhere, such as on Medium; or posting requests for patrons on Twitter and other social media channels. All of this back-end work, which largely goes unseen, is still no guarantee of success.

And yet the prospect is too good to pass up: one could be just a few tweets or a viral blog post away from a treasure trove of eager patrons.

As Tokumitsu writes:

“The market doesn’t just dangle well-paid, comfortable, apparently enjoyable work before the masses; it very carefully stokes and cultivates their hope. It does this in numerous industries by establishing tiered systems of work…. Workers in the top tiers frequently earn decent salaries, have stable, comfortable working conditions, and enjoy benefits such as premium employee-sponsored health care and paid leave. Bottom-tier workers are a more casual labor force, with contract or part-time schedules, drastically lower earnings, and fewer, if any, benefits or labor protections.”

This multi-tiered workforce applies to Patreon too. Take a look at the image to the left. All of the examples shown are of creators who make at least $1,000/month. But this is the cream of the crop, not the average user of the platform. Destin, of Smarter Every Day, recently interviewed President Obama; Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of the popular Cosmos TV series.

Here’s a more representative sample. Most writers don’t make any money on Patreon because there isn’t that much money to be made. We don’t yet live in a culture that values supporting artists before they create their art — or so that they can create it. That’s the cultural narrative Patreon will have to shift if it wants consumers to take its model seriously.

There’s nothing wrong with top artists getting a bigger piece of the pie. But what I’m concerned about — and what I hope Patreon is concerned about — is finding a way to make life easier for everyday artists struggling to get by. In an excellent article about hip-hop artists who use Patreon, Creatrix Tiara writes:

“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.”

The time and energy an artist spends promoting their Patreon page is not inconsequential; many create videos, contests, and other forms of outreach in order to attract supporters. That investment is a gamble.

If the goal of Patreon is to give artists the freedom to focus on their art, it fails at it — it simply adds more busywork to their to-do list.

Tokumitsu laments this kind of hope labor:

“It is so bizarre that we are doing work this way. These aren’t the natural outcomes of humanity. This is part of the constructed world we live in, so let’s remodel it to something more favorable. The key is that no one person can do it alone.…I really want to encourage people to reach out and say we can change things but we aren’t gonna do it with a hack or an app or a simple fix or clever tweak. It will be difficult and hard. If we get the conversation going now, then people can think about how best to organize.”

So far, Patreon is at best a subscription service for established artists, not a way for struggling artists to find support, or even peace of mind. Most artists are probably better off making money the old-fashioned way — selling their merchandise, applying for grants, going on tour, working a day job.

By giving artists false hope, Patreon helps maintain the status quo. It doesn’t address the root causes of why artists struggle to get by. It claims that an artist can “spend more time creating” — but what exactly will they be creating? More art, or just more promo materials?

Artists don’t need another platform on which to distribute their work for free; they need real financial security.

As musician Brian Eno puts it:

“[A]s soon as you can release people from the absolutely grinding poverty that so many people are in, you give them the chance, the space to think and the space to get themselves out of a bad situation. Most of the time people who are very poor are just concerned with the next few hours. That’s all. That’s the only option they have. So basic income is a great idea. I like the idea that it says we believe that all people are potentially creative and that they should be given the chance to express that.”

It will take more than crowdfunding to make that happen.