AAG Presentation - Musicians in Global Crowd-Patronage Networks

These are my slides and script from today's session on 'The Changing Geographies of Music: Space, Technology, Politics, Identity' at the Association of American Geographers Conference.

Hello, i’m Jon from Northumbria University in the UK. I’m going to talk to you about some preliminary findings from my British Academy/Leverhulme project examining global patronage networks. My main case study is about patreon.com which connects creators and patrons. Today’s focus is on how and why musicians are turning to crowd-patronage as a form of income generation.

First, though, i want to briefly outline how patronage has changed through time.

Wealthy individuals or small groups of individuals have long been patrons of the arts dating back to early monarchs. More recently 19th century industrialists funded the arts either directly or through museums and galleries.

The Church, particularly during the renaissance were big sponsors of the arts in Europe. The most high profile example is probably Pope Julius II and Michelangelo’s relationship.

At the end of the second world war the British Government, and others in Europe, sponsored the arts as a public good. We’ve seen this decline over the last decade dramatically as austerity policies have cut funding. Furthermore, such schemes are sometimes controversial, as continual debate about America’s National Endowment for the Arts demonstrates.

The expansion of neo-liberalism in the 1980s saw governments encouraging companies to become partons of the arts. This often involved sponsoring exhibitions and events at major galleries.

The key thing about these types of patronage is that it most often operates within national boundaries.

Most recently crowd funding systems have allowed different groups of individuals to support artists they enjoy. The majority of the interaction between creators and patrons is mediated by web platforms, the range of work has grown and, on patreon at least, most of the work is intangible/digital.

This has created a series of new geographies and flows which my research looks at. It also has implications for the production of culture as new agents and intermediaries enter spatialised circuits of culture, meaning and value and others are shifted around it. My focus today is on why musics are turning to crowd patronage.

As you can see my methodology involves various methods. What i’m going to discuss today some from the analysis of secondary sources and my questionnaire. Tomorrow i start my interviews by spending the day at Patreon HQ.

Photo credit: http://blog.marcolivierleblanc.com/

Photo credit: http://blog.marcolivierleblanc.com/

Jack Conte, a musician and video maker, founded Patreon with a friend from Stanford University, Sam Yam, three years ago. Conte had become dissatisfied with other web-based monetisation platforms, particularly Youtube, which were seen as a lifeline for creators where downloading content for free is the norm.

Advertising, either directly on a creator’s website or via revenue sharing on Youtube has been a key way for content creators to monetise their work through views and page hits. The process for Youtube is outlined on the screen for those not familiar with it. Advertising aggregators act as intermediaries between sites and advertisers, using algorithms to place adverts based on analysis of content and viewer habits.

But three things have happened in recent years to make advertising less attractive, and a much less reliable revenue source.

First, as Youtube has become more popular, the value of a view has decreased. Youtube has also changed its monetisation process, which now favours channels posting lots of new content, rather than people who post videos on a weekly or fortnightly schedule. Jack Conte, for example, has suggested the 34 million views his videos received over eight years has only generated $700.

Second, Youtube has become a battleground for spurious copyright claims and video takedowns which greatly impact the about of time and effort it takes to run a channel. This restricts the amount of content creators can produce, or puts them off entirely as they have to deal with legal issues rather than concentrating on their creative practice.

Third, adblockers mean fewer people are seeing adverts so the money per view model doesn’t generate the income it used to. So what are creators supposed to do? Particularly those without record or book deals, without the capacity to tour, work on network television, produce merchandise, or reach lucrative markets in a crowded creative economy?

Conte lamented it would be so much easier if he could just get his fans to pay him directly. So he set up Patreon to facilitate this.

This is Patreon’s homepage where they feature particular creators working in animation, comedy, (web)comics, crafts & diy, dance & theater, drawing & painting, education, games, music, podcasts, photography, science, writing.

There are over 25,000 creators using Patreon. Over 900,000 pledges are made each month worth over five million dollars.

This table summarises the difference between crowdfunding approaches.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo and similar sites are about one off projects, often large scale, and often asking for money in the 10s and 100s of thousands of dollars range. 

Sites like Sellaband and Pledge music enabled fans to help musicians produce records in return for revenue and music. But like kickstarter it is one offs

In contrast, Patreon is about monthly payments to provide content creators with a steady income.

Importantly, Patreon encourages creators to avoiding use the site as a paywall. There are exclusives for being a patron, but most content creators make their main work accessible whether you’re a patron or not.

Very difficult to generalise about creators using Patreon, as they vary so much within and between genres. Here are some details about the numbers of patrons musicians on patreon have, and the kind of money being generated by them.

A mix of professionals and people who create their ‘stuff’ alongside a full or part time job, sometimes literally in their bedrooms. Individuals making covers and posting them on youtube, groups…DJs, music teachers

Some musicians are incredibly successful, generating tens of thousands of dollars from thousands of patrons. Most, however, are earning much less. In this dataset from graphtreon.com, 60% of musicians are pulling in less than $20 a month.


The statistics you can see here are based on data i scraped from patreon.com, which included 377 musicians who included some information about their location. As you can see here the distribution of musicians on patreon is very uneven. The site is dominated by american creators in general, and this is also the case for music.

This is data from the questionnaire which highlights sources of income for musicians and non-musicans who responded.

Despite the proliferation of music piracy online, sales of music was the most important source of income for respondents.

Obviously performances are important for musicians, both on and offline.

Commissions was important for those who write music for use in other forms of media, for example soundtracks and commercials.

Those who post music videos online (44 out of the 45 respondents use youtube) also gain income from advertising.

The data here is the reasons for using Patreon. The data indicates what Patreon is good at: turning otherwise free content into steady income which allows some creators to quit their other job which in turn lets them spend more time on their creative practice and build closer relationships with fans.

These are some quotes from an open answer question on the questionnaire. For some Patreon and crowdpatronage is transformative. What it isn’t good at is as site for finding new audiences.


72% of respondents said people found their patreon page via other sites, and Patreon themselves have admitted that the site isn’t great at finding new creators to support.

The ways in which they are doing this is interesting as raises questions about intermediaries. Patreon’s core function is to make creators less reliant on intermediaries by connecting fans and creators directly, but at the same time it is acting as one and introducing others through things like the way payments are handled. Over the last few months Patreon have been increasing their promotion of creators via their frontpage, blog, social media presence, podcasts and webcasts. So, patreon is becoming a curator, tastemaker and regulator of content. Creators also have a role here as a new function on the website allows them to recommend other creators to their existing patrons.

A third set of agents is also introduced into this process - code and algorithms. There is a ‘suggested’ list of creators on a patrons’ homepage which is created based on who you back and follow on the website: a deliberate way of using algorithms to curate content. Perhaps more interesting, when the website first launched the search function didn’t work properly, and would return different results for the same keywords depending on when you searched. So as well as using code to generate suggestions, poorly functioning code also has a role to play in what users are exposed to. In a world where google, twitter, facebook, apple and the like are confining what we are exposed to, it is refreshing to find new artists when curation processes go wrong!

To bring things to a close, patreon and crowd patronage offers a viable alternative for content creators with sufficient fans looking to monetise their work in an era of digital piracy, poor advertising models and falling support from established institutional arts funders.

Such systems are producing new geographies of funding which eschew traditional forms of patronage. It also introduces new intermediaries - human and non-human - through curatorial processes which may undermine the its original ethos.

The longevity of this model will need to be assessed as other forms of funding have come and gone.