Crowdfunding isn’t the problem. Art is the problem.
This week, I committed the mortal sin of e-mail marketing — I closed my free newsletter and went all-in on Patreon. It took me a long time to take the leap — in part because I’ve spent the last year rapidly experimenting with a dozen business models for writing and journalism, but also because people who publish on Patreon (and its many budding competitors) have such a bizarre mix of positive and negative outcomes.
It’s easy to find the success stories — the company trumpets them as examples and inspiration (and many are, indeed, inspiring). I’ve been a patron, on and off, for the last few years, so I could even name a few big winners off the top of my head. I knew there was potential there — I just didn’t know how much.
Dig deeper, and you’ll rapidly uncover the volumes of articles chronicling the fact that most creators on Patreon make very little money. (Here’s one, artfully entitled No one makes a living on Patreon, which argues that 98 percent of creators make less than minimum wage.) While I could quibble with some of their math, there’s no question that the median creator income of a few hundred bucks a month comes up a little short, even for the most frugal digital nomad.
Statistics like that gave me a long pause. Then, I slowly realized that they didn’t matter.
Platforms like Patreon definitely have a long-tail problem — lots of low-performers and a few high-performers. This allows them to showcase big winners, but also feels disingenuous when you look at the creator community as a whole. The same is true of Medium’s Partner Program, and I’d guess similar stats apply to many crowdfunding platforms too. In the brick and mortar world, we’ve all heard the truism that “4 out of 5 businesses fail in the first five years.”
It’s easy to look at these numbers and say “why bother?” But when you zoom out, the platform is not the problem — art is the problem.
Transport yourself back to Florence in the 1400s. You’d hear throngs of creators complaining about how the Renaissance patronage system doesn’t work for the little guy — and how our wealthy overlords dangle success stories to make us think we can all be Da Vinci. Take a trip to modern-day Silicon Valley, where 80 percent of funded companies (already the carefully curated cream of the crop) go nowhere. Stop by your nearest little league field, and note the 99 percent who are giving it their all but will never break through.
We fantasize about success. We search for the killer app. What we’re really seeking is a magical shortcut around years of serious, challenging work. We want someone to tell us that creating art and earning a living is easy. I have bad news: it’s hard.
The quest for the magic solution only makes your work harder. So does “just giving it a try” without making a serious commitment. (I know, because I dabbled in Patreon for almost a year before truly taking the leap.) No matter which platform you choose, you have a lifetime of challenges ahead of you. Embrace it, have fun, and go all in.
Rob Howard is the founder and CEO of Howard Development & Consulting, the web development firm that creative agencies trust when every pixel matters. His startups have been featured in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek, and his clients have included The World Bank, Harvard and MIT.