You may or may not be aware of Patreon, so just to make sure you have the facts here they are. They describe themselves like this “On Patreon, you can let your fans become active participants in the work they love by offering them a monthly membership. You give them access to exclusive content, community, and insight into your creative process. In exchange, you get the freedom to do your best work, and the stability you need to build an independent creative career.”
In short it is a platform that allows you to monetise your community and your work. Don’t have a community? Then you need to get with the programme and build one! Your community is your social media following across all platforms that is interested in you and your work, those kind people who engage with you and supply ‘likes’. All that hard work you have put in to posting images and marketing your projects now promises a financial return or does it?
I came across Patreon from a photography perspective – it is available to all creatives and seems particularly popular with podcast producers – through the work of Jack Lowe (https://lifeboatstationproject.com). Jack has been working on his long form project documenting the RNLI in the UK for over eight years and seemed to me to be particularly innovative with his multi-faceted project. He was selling prints, making films, devising and selling project related product and most importantly of all moving his project forward with constant updates on social media. Jack was also on Patreon.
I reached out to Jack and asked him how it worked and he was generous with his advice and honest about the hard work that would be involved in accessing enough funding every month to support a reasonable lifestyle and the project. He pointed me in the direction of others who were successfully making Patreon work for themselves. I have to say that I perceived a considerable sense of smoke and mirrors and my natural cynical nature was to the fore.
Despite this I started on Patreon with the United Nations of Photography. Initially I put in the hard work with modest returns, but I rapidly found myself being consumed by the platforms need for content. Rather like feeding a hungry dog that is never sated, Patreon was eating up my time and energy without a reciprocal return.
I couldn’t continue at the pace it demanded and continue with all of the other calls on my time so I have let it drift.
Over the past months I have seen many other photographers adopt Patreon as a potential revenue stream. I can see that they are working hard to add new content and place it behind the Patreon paywall. Patreon allows you to decide what you will give away for free and what will only be accessible to your paid-up followers. This asks an interesting question of your community. How many are there for the free stuff and how many rate what you are doing highly enough to pay for it.
This is an issue that every national newspaper has had to face. To pay-wall or not to pay-wall that is the question. Inevitably many of your followers will not want to or be able to pay to support you and your work. The question is will that be a majority or minority?
I do not know what financial return those I know who are on Patreon are receiving in relation to the amount of work involved in community building and Patreon feeding. I hope that it is working for them, but I know from my own experience that Patreon is not a simple, quick fix for a lack of income.
Interestingly Jack Lowe is no longer with Patreon. He has set up his own independent platform, “After three years of using Patreon to help fund my project, I felt I’d become too reliant on a platform that’s growing increasingly dominant…and expensive! So, during the lockdown of November 2020 — and in my quest to be independent from that kind of scenario — I worked out how to build my own membership platform, an environment which I feel is much more suited to The Lifeboat Station Project, The LSP Society.” He goes on to explain “Pledge whatever you’re comfortable with from £1 per month to unlock extra films, audio recordings, blog posts and webinars, helping to fund The Lifeboat Station Project in the process. All pledges go towards the creation of the project and enable instant access to the Members’ Area — members’ names will also feature in a special thank you page in the final book.”
There is no doubt that what Jack is doing takes a lot of work, commitment, resilience and creativity. It’s a job in itself. And maybe that is the main consideration when it comes to supporting your photographic practice. Whatever area you work in, it is a job!
It may be a self-initiated job or a commission and you may describe yourself as a photographer or an artist, but if you are looking to fund your practice it is a job to do so and it will be hard work. There can be no doubt that Patreon seems to be working for some but I think it would be a mistake to see it as anything other than an extra commitment in time and effort.
If you are willing to spend the time working for free building a community and if you are willing to work for free creating content than Patreon could be a potential source of income, just don’t expect it to be!
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2020
Good to read this. Thank you for providing the backgrounder.
Just having a reread and think I must have previously missed this bit at the end, Grant:
“There can be no doubt that Patreon seems to be working for some but I think it would be a mistake to see it as anything other than an extra commitment in time and effort.
“If you are willing to spend the time working for free building a community and if you are willing to work for free creating content than Patreon could be a potential source of income, just don’t expect it to be!”
To be clear, I don’t see it as extra effort — I’d be writing the posts anyway and am simply deciding which ones to categorise as ‘patron only’.
And I don’t see it as ‘working for free’…it’s all part of the job of a self-employed creator and you’re rewarded for your efforts by the money your patrons/members are paying you.
If you haven’t managed to attract many patrons, it may indeed feel like there’s very little reward for your efforts but that’s the predicament of all self-employed creators, no matter what the earning mechanism.
It’s excellent that you’ve written this, Grant, and thank you so much for referencing my work as part of your piece.
Rather like photography itself, I feel the skill in this arena is not found in the tool — or the platform in this case — but rather by adopting a good mindset of engaging with your audience and, as you quite rightly say, “getting with the programme” and building a community if you haven’t already.
I have to say, after three years’ intense use of Patreon, I would now urge creators to approach with extreme caution. It’s become the most expensive platform by far and reminds persistently (and frustratingly) clunky for creators and patrons alike.
I have so much more I could say on this topic but that’ll do for now! Thanks again, Grant.
Pleasure and thanks for the positive response and additional insight
As an additional note, I launched The LSP Society one month ago today, so your piece is timely for me too. I feel it’s been one of the most progressive, positive steps I’ve made on my path as a creator — apart from the initial idea of The Lifeboat Station Project itself, of course! JL
Interesting information. I’m not familiar with Patreon at all so it was a good read. Thanks
Pleasure and thanks for the positive feedback