Funded: How Patreon is Supporting the Next Generation of Creatives

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In Tracy Butler’s webcomic, Lackadaisy, readers are transported to a richly drawn world of 1920s Prohibition-era St. Louis. The cats in the comic are players in the seedy, and sometimes dangerous world of running a speakeasy. And by ‘cats’—it’s not in the be-bop definition. The characters are literally cats.

The series was nominated for an Eisner award in 2011. However, up until last year, Lackadaisy was a full-time passion, but part-time operation for Butler. But that changed after Butler created a Patreon page, where people pay monthly contributions to an artist.

Patreon’s origin can be traced back to “Pedals”, a video made by musician Jack Conte. The video harkens back to elaborate ‘80s-era videos, like Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” It cost Conte almost $10,000 to make, and took nearly three months of 18-hour days to finish. The video has more than a million YouTube views.

Revenue-wise, a million views doesn’t exactly equate to a million-selling single or album. Speaking from his office at Patreon in San Francisco, Conte said his YouTube channel earned about $142 last month from ad revenues. Conte said his site logged 1.1 million minutes watched during that month. Averaged out, if Conte had that many viewers a month, it would take him almost five-and-a-half years to make the money back for “Pedals.” And that’s without producing another single video.

Conte knew he needed another business model to sell his music. Enter Sam Yam.

Yam was Conte’s roommate at Stanford. Since graduating from Stanford, Yam has developed start-up businesses, most notably AdWhirl, which was purchased by AdMob. AdMob was then later purchased by Google for $750 million.

Conte approached Yam about developing a site that would function in a similar way to Kickstarer, but would primarily focus on artists. Unlike Kickstarter, the site would mainly feature ongoing projects, where patrons could contribute a monthly amount to an artist. In return, donors would receive perks like advanced access to music releases, or personalized commissioned works from graphic artists.

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“I told him (Yam) the idea, and the first thing he said was ‘Jack, don’t tell this to anyone else,’” Conte said. “And then he just got super-secretive about it, and started building it that night.”

Patreon’s site is divided into categories like music, animation, and dance. Though art is the primary driver of Patreon, other categories like science and education are also included. One organization, Extra Credits, is doing an ongoing animated series about the rise and fall of the Zulu empire.

“When we made it (Patreon), I was thinking it’d be huge for YouTubers, podcasters, and web comics, musicians, anyone putting media online,” Conte said. “Since then… we’ve seen a children’s hospital do a fundraiser tied to the (Anaheim) Angels baseball team.”

Patreon takes a five-percent commission for any amount raised by an artist. Artists are responsible for the transaction fees that credit card companies and PayPal charge per transaction, which averages out to about four percent of a donation’s amount. For smaller amounts, like a dollar, companies may charge up to 30 cents a transaction.

Unlike Kickstarter, Patreon doesn’t operate on an “all or nothing” campaign, where a person won’t be charged until a specific fundraising goal is reached. Patrons are charged the amount they contribute toward an artist around the first of the month. Conte said the average monthly donation of an individual patron to an artist is about $10.

Conte said he doesn’t take a salary as CEO of Patreon. Instead, he makes his living via his band Pomplamoose’s Patreon site, as well as music sites like iTunes. However, he does take his health care through his business.

“It’s not fair to say that I haven’t benefitted at all, but I don’t take a salary.”

Tracy Butler first heard about Patreon when it launched in 2013. She was contacted directly from the Patreon team about setting up an page on their site. For about two years, she studied how other comic artists set up their accounts, and how they devised their donation structure.

“At the time, I thought, ‘Maybe I could supplement my income a bit’,” Butler said in an Skype interview from her home in St. Charles, Missouri. “I saved a little bit of money, and decided if it doesn’t work out, at least I tried.’”

Butler’s Patreon page currently has about 1,300 patrons, contributing more than of $6,500 a month. This past spring, Butler was able to quit her job with the St. Louis-based Simutronics, and work on Lackadaisy full-time. While she was working as a graphic artist at Simutronics, she devoted her few spare hours to her comic, staying up until 2 in the morning to make her schedule.

“If I was giving everything to the comic, I couldn’t focus on my job (at Simutronics) well enough. And if I was doing my best at my job, I had no energy for the comic,” Butler said.

Butler walked through her first disorienting week of being able to work full-time on Lackadaisy:

“Once I gave notice at work, I kept waking up, having these terrible nightmares like ‘Oh God, I quit my job, what do I do?’ Now, you’re suddenly in charge of your schedule,” Butler said. “Every little thing you do now has a direct impact on the income you make. It’s so liberating. It’s a great feeling, but at the same time, it’s terrifying.”

Like Butler, David Revoy is a web comic artist. And also like Butler, cats (one specifically) are the focal point of his comic, Pepper & Carrot. The comic focuses on the escapades of a young witch and her cat. Speaking via Google Hangout chat from his home studio in Montauban, France, Revoy said he began working on Pepper & Carrot last year.

“At first, I was planning to do a larger comic, and Pepper & Carrot was just a side mini-story. But speedily, I saw the audience and reactions were more interested by the witch and her cat than any other characters I was proposing on illustration,” Revoy said.

A year later, Revoy has more than 300 patrons, contributing about $1,100 per web comic episode. In May, Revoy quit working as a freelance artist and illustrator to work on Pepper & Carrot full-time. While some artists can ask for as much (or more) than a $50 monthly individual donation, Revoy set up a $1 to $3 payment system.

“I wanted something simple, like a little coin in a hat at the end of a street performance,” Revoy said.

Revoy said the donations have helped him pay for his rent and food. Though he was making more money as a freelance artist, Revoy preferred to spend his time building an audience for Pepper & Carrot.

Patreon is still a newcomer in the world of internet crowdfunding, but so far it’s already made a huge difference in the lives of creatives and artists who normally would have put their work on the internet for free. With testimonies like that, we can’t wait to see who the platform empowers next.

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