Patreon? by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Lately, I’ve run across more and more writers, singers, and other artists who have set up sites on Patreon to solicit financial support for their writing.  There are even some non-profit publications and foundations asking for contributions through Patreon.

At least some of those writers and singers have set up such sites because changes in the publishing and music industries have reduced their sales, and thus their ability to support themselves off their royalties.  As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, I personally known some authors who used to be able to support themselves by full-time writing who can no longer do so.

And many other authors, me included, now offer websites with blogs and/or information, in hopes of generating greater interest in and support for their work.  

What many people who haven’t studied the history of writers, singers, and composers may not realize is that over most of history, very few of such artists could actually make a living from their art itself.  The great composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and others, relied on the support of patrons, such as the Emperor Joseph, the Esterhazy family, the Catholic Church, or others.  The only writers who could support themselves were playwrights, such as Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, who not only wrote the plays but performed them, and used the performance revenues to support themselves and keep writing – and many of them still needed some patronage, often royal.

Writers were in even worse shape.  Not until the nineteenth century could any significant number of writers, other than traveling bards, support themselves by their writing.

So, the democratization of patronage, through internet entities such as Patreon, is really just a new iteration of a long-standing practice. 

While it’s obvious why writers and other artists would turn to Patreon, either to start a career or to help finance one, Patreon, despite its more “democratic” approach to patronage than the traditional model, contains the same basic flaw as the patronage of Mozart’s time.  What’s paramount in success is the ability to raise funds.  Yes, a certain amount of talent is required, because over time people won’t support artists who aren’t very good, but it’s the mixture of fund-raising and artistry that determines success under any patronage system, not the excellence of the artistry.

Now, I’d be the first to admit, popularity also was a factor in traditional publishing.  Years ago, the Christian Science Monitor used to publish a listing of the best-selling fiction books, and in that listing was a column with either a red arrow that pointed down or a green arrow that pointed up.  That arrow represented the consensus of major published reviews.  And guess what?  Generally, but not always, the best-selling books featured red arrows.  I have problems with reviews that attempt to direct popular tastes, and with reviews that are more agenda driven than an effort to offer a fair assessment of a book, but the plain fact is that popular books are those that more people relate to… and many technically excellent books aren’t exactly popular.

That said, sales numbers at least reflect what the readers believe about the writer’s work.  Patronage funding reflects internet sales effectiveness as much as the work produced.

And, under traditional patronage, the works of excellent composers [if often difficult as individuals] such as Mozart and Beethoven were far less rewarded than the works of composers no one remembers and whose works are seldom performed.  One of the dangers of any patronage system is that it tends to reward talents other than excellence in artistic achievement.  And from what I’ve seen so far, Patreon is coming to resemble traditional patronage systems, if not totally, because it has enabled some outstanding writers to break in. 

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