Casey Nugent ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
On March 9, Amanda Palmer’s Patreon account celebrated its one year anniversary. On that same day she released her latest song, “Machete”, the eleventh item funded by her Patreon users. Palmer celebrated her anniversary in the blog post that accompanied “Machete”, writing, “Happy birthday us! We are one!”
Palmer is only one of many artists who’ve chosen to use Patreon since its inception in 2013, but she’s one of its most famous and vocal users. Patreon is a unique crowdfunding platform, different than Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which have goal based platforms—artists name an amount of money they’d like and then have a deadline in which to raise that money, ostensibly to produce one, large project. Patreon, by contrast, uses a subscription service. Individual givers, called patrons, can donate a specific amount of money to the artist on a schedule the artist determines. Most Patreon holders choose monthly payments—Palmer deviates here, having her patrons pay “per thing,” as opposed to “per month.”
Like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, there are benefits to choosing to be a patron of a specific artist, set by the artist themselves. Palmer chooses to release all of her “things”—including songs, web streams, and a mini-album—under a pay-what-you-want structure on her website for the general public. Her patrons, however, are given various benefits depending on how much they donate. A dollar or more gets access to a patron-only web feed and patron-only emails with direct downloads to the work, bolstering Palmer’s already strong fan community. The more you give, the more direct your access to Palmer and her work is—the three people who give a thousand dollars or more per thing get phone calls with Palmer herself.
When Palmer first announced her Patreon in 2015, many viewed this as another step in Palmer’s quest to become the “queen of crowdfunding.” This makes sense, considering Palmer raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter to fund her 2012 album Theatre is Evil. But the differences between forms like Kickstarter and Patreon have been obvious throughout the first year of Palmer’s so-called “experiment.”
With Kickstarter, Palmer was forced to have an end goal—in her case, a fully realized album. With Patreon, she’s given more creative freedom as an artist, especially considering she asks for a “per thing” payment instead of a monthly one. Although she ultimately released eleven things in twelve months, she had several months where she didn’t release anything (partially due to the birth of her first child), and one month where she released multiple things. Freedom with her schedule gives her freedom to produce whatever she wants.
And what she’s producing these days goes all over the map. Two of her releases have been webcasts—one of a live performance as her old band, the Dresden Dolls, and one of her book tour show in London. She did one performance as a living statue, made one short animated film, made one short documentary interview, and hired an archivist to dig through her personal hard drives for old merchandise, posters and pictures. She also released a mini-album tribute to David Bowie, and four individual songs—two solo ukulele performances, and two performances with full bands.
The longer Palmer’s Patreon goes the better she’s getting at it. Her first releases may have left some fans wanting—while there’s something exciting about the webcasts, they are a far cry from the new music fans have been clamouring for since 2012. But Palmer is finally getting the hang of the fact that she can really, totally release whatever she wants. She doesn’t need to make music that can fit in a larger album, or that can play on the radio, or that can be sold to an A&R guy. Her best work comes when she fully embraces this reality.
That’s why “A Mother’s Confession” stands out as Palmer’s best Patreon release to date. An eleven-minute song about the ways in which she feels she’s failed as a mother is a hard sell to a record company and on an album, but it’s not a hard sell to her fans. Palmer’s fans are notoriously dedicated, meaning that they’re not only willing to stick through all eleven minutes, but they’re willing to go through the incredibly lengthy annotated lyrics Palmer has provided as well. And the end result is worth it. Palmer is blatantly honest about the first few months of motherhood, admitting to dropping her baby and once leaving him in a car, as well as less terrifying things like minor theft and speeding tickets. She’s also fairly transparent in her annotations about what goes into writing a song, including omissions of truth and changes for poetic structures and clarity. It’s obvious she’s overwhelmed, but she’s taken this overwhelming feeling and channeled it into memorable, important art. It’s hard not to feel like this is something her audience, might have missed out on if Palmer was forced to work with deadlines, or with the requirements of a record company. It’s the highlight of what Patreon, and especially her Patreon, are doing well—giving her total creative reign and giving her audience the best she has to offer.
So a year into her Patreon, has Palmer proved her point that direct audience-to-artist payment is the way of the future? It’s still a hard sell. While Palmer is absolutely cranking out her best work in ages, she also has the benefit of an extremely loyal fanbase. With over 7,700 patrons, Palmer has plenty of money per thing to work with—over $36,000 per thing, in fact. Other Patreon users have to make do with less. Not to mention Patreon as a platform is essentially useless if there isn’t already some sort of body of work or fanbase—newer artists will find it much more difficult to convince people to pay monthly for work they’re not sure they even like yet.
