Envy Is A Dangerous Drug

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After all of the Patreon uproar (Re: Sargon of Akkad), a lot of YouTubers are upset with Patreon's actions and speaking out about it. People who are otherwise non-political are being hit with losing money as patrons leave the platform.

One YouTuber posted a link to an older article published in December, 2017, called "Scraping By". It is otherwise enlightening - not for the direct subject matter - but the underlying sense of entitlement people have.

The opening of the article:

[L]ast January, I was broke. I lived in a car, and that month I had to choose between paying my cell phone bill or buying food. Two years before that I was a freelance photographer in Chicago, but walked away from that life to travel around the country. My travels had given me a collection of stories and photos I was proud of, and more than 9,000 people were following me on Instagram. I loved what I was doing, but I didn’t make a dime doing it. I’d hit bottom at the worst time, mid-winter, far away from my comfortable network of jobs and connections back in the city. I decided to take a shot at Patreon, a crowdfunding site that encourages artists to “regain creative freedom” by raising money directly from fans. I knew friends had made Patreon accounts over the years, selling their art and music, funding their writing and podcasts, and figured if I could make $400 to $500 a month, I could continue doing photography full time.

This is a good setup - it is indicative as to some of the underlying causes and motivations of the artist for using Patreon. The writer left an existing life to pursue living and traveling around the country. An interesting choice, but for a photographer, it offers a large pallette of content to draw from. I say interesting because walking away from a career in an existing market of known quantities for the life of no income but the potential for opportunity is extremely high risk.

With 9,000 Instagram followers, the author decided to capitalize on this and set up a Patreon account. Even a little bit of money was better than none and within a month, the author was netting $120 a month in recurring income.

We get a little bit of fillter/background and then launch into the data:

Patreon now has 79,420 creators, according to Tom Boruta... Boruta’s numbers are based on the roughly 80 percent of creators who publicly share what they earn. Of those creators, only 1,393 — 2 percent — make the equivalent of federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $1,160 a month, in October 2017. Worse, if we change it to $15 per hour, a minimum wage slowly being adopted by states, that’s only .8 percent of all creators. In this small network designed to save struggling creatives, the money has still concentrated at the top.

This is where things start to get dicey. I have no objections to the statistics. Based on the data and assumptions used, they're probably right. The dicey part is the usage of the Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) as the litmus test of success. This is a weird yardstick for measuring and really has no value in the argument.

The problem the author  fails to contend with is why those at the top are at the top. Patreon is one type of marketplace - open-ended and attracts (or in some cases pushes away) producers and consumers. 

As a producer:

  • You need to provide a product consumers want
  • You need to build a brand around your product (which may also be yourself) that people buy into
  • You need to attend to the business side of your product as well as the creative side
  • You need to evolve your product and branding - constant evaluation of your product and business practices.
  • You need to invest the time.

You also need to realize:

  • Consumers have a limited budget of disposable income
  • Consumer tastes change over time
  • You have little to no power over consumer decisions. You can influence the decision, but you do not have the power to force that decision.

Sitting back and wondering why you, as a creator, are not achieving at least the Federal Minimum wage need to reflect on all of the above. It isn't easy. And for most creators who are at the top, the climb to get there wasn't all sunshine and roses. Running a business (yes, your creative endeavors are a business if you are wanting to derive an income from it) is extremely difficult. There are very few people "at the top" making the income they make with little to no attention paid to their business. Very few people at the top had everything handed to them.

The author also criticizes the fee structure as being an impediment to small creators. I'm sympathentic but reality is a different beast. If Patreon is paying an underlying transaction fee of ~$.33 per transaction on a dollar subscription (2.9% + $.30), you can begin to see the difficulty of any fee structure on top of this. This isn't necessarily a Patreon issue. This is a structural problem with credit card processing.

There may be some cases where Patreon could work to reduce this processing cost, but it doesn't come without significant, and potentially risky, changes to the code base. The risk in a change is that they may need to change back-end processors which may break existing subscriptions - something that may be far more detrimental to small creators than just increasing prices to provide uninterrupted services.

The rest of the article is a continuation of this theme. While the target might be patron, the reality is it is a better reflection on how hard it is to start and run a business (while trying to shift blame).