Let’s talk about Mad Kings, Patreon and why I struggle with the modern concept of patronage.
I have a few people in my life that I know use Patreon, the popular patronage website that allows individuals to become patrons of creators both great and small. I’m very aware of it as an entity. Most Youtube channels, webcomics and nearly every other media item I consume in my day to day life has some sort of plug for a Patreon. Patreon has an interesting reputation. It allows creators and “creators” to request money to help them continue to create a litany of things and in return, there is usually a reward of some kind for a patron’s monetary support. Some rewards are great and others are…less than great and many creators say this return to the halcyon days of patronage has allowed many creatives to quit their day jobs and do what they love full-time as they accept support and help from patrons.
Let’s back up a bit and discuss patronage. Patronage is not a new concept, it is in fact a centuries old idea: an author, painter or great adventurer could have a patron who helped to support their endeavors and these patrons were typically throne or a wealthy financier. Some famous patrons of the arts include Queen Elizabeth I: who was the patron of William Shakespeare, The Crown of Aragon and Castile that then supposed Christopher Columbus on his literal worst genocidal boat trip ever. And my favorite, my crown jewel, King Ludwig II: the Mad King of Bavaria was patron of Richard Wagner. Wagner made operas for his King and had them played out in elaborate stages and secret built in grottoes. Back then, patronage was a serious thing. Only the best of the best were accepted for a patronage program. It was a gamble to bestow money on an artist or a creator, so a monarchy or financier had to be certain it would be fruitful. Sure, risks were taken and not all business agreements ended well but for the most part, most of those that survived and thrived under the rule of patronage: we got some of the finest works this world has ever known.
Patronage did fall out of favor as the rise of salaries and other pensions eclipsed the ideas of one rich person paying for one creator to create or explore mostly just for them. Art became public and easier to fund and an artist could and was encouraged to have a day job and then paint or write when they got home. But work days are long and there’s no reason to demand someone toil their life away at a job they hate only to create at night. People should do what they love and if there are others willing to support their creative ventures, then godspeed.
And then Patreon showed up. Suddenly everyone who felt they needed to could ask for money from perfect strangers and fund their lifestyles. Want to spend your life herding goats and make small goat hair trinkets? There’s someone who may help you live that dream. Want to make a webcomic full of diverse characters? There’s plenty of people that will help you live that dream.
And I love Patreon when it does good for creators and audiences. Crash Course uses Patreon to keep its content free for everyone and rewards rather generously. Many webcomic artists I follow use Patreon to quit their day jobs and keep making comics. There are more questionable Patreons as well. Famous examples are Jessica Nigri and Yaya Han who offer…special photos as rewards for patron support. And there are far too many examples of questionable Patreon rewards and endeavors that I do not wish to go in great detail about.
I’ve publicly said I’d never want to quit my day job because when, how and what I create is my choice. As soon as I am payed for, my work is no longer mine. I am then beholden to my audience that is now paying for me and my content. And as someone who struggles with the demons that come with being a writer, I don’t always meet deadlines. Sometimes I get bored with a work. Sometimes I don’t like where a story-line is going. Sometimes I want to just change things and as soon as my work is being paid for, I am more tied to pleasing the audience than I am my personal indulgences as a creator. And I’ve seen that fail: Sister Claire is a web-comic I beat up on a lot only because I love it so much. It is far from its intended plot and it is supported by patrons. I empathize with their frustration that the series isn’t what it used to be and you feel even more tied to that when it’s your dollars funding a creator’s egotistical jaunt through plot, character and theme. And there are issues with rewards that can be rather taxing on readers. It isn’t in my budget to support every creator I love but more than one have such severe paywalls to their work that finishing the stuff they release for free is now nearly impossible and that is damaging to those that want to support a work but don’t always have an extra $5+ bucks to throw for additional content.
The other slight qualm I have with Patreon is a lovingly placed issue with quality. In the days of old, exceptional people: the best of the best, were sought out and were offered a chance of a lifetime to be patronized. And like with all things in the age of the Internet: there is a wide variety of quality all across the Interwebs. Suddenly, the title of author could be spread across Indie Publishers and the Kindle Network. Anyone with an idea could publish. But that doesn’t mean that everyone needed to be published. There are some comics that didn’t need to be seen. Some narratives that didn’t need to be told. Some people that just didn’t need a voice and while true, if you don’t like something, don’t patron something: by pure fickle nature of the Internet there is always someone that’s into that thus funding projects that did not and do not ever need to exist. Not every writer is good. Not every singer is great and while taste isn’t objective: plenty of people that are popular and famous now do not always deserve that fame. With the ability to crowd-source a living, anyone can drop off the face of the Earth to be a writer of erotic unicorn fiction and someone will buy that.
I take titles very seriously. I take being a writer seriously and I’ve struggled watching titles like artist, writer and singer taken as a part of the vernacular. I claim to be a writer because I studied the English language and have been published more than once. I don’t say that as a show of elitism, it’s a show of skill. And while not every writer has been on a similar path and many far more talented people can claim being authors with much more success than I with far fewer “credentials” a publisher of tasteless memes, Harry Potter fanfiction or crazed theories is not a writer on the level of a Poe (though to the writers of Harry Potter fanfiction, many of you do great work and I count myself lucky to be among your ranks).
I think this is why I love project-based support so much. I love Kickstarter and Indiegogo to support creators making games, books and other creations. I feel better submitting money to a project, not just a lifestyle and I’m a proud backer of many Indie endeavors. I like them because there’s a promise of a product. If a campaign fails, I get my money back. It it succeeds, I get a brand new shiny thing and help support a creator of a thing I am passionate about.
Next time, we talk about the ethics of sponsorship and why it’s difficult to live in a world where everything, everything is up for sale.