Patreon has been a blessing for independent artists. It is a combination of two unlikely ideas — an extension of a very old idea like the patron system for artists in Florence in the late 1500s and a continuation of the phenomenon of on-demand and streaming content that has raised everything from YouTube to Netflix to being among the most powerful forces for content and entertainment.
However, in a world of specialized content and manufactured authenticity how does one define acceptable content? Users subscribe to creators on Patreon to support the content they love but the special appeal of Patreon is often a matter of access to the “star” that you are supporting.
I admire YouTube creator Natalie Winn, creator of the channel Contrapoints, for her insights into philosophy and modern subcultures, from post-feminist philosophy to incels. But in the past few months, since Natalie had her own scrape with cancel culture, Natalie has spent more time on Contrapoints Patreon than YouTube recovering from her traumatic experience and publishing livestreams chatting with her adoring fans and less time presenting well-researched content that explains modern philosophy to the masses — the content that I and many others came to admire her for in the first place.
Judging by the reactions of her fans, and 11,790 paying Patreon supporters, Natalie has maintained a strong relationship with her core audience and their monthly donations even as she goes through a personal crisis. In fact, it seems that the personal crisis has made her relationship stronger with her audience. It’s understandable that the audience who has a parasocial relationship with Natalie just feel closer to her after her travails but it does beg the question of why we sponsor people on Patreon in the first place and what their obligations are to their fans. Natalie has managed to maintain her promised monthly videos… kind of.
Amanda Palmer’s Separation from Neil Gaiman — Live on Patreon
But then this happened.
Amanda Palmer, recording artist for 21 years and former frontwoman of the Dresden Dolls, and an artist whose career I’ve followed and admired almost the whole time, announced her separation from Neil Gaiman, world-renowned, award-winning author and creator of hit novels turned adaptations like Good Omens on Amazon Prime, American Gods on Starz, and children’s classic movie Coraline.
Amanda’s response to Neil’s response…
Many articles have already been published carrying some version of the headline “Amanda Palmer Separates from Neil Gaiman on Patreon”. Beyond the fact that I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to say that (I expect Neil already knew — he just didn’t know that they were talking to the public about it), I think the much more interesting use of Patreon came when Amanda apparently responded in a 3,443-word essay which explains her emotional position and why she feels she has the right and responsibility as an artist to share her feelings with her fans.
Amanda asserted that this is modeling positive behavior for the public because everyone should call for emotional support during difficult times.
Amanda goes on to explain:
“i know, deeply, that, while my style may be sloppy and off the cuff, and i may irritate many people out there....i've made the right decision. i know who i am. i'm a caller.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health experts everywhere would concur that a person’s support network is essential in the healing process. If you are feeling depressed (as more of us may be feeling during the Pandemic) it’s very important to your well being that you reach out and share your feelings to seek help — with family, friends, therapists, and whoever makes up your network.
I suppose it is just an eccentricity of Amanda’s life that the “crowd-village” that she is calling to support her now is primarily composed of her 15,543 Patreon subscribers (at time of writing).
Or is Amanda using a truism of “seek help when you need it” to justify putting her estranged husband “on blast” on a (paid) form of social media?
Parasocial relationships on Patreon
I love content, so I tend to love smart, original content creators. It’s natural to feel like you “know” these creators through their work. Natural and an important part of the Patreon-driven relationship with the creator where supporters can give encouragement as well as money.
Amanda explains that this is what she loves about Patreon, stating:
“one of the things that i have always loved most about patreon and the idea of a long-term relationship with an artist is this:
you are not getting a sugar-coated product. you’re not getting a product of any kind at all, you’re getting a person.
hi there. i’m the person.
this person is happy you are here, this person needs you, and this person is grateful that tools like patreon exist so that i can gather and feel my little crowd-village around me.”
But in her late-night feel fest, Amanda does more than share her thoughts — she has a wish list of separate issues for which she wants support.
Amanda takes the time to thank her supporters new and old for joining her. Well, she has no lack of showmanship and maybe that’s just good manners.
Amanda ends her post… with a boilerplate asking for likes and comments, promoting her new members-only message board, and promoting her Patreon in general. I have no idea if that auto-populates — let’s assume that it did.
But how shall we address the fact that Amanda asks for help with babysitter services and a lead on a good used car in the same post?
Our relationship to the creators we sponsor
Neil is back in Scotland while Amanda is in lockdown in far-flung New Zealand with their son. Life goes on, and incidentally, I believe the pandemic is still happening in the background.
What does this say about how Patreon is used by creators? I think like most open markets, creators are best served by using it in any way that generates rewards from their audience.
Certainly, Amanda is not the only one to use Patreon as a personal platform to share feelings and there is apparently a big market for these personal thoughts.
Amanda adds at what is quite nearly the end of her post:
“there is a magic to true community, one that i'm glad to have spent the last twenty years growing instead of treating my friends and fans as transactional beings and simple-minded consumers.”
It seems a bit disingenuous to decry the transactional nature of art and commerce — to a primarily paying audience. In the meantime, Amanda said she has gotten a couple of hundred new supporters since announcing her separation from Neil. So, the market will support whatever people are willing to buy.