This can be seen easily in this list of Top Patreon Accounts, which shows how many of the most successful Patreon users were already established, creators and artists. Notably, the Patreon closest to Palmer’s in number of patrons and amount of revenue per month is Kinda Funny, a video-making collective consisting of former members of IGN, one of the most renowned gaming review websites. Kinda Funny has slightly fewer patrons than Palmer, but each patron pledges slightly more—around 7,200 patrons donating around $37,000 per month. Similarly, SciShow and Crash Course, educational Youtube Channels and among the top ten most successful Patreon accounts, are run by world-famous Youtubers John and Hank Green, AKA the Vlogbrothers. Other artists in the top thirty have been around for a long time as well, including webcomic artist Jeph Jacques, who’s been making his comic Questionable Content since 2003; Grammy award winning acapella artists Pentatonix, around since 2011; and YouTube parody stars TeamFourStar, who’ve been producing content, most notably their series Dragon Ball Z Abridged, since 2008.
For unestablished artists, the Patreon road is a lot harder to walk. Firstly, there’s the difficulty of getting pledges; Palmer, Jacques, and the Greens have a lot of free work up on the internet already that potential patrons can check out before deciding to pledge. People with lesser portfolios or just not enough cash to afford to post their stuff for free might find it harder to generate support. Further, Patreon as a system has some notable failures, including a massive data breach in September 2015, which was bad enough to make some creators jump ship. Not to mention the way the system is built is a bit faulty. The only time a patron gets charged immediately is if they pledge over $100, which is put into an escrow account by Patreon. Otherwise, it’s up to the Patreon holder themselves to decide whether they want all new pledges up front or paid at the beginning of the month with the others. For artists who don’t know about this option, it’s possible for them to get scammed. Someone could join in the middle of the month, download all the content, and then cancel the pledge before being charged, therefore getting everything for free. This means that artists are receiving less money than they expect to receive on their paydays, which for larger Patreons might be small change, but for smaller artists can be potentially seriously damaging.
As for Amanda Palmer, this year has proved that neither she nor her Patreon are perfect. Much like her Kickstarter controversies, Palmer has faced Patreon backlash as well. Most notably, one fan accused Palmer of starting the Patreon to force people to pay for her baby instead of her music. Ignoring the obvious sexism here (honestly, has a male artist ever been asked the same thing?), that general concern—that patron money is going not towards creating art, but towards other things Palmer wants/needs—is one that’s followed Palmer since she started her crowdfunding days. This question was raised again when Palmer spoke on Twitter about donating to the Bernie Sanders campaign, drawing some ire from a few of her Twitter followers, who felt their money was going to politics they didn’t personally support.
Palmer, true to form, used both of these accusations to start conversations about the music industry and the way we spend money. Her general argument remains that all she’s doing is removing the middle man—the artists you buy CDs from are going to spend that money on whatever they need to live, not just what they need to make new art. By being her patron, you’re not just contributing to Palmer’s art, you’re contributing to her life as a whole, including her political ideals, her baby, and her other day-to-day needs.
But there’s an expectation for transparency that comes naturally with crowdfunding, and patrons, in general, tend to be pickier with money when it feels like they’re directly paying an artist. It’s less obvious that every time you rent a movie with Jon Voight in it, you’re likely helping him contribute to the Donald Trump campaign, then it is when you’re paying Palmer directly and then reading about her political contributions on Twitter.
Patreon is by no means a flawless system, and until it finds a way to better support and uplift the voices of newer artists, it seems to remain only an option to those with already established fan bases. Newer artists will still have to go through the old hoops—in the case of musicians either working for free or going down the dreaded record label rabbit hole. Further, until music-listeners as a whole begin to accept that artists are going to spend their profits any way they want, and not just on making more art, many will find it difficult to directly support those artists.
That being said, Amanda Palmer remains a beacon of hope that we can one day have a music scene more directly controlled by artists. She’s in one of her most fascinating and powerful periods as an artist, and there’s no doubt, at least, part of that is stemming from the freedom the Patreon platform is providing for her. Maybe this next year will showcase more of Palmer challenging the ideas of what makes art and music “good” or “sellable”—and getting us closer to her idealized, crowdfunded future.