Patronize me

CAREERS + ED A new site from SF musicians aims to get artists paid for their work — using the oldest idea in the book

Jack Conte explains how Patreon works in a video on his site.

CAREERS + ED Another day, another crowdfunding website. Another Facebook friend asking you to pledge $100 on Kickstarter or Indiegogo or GoFundMe or JustHandOverYourCashNow to help them self-publish their new hardcover coffee table book about the history of moustaches, or start their organic vegetable juice delivery service, or produce their Zach Braff movie. For $300 and up, you'll get a shout-out in the acknowledgements!

Even if you want to support your local artists, it's easy to get burned out on crowdfunding these days; on the other hand, making art ain't cheap. This is the frustrated fork in the road where Jack Conte, a San Francisco-based musician, artist, and the founder of Patreon, discovered himself about a year and a half ago.

"I've been a professional creator for about eight years, in that I make my money from putting my work online," says Conte, one-half of Pomplamoose, alongside his girlfriend, Nataly Dawn; the band's known for its popular, prolific output of "video songs" — music in which everything heard in a song is also seen on screen.

"About a year and a half ago, I just got so frustrated with the system, with the fact that an artist could have half a million fans online but be making $200 a month. How can someone's work that so many people enjoy be worth so little to the world? The economics of it were just broken and frustrating to me," says Conte. "So I sat down one night and wrote out a website and a system of funding that would allow people to pay artists per work of art, and I realized immediately after drawing it out that it wasn't just for me. All these creators are in the same sinking ship."

He called up his college roommate, a developer, and Patreon launched three months later, after raising over $2 million from angel investors and venture capitalists, with three employees: Conte, Sam Yam (the roommate/developer) and Dawn. The idea: Let consumers decide how much they want to pledge to support their favorite "creators," and have them pledge per work created. With no lump sums exchanging hands, no rewards to manage, no physical items to ship, the system was designed with artists who only create digital products in mind.

Less than a year later, Patreon has over 10,000 creators (artists) and 30,000 active patrons (people supporting artists). With a staff of 12 and an office in Noe Valley, the company has caught on quickly among musicians and visual artists of all kinds — videographers make up a good deal of the site's fanbase.

Distinguishing the site from Kickstarter or Indiegogo, et al., has been one challenge for Conte. While he admires what both sites do, he says, it's fairly simple: "I have no reason to do a Kickstarter. I don't need $200,000 up front. I'm not producing a new product, or a book or a movie. I don't have the bandwidth to take on customer service, or reward fulfillment; I'm not sending out a physical product."

"What I need is a salary," he continues. "I need the people who like my work to pay me for it on a regular basis. And if that comes out to $5,000 or $10,000 to pay my bills, that's all I need." People can sign up to pledge as little as $1 every time a favorite musician releases a single or new music video, with an option to cap their total donations per month. The average pledge, Conte says, is $7.

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