The True Notion of Patronage
Earning a living as a creator is full-on.
Coming up with the ideas and executing them is tricky enough, but we also have to run a business and everything that goes with it — ‘everything’ includes anything from accountancy to washing up the coffee cups at the end of the day.
Our brains rarely switch off, so we work silly hours at all times of day, every day of the week.
It’s a life that’s all-consuming but we love it, especially when it all ticks along smoothly!
REDRESSING THE BALANCE
One of the puzzles I’m fascinated by — and spend a lot of time thinking about — is how to earn a living through the work I’m passionate about making.
Like many creators, I’m aiming to feel financially secure, to know where my pennies are coming from day-to-day and to be in control of that as much as possible.
Back in 2017, I started to use Patreon with that goal in mind.
For those who aren’t familiar with Patreon, it’s a membership platform which endeavours to tap into the centuries-old notion of patronage to help creators build a consistent, sustainable and predictable income.
In a world where so much arts-related income is a flash in the pan — whether selling artworks or receiving grants — I believe the concept of successfully funding our work through patronage is the Holy Grail.
But what is patronage?
Well, it’s very simple: It’s when the very people who value your work want to help you with regular financial contributions.
When those people help you on your creative path in this way, they become your patrons.
When I first started using Patreon, I created various reward levels — or Tiers, as they’re known.
This means that people could receive different rewards depending on how much they pledged. It’s what other creators were doing on the platform and it’s also how Patreon themselves advise their users to set up their presence within the platform.
I tried to keep my rewards simple with the things I was already making and selling, such as prints and postcards. However, I’ve seen all sorts of elaborate rewards being offered by other creators like monthly behind-the-scenes videos and gifts.
Taking the latter into account, I’ve heard people complaining that Patreon is like a second job and that it’s almost impossible to keep on top of the rewards let alone do the normal work of a creator — making the art and running the business.
That’s because (in most cases) this approach is wrong and doesn’t marry up with the true notion of patronage.
You don’t need to worry about creating a transaction with your audience in exchange for their pledge because I bet you’re providing that transaction already.
For example, raise your hand if you’ve entertained people free-of-charge for years on social media…
[looks around the room]
…just as I thought: All of you.
Receiving support from your patrons redresses the balance, it completes the transaction.
As I keep saying: Back in the day, people would have happily bought a magazine if they were interested in a topic, so why not now?
So, forget the extra gifts and videos (unless it’s easy for you and you enjoy it).
You don’t even have to write extra blog posts.
You simply need to keep doing what you’re doing already and decide who you’re going to share them with — the public or your patrons.
Click here and you’ll see that I use the ‘subtitle’ feature on my project blog posts to graphically show whether a post is for members of The LSP Society or for public consumption.
It’s not a case of more energy but rather a redirection of energy.
I’m always looking to other people I respect to see how they do it.
In 2019, I became a patron of Brandon Stanton, not only to support his phenomenal Humans of New York project but to see how he funds it through Patreon — a great way to support a fellow photographer while learning from a master. After all, 16K+ patrons can’t be wrong!
I was struck by Brandon’s wording in each of his Tiers:
‘All pledge levels provide access to all content on the Patreon page, and go toward the creation of Humans of New York. Pledge whatever amount you’re comfortable with.’
“Yes!” I thought. “That’s the right approach!”
It’s the right approach because it’s how patronage should be: helping somebody to continue doing what they do already without expecting anything extra in return.
After all, the patron is already receiving something extra — they are being entertained and have the satisfaction that they’re helping to make something good, something that enriches the world and makes it a better place. That is the transaction.
Furthermore. they get to engage directly with the creator they’re supporting. It’s a win-win built on genuine human engagement.
Not only that, but the person paying £1 per month gets the same as somebody paying £50 per month.
Why? Even though two patrons may be pledging different monetary amounts, the respective value to each of those patrons may be completely different.
The patron paying £50 might find it much easier to pay their contribution than the person paying £1, so why should they receive anything different to one another?
The work you’re diligently creating — and then sharing online — is likely to be enough already.
SETTING CLEAR BOUNDARIES
So, what did I do when I came to this realisation?
I stripped back my Tiers to just one and adopted wording very similar to Brandon’s.
I wrote to my existing patrons and told them what I was doing from that point on, reassuring them, of course, that I would honour the agreements we’d made up to that point.
That last paragraph is vital because communication is the key to successful relationships with your patrons who are parting with their hard-earned cash to support you.
My life of patronage has been so much simpler since.
Now that I’ve moved away from Patreon to build my own membership platform — The LSP Society — you’ll see that I’ve adopted exactly the same strategy.
Full membership starts from £1 per month in my effort to make the full breadth of my project as accessible to as many people as possible.
I do offer one level of ‘reward’ at £20 per month, though — a signed copy of the final book or a limited edition print every year.
But, again, that’s in the spirit of accessibility. These are very straight forward rewards for me to offer as they already sit within The Lifeboat Station Project and it’s a neat way for patrons to pay for a print by instalments if they can’t stretch to it in one hit.
In summary, if you hear people saying things like “Don’t get into Patreon because it’s like a second job” think again.
It shouldn’t be that way.
When you set up your membership platform or profile, nobody else sets the rules and boundaries but you!
Therefore, make those boundaries clear from the outset. Simply ensure that your patrons are helping you to do what you’re doing so well right now, because gawd knows it’s hard enough already.
ONE MORE THING
This is a whole other topic but I no longer recommend using Patreon.
Where possible, be the goalposts — keep any reliance on big platforms to a minimum and stay as independent as you can.
I used a WordPress plugin called MemberPress to create The LSP Society. It was one of the best redirections of energy I’ve ever implemented — it took just a couple of weeks during Lockdown 2 in November to work out how to incorporate it into The Lifeboat Station Project, which has been a self-hosted WordPress site from the outset.
We all rely on systems to some degree but it’s more important than ever not to be at the behest of the behemoths!
That’s all for now.
Keep on keepin’ on,
Creator of the The Lifeboat Station Project
Photograph courtesy of Dunmore East RNLI: Jack Lowe with the Dunmore East RNLI lifeboat volunteers, County Waterford, Ireland, 2017