Essays on Technology and Culture

Beyond Patronage

Matt Gemmell has stated the case for supporting, monetarily, the creators whose work we choose to follow.

The reality is that creative output involves cost – whether it’s at the professional end, with staff and materials and print runs or editing suites, or in the spare-bedroom office of the independent artist, where the cost is time, and what else might have been accomplished during it.

If we don’t support the things we love, with actual money, those things will go away. If we ignore the kickstarter campaigns, and block the ads, and read the content without supporting the author, and pirate the apps, sooner or later we’ll lose those things altogether.

So many of us in the technology space bemoan the rise of clickbait articles engineered for maximum virality on Facebook, top lists on App Stores of shitty, whale-chasing games loaded with In-App Purchases and ads, and then—in the same breath—gripe about the New York Times paywall and how noble print magazine brands are being shuttered because they can’t pay the bills. We groan every time we see “a change in a privacy policy, or a string of banner ads, or a new newsletter you never had the chance to opt out of.” These are all symptomatic of a greater cancer, and that is the rampant devaluing of creative work.

It’s not a new problem. People have been asked to work “for exposure” since time immemorial. What make things more problematic now is that awful mixture of too much “content,” too few ways to make it easy for people to pay for it, and the jury-rigged solution of maximizing ad views to make ends meet. It’s particularly galling in the face of “free culture” wonks that played a major role in defining the Internet we use, and still define a large portion of discourse in the tech sphere. They’ve done some good, of course—campaigning against Digital Rights Management, for example. But until we reach a Star Trek style post-scarcity economy, creative people will still need to eat.

The typical reply in these sorts of arguments is: “Hey! I gotta work a day job too. What make you so damn special?” I subscribe to the theory that an artist makes their best work when they can focus entirely upon it. A world of permanent part-time creatives, banging out everything from apps, to albums, to novels, to podcasts on nights and weekends is a recipe for a world of half-assed, sub-par creative work. Without the ability to make one’s craft their primary means of income, we all suffer for the loss. An artist or an artisan need not be “rich” but they need enough to make a comfortable living, to support themselves and, ideally, a family.

If any of this is going to change, it has to start with us, the people who read, listen, and use the amazing creative things that people make every day—from full-time, and part-time creators alike. There needs to be a real understanding of the value of creative work, and a rethinking of the relationship between artist and audience. I know my own relationship, as a music fan keen on cheap, easy piracy, changed when I made close friends who are professional musicians. I want them to succeed, make art, get paid, and use the money to make more art. It’s hard for any creative person to do much of any work when they’re scrambling to pay bills, put gas in the car to go to the next gig, or even put food on the table, so I go to their shows, buy their albums, and do my best to be a good fan.

And it would be disingenuous of myself to say I don’t have any skin in the game. I would love to make enough money from writing out my thoughts about technology and culture to pay the bills. Hell, I’d be happy if I was making enough per year to cover hosting and domain registration. [1] I can’t even afford a “spare-bedroom office.” I’m typing this up in the combination living room/dining room of my one-bedroom NYC outer-borough apartment. Sure, I have ways of getting paid for what i do, and i’m not shy about asking for someone to stick a buck or three in my tip jar. The tricky part is proving that what I do has value for a patron in a world where thousands, if not more, are giving it away for free. Including people are better than I will ever be.

I don’t want to come off as if I’m calling sour grapes. Even if I don’t make a dime more than I already have from writing, I’ll keep doing it in some form or another until I can no longer make the words come. The creative staff of Macworld and MacUser will land safely somewhere, and the non-creative staff—whose roles are just as valid—will probably find work of their own in time. They won’t all be Jason Snells, parlaying their status in the community into (what looks like) a successful solo career, but they’ll do fine. Even if he has to take a straight job somewhere, he’ll probably keep writing for himself too.

I do worry about the scaling of a patronage system. Maybe it works if your niche is just the right size to bring in your one thousand true fans, or whatever number times price of entry leads to making a living. Not everyone is going to want to take the solo route, and the more people you need to bring forth your vision, the more patrons you’ll need. I don’t think Dan Benjamin would ever be able to run 5by5 at the level he wants from Patreon donations alone. I would suspect Matt agrees. There’s no easy way to cut through the Gordian Knot of creators getting paid, especially independent ones. Patronage seems a good way to start.

  1. (Approximately $135 a year for shared hosting on Dreamhost and a domain through  ↩