During a recent stream-of-consciousness tweetstorm, Kanye West lamented just how much of his personal fortune he’d been forced to invest in his own creative endeavors. “Yes I am personally rich and I can buy furs and houses for my family,” he tweeted. “But I need access to more money in order to bring more beautiful ideas to the world.”
The age of the Medicis has long faded into history, but large-scale arts patronage still exists, with rich collectors, executives, and gallerists supporting the chosen few. And as Kanye is realizing, there are some doors that even being one of the biggest stars in the world won’t open. The Zuckerbergs and the Brins of the tech world might be silent, but the irony is that what Kanye West wants already exists. It’s called Patreon, a subscription-based crowdfunding platform that collects periodic pledges from patrons, who support the work of their favorite creators. And its founder, Jack Conte, wants to tell Kanye all about it.
What is Patreon?
Patreon was founded in May 2013 by Conte and his old roommate at Stanford, developer Sam Yam. Conte, who is in a band called Pomplamoose with his wife Nataly Dawn, has a track record of YouTube success — Pomplamoose has dozens of videos with more than a million views, and Conte himself had a viral hit with a Daft Punk/Skrillex remix. But YouTube is notoriously poor at monetizing popular videos and creators, and despite Pomplamoose’s digital popularity, Conte found it difficult to even break even on tour.
In a much-derided post on Medium describing the economics of a Pomplamoose tour, Conte stressed that “Being in an indie band is running a never-ending, rewarding, scary, low-margin small business.” Few would argue with that sentiment, though there is a case to be made that even with an eight-person band, it’s possible to do a month-long tour for considerably less than $147,802. But Conte buried the lede: even though the tour wasn’t profitable, he and his wife were each drawing a $2,500 monthly salary from their Patreon campaign. If, as he suggests, the space between starving artist and rich and famous was disappearing, then Patreon could fill the vacuum. “We are the mom and pop corner store version of ‘the dream,’ he wrote.
Conte’s dream is well-funded; after an initial angel investment of $2.1m in August of 2013, Patreon raised $15m in Series A in June 2014, and $30m in a Series B round at the beginning of 2016. After years of supporting himself with his music, he finally began to draw a salary as CEO.
Why is Patreon different?
Patreon works like most crowdfunding platforms: rather than have one large Patron pledging a large sum of money, creators collect micropayments from a group of supporters in order to fund their creative endeavors. To generate income, Patreon takes 5% off the top. Patreon pages include videos, messages from creators, updates on the work, and often, exclusive content for Patrons. The main difference between Patreon and crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo is the subscription model. Rather than pledge a one-time amount, Patrons pledge regular amount, whether it’s per creation, month, week, or self-defined term.
Amanda Palmer, she of the controversial $1m Kickstarter, likes to use the relationship analogy when comparing Patreon; if backing a Kickstarter campaign is like going on a date, then pledging to a Patreon campaign is a committed relationship. Both are built on trust, or confidence that the creator is really going to deliver on the promises that…