.15 The gift
You might have seen there was a bit of a furore last month over changes that Patreon are introducing.
I often get asked about Patreon, either in interviews or for advice and, as many of you are refugees from my old Patreon page, I thought I’d put some thoughts down.
At the risk of invoking the worst of the pollyanna clichés, when Patreon came along I really think it was a paradigm-shifter. Its invention broke down a wall that hardly any of us even realised existed and revealed a new place entirely: a place where it was possible to make something, put it out in the world, and then just…ask if people might give you some money.
You have to understand that before Patreon - certainly in my small corner of the internet - this idea was unheard of. The focus was about how to be entrepreneurial as an artist - in other words, how to turn your talent or passion into a product or a service you could sell.
For the first five years of my freelance career I ran workshops, wrote and sold ebooks, sketched out ideas for subscription video platforms, published a magazine - anything really, other than just produce good work and say “if you like this, maybe you’d like to support me”.
And when I first started making videos one of the biggest mental hurdles was the fear that they didn’t have any financial value.
Patreon showed me, and many others, that our art is worth something. But even more than that, it opened our minds to the idea that what we create and put out in the world is a gift and that people could respond with gifts of their own.
The generosity of this stance, I think, is profound.
Many of you who supported me on Patreon were sending me more money than you had to: a dollar would have done it, but some of you were giving me 10, 20 - even 80 dollars per video. If that isn’t generosity, I don’t know what is!
So what’s the furore about? Well, Patreon has changed a lot over the last few years as it has grown in popularity and attracted more funding. Its ambitions have changed as well: it now considers itself (in its own words) a membership business platform.
And that feels different from the place it was when it started. A membership business is transactional - it feels more, well…entrepreneurial.
I have been lucky enough to visit Patreon in San Francisco, meet Jack and Taryn (who by the way has her own rad newsletter) and I don’t think a lot of the criticism is justified. It makes total sense for Jack and Co to go down this road: people who run membership businesses make much more profitable users than unreliable and unpopular artists like me.
But it also feels a little less like a place where that magic - the generosity of the gift - can happen.
That’s fine - there are plenty of alternatives for accepting donations from fans outside of Patreon.
For example, if you’ve been enjoying these newsletters, you’re very welcome to send me a dollar or two through PayPal! 😉.
Before Patreon it would never have even occurred to me to ask - and that is something to be grateful for.
I got a whole bunch of thoughtful responses to last week’s letter - thank you.
For some of you the idea of play resonated most and you told me it was an encouraging reminder; for others, the Thomas Mann quote was more thought provoking.
Eric wrote in to say the scientist Richard Fenyman went through a similar experience after his work on the Manhattan Project (detailed in the book Surely You’re Joking Mr Fenyman?); and Niki sent over two short and powerful provocations from Nietzsche, landing on both sides of the coin. He sure could turn a phrase, that guy!
Something I realised in the week as I thought about this: there is an activity that I do find purely autotelic: playing music. I find picking up either a guitar or a keyboard and noodling away by myself extremely relaxing - I do it whenever I have a problem I am trying to solve. It keeps my hands occupied and it is relatively easy to create some sounds that are pleasing to me.
I have absolutely zero musical ambition - I don’t want to be in a band or record an album, it is something that provides private joy.
I hadn’t appreciated that until this week and I’m grateful I’m wise enough now to be able to let it remain a private pleasure and not ruin it with ambition.
Until next Sunday,