Appraising Amanda Palmer’s New Patreon Campaign

She’s done the research and taken the plunge. Should you?

Amanda Palmer is good people. No, she’s great people. She came to a songwriting class I taught at Yale, and opened her heart, mind and soul to my students. She tweeted to her fanbase and for one slice of a second, we trended on Twitter. (I did not get the screengrab. Dammit.)

She played the piano, fielded questions and was candid about the pros and cons of her celebrated Kickstarter campaign that blew the doors off what people thought was possible with the platform. In classic fashion, she went warts-and-all on the downsides (the behind-the-scenes labor; the stuffing of packages; the huge postage fees; etc.), because the upsides are in much plainer view.

What I find fascinating about her is that she consistently reminds me how much is possible, and it’s that spirit that I think will be a large part of her legacy. Like so many others, I watch her, debate her ideas, including those in her book and her TED talk, with friends, and yet I find little that works for anyone else but her. Of course, that’s the point—I wouldn’t look good in her shirts, either, so why would I look good in her business plan? But the difference is that she is a bellwether for future music models, so what she does impacts the way many people are thinking about the business.

In short, she’s a canary in the music industry coal mine, but she’s not dying. In fact, she’s rolling.

Enter Patreon—she had tested the waters on this in posts to her Facebook page, and raised great questions for them to answer: Should I do this monthly? Per piece of content? What if you like ukulele songs, and I decide to paint vases or something for six months (she didn’t actually put it that way, but did recognize that she works in several media, and that not everyone will be on board with everything she does. Smart to put that out there up front.)

Well, she got her answers, and now she’s got a Patreon campaign, and with such an engaged fanbase, I think the experiment will prove fruitful for her. As I write, she’s up to $20k per piece of content after just one day. So. Fruitful.

But does that mean it’s good for others, and if so, what kind of others? 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.

The fact that Amanda is doing it is not important in itself, but it does put another high-profile face to another business model for the future. And that’s what the music industry needs desperately.

In AFP fashion, here’s an unvarnished list of what stops me from starting a Patreon campaign. They’re the result of many conversations across several art forms, so I know they are not my issues alone.

Here’s what I’m asking you, dear reader: If you have ideas or answers one way or the other, please let me know. Please. Because this is driving me insane.

  1. Amanda notwithstanding, does a Patreon campaign make an artist look/sound “needy,” or “hat in hand?” Does it have that same stink that a tip jar has? A lot of artists find tip jars degrading. Is that provincial of me, today, in the (why not) Age of the Art of Asking? I know it bothers me when I know the bar is charging my fans at a nice markup (and a drink minimum! Nice touch.) while I watch a dented bucket hover around and interrupt me while distracting everyone else. I rarely play rooms like that, because it just doesn’t feel right to me, and I know others agree. But does this matter? Is this just life now?
  2. If you’re on a constant schedule, and you know what type of content will boost your Patreon campaign, you’ll be pushed to make whatever that is. So, has the spark of creativity shifted from the artists’ control to the patrons’? I’ve been in this fight several times, and it goes, RESOLVED: The History of Art Is Dictated by Patrons, Not Artists.
An approximation of Arnold Joost von Keppel, Earl of Albemarle, 1625

As a result, portrait painters were out there making ugly, anemic royals look like Clive Owen’s extended family. No wonder they spent so much time making their garments look realistic—it must have been freeing to work with a sense of honesty, for a switch. This is a downside of the patronage system that I feel doesn’t get much ink when we talk about Patreon and new business models. On the flip side, lots of great stuff got made under the Medici, to name one, but it’s a more uncomfortable relationship for some than it clearly is for Amanda (again, God bless her).

3. It’s one thing when you have a boss, but what happens when your boss is an interconnected population giving micropayments in real time? That’s called being a politician, or having shareholders, isn’t it? If so, how quickly have we seen mobs pivot instantaneously and at massive scale? I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just saying that the mob can be a very temperamental boss, and what we’re looking for is a new model. The answers I’ve seen have been handheld versions of the o-o-o-oldest models known to commerce.

4. Anyone who has done art on a schedule knows that the art is affected by that schedule. As I tell my students, sometimes “the most inspiring thing in the world is a deadline,” but sometimes you send stuff out before it’s fully baked, especially if the boss is waiting, check in hand. Does this figure into the equation, or has it always, and am I just being resistant to the underlying implication of the entire enterprise, which is that…

5. Art is now of ‘no value’ — are we all cool with that? That’s a big hurdle to jump, and Patreon pretty much institutionalizes the assumption. By having a Patreon campaign, am I signing my name to that? (Being on Spotify is hard enough, already.) Again, with files that are easily copied, this all may be a long-done deal, yet I remain an actual human with non-virtual concerns, and capitalism does not mesh with this model. For instance, my corner bodega doesn’t make free coffee in exchange for a subscription to their aesthetic. That may sound like an apples and oranges comparison, but if you live on your art then you need to find a conversion point between it and the dollar. Otherwise, no coffee.

6. How does all this square, toe-to-toe and dollar-for-dollar, with a so-called “day job,” provided you can unpack the baggage of that phrase? Many, many artists have used this model, and they include William Carlos Williams, Rene Magritte… whatever, you know those names, but Dr. Dre didn’t top the money charts making The Chronics IV-XII, either. Look at Jack Conte, the creator of Patreon. Patreon is, by a traditional definition, a day job. Or is Pomplamoose the day job, now? The art could be the creation of Patreon, making Pomplamoose a hobby. Which is what art with no value, by definition, is. Wait: I think I just called Van Gogh a hobbyist. He did have a patron. Um, I’m lost. Someone help me answer these questions!

7. Finally: Can you be an introvert and be an artist, too? Because I don’t want people to draw on me. I just don’t.

I’m a constant creator, and a regular contributor to Cuepoint, so something like Patreon would work well for me, but I’m just so on the fence with doing this. Every time I think I have my answer—I’m totally doing it!—I see the model from another angle and flip-flop—No, I’m totally not doing it!

I keep waiting for the sliver of insight that will push me one way or the other on it.

Any pearls, greatly appreciated. Put em in the notes, or hit me up.

Note: No tip jar.

If you enjoyed reading this, please login and click “Recommend” below.
This will help to share the story with others.

Learn more about Mike Errico:
Follow Cuepoint:
Twitter | Facebook

Like what you read? Give Mike Errico a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.