Patreon, one year on

It’s a little over a year since I first set up a page on Patreon, with a view to getting paid for some of my composing. I’ve been promising to write a post about my experiences, and I’m finding the “what” and the “why” aren’t easy to consider separately. But I’ll have a go at discussing the “what” in this post, and the “why” in the next.

Patreon is a platform for distributed, or crowd-funded, patronage of the arts. Unlike commissioning or purchase, patronage in this sense leaves control of the artwork with the artist; patrons trust the artist to act as they are inspired, rather than dictating the terms or context of a work. Unlike Kickstarter and other project-based crowdfunding sites, Patreon is suitable for people who create smaller works, from daily comics to occasional YouTube videos. Creators decide whether they prefer regular monthly contributions, or patronage on a per-creation basis. Patrons choose the amount they pledge, and can stop or change their pledge at any time. On the pledge-per-creation scheme, patrons can also specify a monthly cap on their contributions.

I’ve been saying for years that I really wanted patronage rather than a job or to have to sell my work, so when I found out about Patreon I signed up pretty much right away. After a year, I can certainly say I am glad I did.

Set-up was fairly straightforward; the interface isn’t perfect, but it’ll do. At first I just had a picture and some text. I decided that a per-creation scheme, with my focus on new choral works, would be ideal for me. If I were paid per month I would feel guilty about the months when I am too busy to compose much.

Then I started telling people about it. My first patrons were people I know, and the majority still are. The money from those first few patrons meant I could afford a demo recording of “I walked in darkness” — something I’d not done before. That in turn caused a small snowball where people who hadn’t heard my music before were suddenly interested. More followed, and I now consider demo recordings as an important part of putting my music online.

A year on I have seventeen patrons. My first new work each month means that, collectively, they contribute USD $156; thereafter it’s a bit less. Patreon keeps 5% of that total, and around another 5% goes to various credit card and banking fees, so I get to see about 90% of what my patrons spend, or roughly $140.

Now, $140 is not a huge amount of money. It’s considerably less than, say, the average commission rates per minute of music, and that information is a few years out of date. It isn’t even a good hourly rate, given that most of my compositions take at least sixteen hours to complete, and some much longer.

But composers being paid badly isn’t new. Most of my composer colleagues struggle to find commissions; most take up other work to make ends meet. Talking with one colleague, I learned that a piece which sold 1800 copies over eight years only resulted in being paid about £130. This was considered a “pretty good” seller for the composer in question. I’m not at that rate yet; but I haven’t had to do the work of finding a publisher.

Patreon isn’t magic. I haven’t put as much time or thought into my profile as some people have, and that probably means I have fewer patrons than I otherwise would. I don’t do as much advertising or community-building as some people do, either. I mention Patreon on blog posts with my choral works in them, and on choral demo track videos. I tweet about it from time to time, but usually not more than once a day. I mention it at the end of Passing Notes, my monthly-ish newsletter. I have some stepped “rewards” to thank those who pledge (pledging $3 per work will get you a postcard; $10 a postcard with a recording of the music on the postcard; $20 means I’ll give you print-outs of the music too), and these do take a bit of time.

This is a level of advertising I’m relatively happy with. Beyond that, I would rather spend time and effort on composing than on self-promotion. It’s also less disruptive for me than filling out endless grant applications or trying to find a publisher interested in my work when I insist on CC BY-SA. It’s more reliable than entering competitions (I’ve never won one yet, though there are other good reasons to participate).

But the main reason that Patreon works for me is that my choral works are available online, for free. I don’t put my work behind any kind of paywall, not even the paywall that I could use at Patreon to give patrons early or special access to my work. My patrons aren’t buying a product from me. Rather, they want me to keep composing and they want me to keep putting my music online, either because they like my music or because they like me and want to support me in doing work I love.

However, Patreon is not the reason I release my work under a CC BY-SA license. If it all evaporated tomorrow, I would not have as much time available to compose, but I would continue to make the music I write available online for free. I’ll discuss why in my next post.

In the meantime, if you already make art and put it online, there’s very little to lose in setting up a Patreon account and telling people about it.