I’m feeling pretty jazzed at the moment about patronage as a funding model for creative endeavours.

It’s a pretty simple idea: instead of today’s dominant practice, where creative works are funded and owned by someone expecting to make money back from advertising or sales through a limited distribution channel, under patronage, creators fund their work by appealing directly to potential fans, asking them to put up funds in advance in return for various rewards and input into the work. Historically, patronage was widespread, and meant that artists, musicians, and philosophers gathered in the courts of sympathetic nobles to seek funding, lending their creativity to the glory of kings and emperors. In return, nobles gained prestige as patrons of the arts as well as substantial influence over the works created.

Today’s patronage models are a little different, in that they rely on a much more broader base of patrons. Instead of seeking out extremely wealthy individuals to fund entire works, creators can appeal to a worldwide audience through the internet, collecting many small contributions directly from the people who care most about their work. This is a good thing for creators and patrons alike:

  • Patrons are more likely to receive satisfying entertainment, as their preferences factor directly into the creator’s decision making process.
  • Creators have a guaranteed audience of fans in the form of their patrons. Since creators often labor under artistic motivations, this can mean a lot – it’s easier to feel confident in one’s creations if you know that others like the general idea. In other words, it’s easier to take risks.
  • There is greater opportunity for ‘pure’ creative vision as middlemen who muddy the waters by pandering to advertisers and the lowest common denominator are eliminated.
  • Creators are encouraged to think about their works upfront, and their ideas are subject to initial scrutiny that can validate and refine them. There’s less chance of groupthink, and a more articulate design process.
  • Niche genres can thrive, particularly if they’re willing to start out small and run lean. Projects that address many fewer fans can be funded.
  • The public domain is richer. Since funding is provided up front by patrons, there’s less reason for creators not to put their work in the public domain, enriching us all. In particular, it makes it easier for non-fans to try out things they wouldn’t normally buy, potentially converting them into fans.

It might be that patronage isn’t the best funding model for all creative works, but here’s a few examples where it’s been successful:

  • Kickstarter is a thriving internet example. Through it, I’ve contributed to open source recordings of classical music, RPG-themed short films, and comics. Their model allows creators to make proposals through video and written presentations, to offer rewards for patrons at different levels, and to selectively fund projects based on whether a sufficient amount is raised. Projects range from a few hundred dollars to several million, and support from computer games to music, crafts to special events, and gadgets to fine art.
  • Most modern orchestras run on a hybrid patronage / ticket fee model. The Seattle Symphony, for example, runs an annual budget of $24m on about half ticket sales, half patronage. Patrons get additional benefits such as social events, access to musicians, and lectures, as well as a certain level of prestige (much as noble patrons once did).
  • Wolfgang Baur’s Open Design project does tabletop RPG design on a patronage model, allowing patrons to participate in the design process, democratizing not only the funding, but also the creativity itself.

There are many more – these are just the few I’ve paid close attention to.

As traditional publishing industries that rely on firmly controlled distribution of hard-copy works continue to erode, it’ll be very interesting to see how patronage evolves. The fact that big box book stores are dying doesn’t mean people don’t want to read, and the collapse of newspapers has little to do with the public’s interest in the news. It’s just that the old business models are increasingly being undermined. I don’t foresee corporate creative endeavours going away, but I do expect them to become less dominant in the long term, and patronage seems a likely means of that happening.

Questions for comments:

  • If patronage comes to dominate creative endeavour, what negative implications might there be?
  • Are there any creative domains in which patronage won’t work?
  • Is it possible to fund really big projects (AAA game titles, movies, cathedrals) with patronage?

Posted in Concepts, Economics, Science & Technology, The Future | 2 Comments »
  • Dana

    One problem I see is that many people are “see it before you by it” types, myself largely included.  I don’t want to pay for something and then wait wait wait wait for something that might actually never get done or end up sucking.  Also, a lot of potential for “creators” to actually be scammers in a related “Hey, give me money for this AWESOME project!” And then disappear after a certain amount of funds are acquired.  My cat just laid on arm so stop now.

  • http://www.meme-hazard.org Trond

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    {page:WordSection1;Are you talking about wanting instant gratification, or
    wanting no uncertainty in what you buy?

    The former is a problem, but one that is, I think,
    surmountable. Depending on the purchaser, the desire for instant gratification
    can sometimes be sated with 'contributor gifts'. That is, give now and get
    something from the back-catalogue, or maybe something that's already made. I've
    come to realize that for me, it's the having of the thing that satisfies my
    need for instant gratification, not the the actual consumption of the thing.
    So, I often buy books that I don't get around to reading for quite some time.
    So, funding projects where I know I'll get a copy in the mail at the some point
    when I'm done is about the same thing – it's not on my bookshelf, but it's
    already mine in a sense.

    The latter is harder to overcome – some people like to trial
    everything first, whereas others like risks. More realistically, though, I
    think it depends on the type of good. I'm willing to take risks on authors
    provided they've been credentialed in certain ways (that is, won awards, or
    been praised by someone whose taste I trust), but maybe not on clothes (I'd
    never buy clothes without trying them on first). I think most people are
    willing to take risks in some things, just not everything.

    As for the problem of scammers, there's definitely legal and
    fiscal structures that can address the problem, by disbursing money over time,
    contingent on results, or maybe allowing contributors to sue if a certain set
    of pre-stated criteria are not met. The other key thing, I think, is reputation
    - patronage is heavily based on reputation. I'll give money to people who've
    created before, but new creators might need to do prior work on their own or on
    a smaller scale before they can be trusted with significant sums of money.

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