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.

That’s it.

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.

NEXT STEPS

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,

Jack Lowe

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

Why Not Apply for Funding? [Part 2]

The 8 metre wide poster of Lucy Lavers on the Maritime Heritage Centre in Stiffkey, North Norfolk

I wrote a post back in March called Why Not Apply for Funding? which I’ve now suffixed with ‘Part 1’.

In that post, I briefly outlined various reasons why I like to fund The Lifeboat Station Project in the way that I do.

I gave one specific example of The LSP Society but I thought it would be pertinent to write this second part now while I have another live example underway so that you can see a second thought process in action, one that works very well for me on a number of levels.

OILING THE WHEELS

When I started making giant posters just over a year ago (see my latest example above), it soon became clear that they’re pretty expensive to make — not just on the printing front, but the other costs too such as travel and accommodation.

To put it bluntly, if I was going to make these posters happen within the challenging landscape of a pandemic, I could really do with some financial help to oil the wheels.

Several well-meaning folk pointed me in the direction of Arts Council England as they were sure this would be an ideal candidate for funding my new idea. They were undoubtedly right but, if you’ve read Part 1, you’ll already know what I felt about that.

The thought of filling in application forms — and potentially having to adapt my language and approach in order to jump through the necessary hoops — made my blood run cold. Not to mention waiting for a judgement as to whether or not my proposal would be deemed worthy of funding.

Because I have utter conviction in my work and I know that it is worth funding, I kept on thinking.

Then the perfect idea hit me: I could rally people to get behind this new dimension by asking them to sponsor the individual sheets that make up a giant poster.

Within an hour or so, I divided a digital file of the photograph into a grid of 44 greyed-out sections (representing the number of sheets I needed to print) and posted it onto the project’s Posters page.

I then asked my Twitter followers and patrons if they’d like to sponsor my next poster at a cost of £10 per sheet.

It soon took off and, as each sheet was sponsored, I ‘activated’ the greyed-out squares to make it into a more engaging experience.

Within just a few days, all 44 sheets were sponsored and the costs were covered without a funding application form in sight!

It had worked brilliantly, so I repeated the process for the second installation of the giant Lucy Lavers poster in April, this time with 35 sheets:

Again, the second poster was fully sponsored within just a few days.

Furthermore, I also introduced 60x50cm commemorative posters for £10 so that people could purchase their own smaller version of the poster.

By combining that with instructions on how to paste your own poster, it made for a highly successful and engaging experience for anybody who wanted to get involved.

NORTHERN EYE PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL

As well as speaking at the Northern Eye Photography Festival in October, I’ve been invited to paste three more giant posters as part of the the fringe festival.

It was such fun to come up the ideas I’ve described above that — you’ve guessed it — I’m doing exactly the same again in order to fundraise some of the costs.

At the time of writing, 20 sheets have already been sponsored following the launch two days ago:

If you head to the Posters page for a closer look, you’ll also see that I’ve added the commemorative posters for these new photographs too.

LIMITED BY OUR IMAGINATIONS

In conclusion (for the moment), I’m sharing all this with you to offer other ways of thinking about funding your own work, and to remind you that we are only limited by our imaginations.

It may be the convention to apply for funding from recognised institutions but, to my mind, it takes a lot less effort to come up with ideas like these than it does to fill out one of those lengthy forms.

It’s much more dynamic and, depending on how people pay, the funds can be with you instantly.

Not only that, an approach like this directly engages your audience and gives them an opportunity to connect with the artist and the work they’re creating.

Furthermore, I know my audience — my crowd — approve of the work they’re supporting because otherwise they wouldn’t have parted with their hard-earned money to directly support it.

By contrast, logos of institutional and corporate organisations may well appear alongside artworks they’ve approved using public money but it doesn’t always mean that the public agree with how the money has been spent.

Please remember that this isn’t an attack on public funding or public funding bodies. I’m aware that they have their place and that there are many beautiful projects and artworks that wouldn’t have been able to happen had it not been for their help.

I’m simply hoping to get your cogs turning in a world where there appears to be set ways of doing things. Perhaps the rules and conventions aren’t as cast iron as you might think.

JR CHRONICLES

On a final note, I’m very excited this evening as we’re heading to London on the train tomorrow to see JR Chronicles at the Saatchi Gallery.

JR is the person who inspired me to start making giant posters of my photographs when I saw his TED Talk and Visages Villages, the film he made with Agnès Varda.

Anyway, that’s all for now! Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Keep on keepin’ on,

Jack Lowe

Creator of The Lifeboat Station Project


Why Not Apply For Funding? [Part 1]

Jack Lowe at The Lizard RNLI lifeboat station (photograph by John Chennells)

I first posted the following words yesterday as a Twitter thread. The topic seemed to resonate with many, so I’m posting it here too as a more permanent resource:


‘Why not apply for funding?’ regularly comes up in conversations about financing my project. But is it really such a crackpot idea to keep working towards my vision of sustainable funding for creators: for projects to be funded by the people who follow them and whose lives are enriched by them in some way?

I believe that notion is entirely within reach for many creators without having to resort to pots of institutionalised funding, which can limit thinking and become serial flashes in the pan rather than a much more valuable source of income — one that is sustained and more predictable.

There are other benefits too: no corporate logos attached to your project; no pound of flesh to the body funding it and perhaps claiming more credit than is due; not having to adapt your ideas to suit institutional agendas; not having to adapt your language in the application to be ‘awarded’ the money (a particular bugbear) and not having to pay somebody to fill out an application form (an even bigger bugbear).

In short, my vision enables a creator to make their work freely on their own terms. As I mentioned at the top, I truly believe this is entirely possible. We can all be inspired by the fact that other creators are doing it right now. Brandon Stanton and Amanda Palmer spring to mind — two longstanding influences of mine on the indie-funding front.

And I’m getting there myself. It might help to spur you on to know that there are now few days of the month when I don’t receive *some* income from my independent membership platform, The LSP Society.

Some days it might be £1 and other days it might be £100 (many signed up on/after launch day). It feels like manna from heaven to know, that no matter how difficult things are, there will always be something coming in at some point soon.

It’s great for a creator’s psyche and I’m concerned that the path of institutional funding can actually be damaging for a creator’s psyche.

There will be people conflicted by this conversation and I also know that pots of funding do suit certain projects but I keep plugging away at this ethos. After all, if people were interested in a topic ‘back in the day’, they wouldn’t have hesitated to buy a magazine from the newsagent. In fact they would have looked forward to it! So why not now?

Well, I believe that people can and will support projects now. They just need to be shown how and many will be delighted to do so at the drop of a hat.

One final thought: if choosing this path, creators must commit wholeheartedly with passion, belief and conviction.

I’ve seen people gamble weeks (and small fortunes) filling out an application form without knowing what the outcome will be. So why not consider redirecting more of those energies on a mechanism that can sustain you every day for years to come and on your terms? It’s much less risky and the results are often immediate.

Food for thought I hope, as well as food on the table.

Keep on keepin’ on,

Jack Lowe

Creator of The Lifeboat Station Project