Business Unusual

Patronage can be good, just not the kind you assume

South Africans may associate patronage with political corruption and state capture. This is not about that sort of patronage; at least not at first.

A patron is typically someone attending a show, perhaps a celebrity supporting a good cause, but originally it was derived from the word protector.

Artists or creators of things that could not be eaten, worn or used in any way did not attract lots of support when societies were focused on survival. But humans have always created things that have no practical use: jewellery, art, music, dance, poems, books - quite a lot of things. Those invested in these arts typically had a hard time surviving or surviving very long doing so. We still associate artists with struggle and poverty. With the rise of powerful rulers, artists became more popular to entertain or reflect the accomplishments of the leader and to win over subjects. The powerful were the protectors of the artists; they were their patrons.

It reached a new peak during the Renaissance era. It was not only powerful rulers but the growth of a wealthy merchant class that sought to emulate and even surpass the nobility in supporting the arts.

Shakespeare relied on a wealthy patron and once he was a hit in Elizabethan England he even enjoyed the support of Queen Elizabeth herself.

It may even be one reason 'patron' became the term in English. In many other languages, the term is Maecen or a version of it. Gaius Maecenas was the patron for Virgil.

A business model came along in publishing in the mid-1830s when a tabloid newspaper launched that offset the cost of production with advertising. For the next century, this ad-supported model would be a major factor in how creators were supported.

When the world wide web was established, and creators began sharing their work online, they had a problem. The online ad model offered low prices and so only worked for huge audiences. Even if the creators were terrific, they would not see the benefit until they could be discovered and that could take too long when there were so many others hoping to be discovered too.

Ads work and new stars were still being discovered, but far more talented people had to abandon their hope of being creators to find jobs to pay the bills.

One such creator was Jack Conte who in 2013 was hoping to be noticed for his music on YouTube. He was doing okay, but ad revenue put a limit on how much he could produce and the quality of what he produced. He, along with co-founder Sam Yam, set about building a service that worked like a crowdfunding service that, rather than using a once off payment for a single project, would be ongoing support for a creator, either as a monthly payment or for each new music video, book or other creative work.

Payment options had already existed, but the effort for each creator to build and manage the infrastructure would have made it too expensive or too complicated for a creator to do themselves. With their service called Patreon, you only need to click a button, and the service would manage the patron payment and ensure the fees were deposited in the creators' accounts.

They now have over 3 million patrons supporting over 100 000 creators. While most make only modest incomes, there are some that do very well.

Patreon and similar services typically take 5% for themselves and set aside another 5% for banking fees.

One of the highest paid is a video/podcast offering by a team called the Chapo Trap House. They post at least every week and have over 20 000 patrons which according to Graphtreon earns the team over $100 000 a month.

The other has even more support from over 50 000 patrons, and they create add-ons for the Pokemon Go game.

This is not the only option. Following a controversial episode at the end of 2018 Patreon removed some accounts for advocating hate speech. Alternatives have a strong emphasis on free speech which may be a good thing for societies that lack the civil liberties to pursue subjects that are censored in that society. It could be taken too far when creators use free speech to spread false information or use hate speech.

Librepay is one that includes a cap on how much can be contributed in a given time to avoid one patron being able to influence the output.

Maecen is an open source option. They too want to avoid censorship so other than those imposed by the laws of Denmark where the service is based, you are free to create and support anything you want.

It is a better option than a pure ad driven one. However, if the free speech option is used, but not checked, it could see special interest groups seeking out certain creators and supporting their channels to promote their cause indirectly.

It may even be payments by political interests to support specific candidates and parties.

A further challenge may come from groups that can self-organise and create content that relates to subjects that are typically discredited like flat earth theories and anti-vaccination proponents.

It may even be advice content that could drive scams.

If you thought the internet was going to make life easier, you would be correct. If you thought it was going to make life simpler, you might be wrong.

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