Patronage in the age of free

The world’s changing, and more so for independent creatives than for the rest of us. If there’s one thing that the internet’s provided, it’s a glut of every type of media imaginable. There’s already far more free content out there than any of us could indulge in across many lifetimes. If you’re a content producer, being heard through the noise is hard; getting paid, even harder.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, read a lot of blogs, and consume a lot of open-source software. I don’t pay for any it. That’s partly because I’ve grown up expecting content on the internet to be free, and partly because I just don’t have to. But I’m not blind, and for years I’ve felt a foreboding shadow reminding me that if no one pays for the next generation of quality content, there won’t be one. The internet will be perfectly happy to stay its course towards a final destination of nothing but cheap tabloids and cat pictures.

Ads have been a stopgap since the beginning, but technology is finally killing them. A universal micropayments system would be great, but it’s been tried countless times and failed on every one of them. More recently, platforms like Patreon are driving a recurring monthly donations model that’s seeing some uptake (e.g. Road Work, Waking Up). I acknowledge that this is probably going to be closer to what it takes for sustainable creativity, but I’m still not sure how I feel about setting aside the price of a Netflix subscription (or two) every month to a single podcast.

I’m thinking of earmarking $50 or $100 monthly and trying to allocate it roughly based on what I’m consuming. I figure that’s close to what my parents’ generation would’ve spent on a cable bill and buying music albums on CD and movies on VHS. I’d especially like to focus on the long tail of content producers. The internet has an incredible amplification effect on the top tier of popularity – Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift could never produce another album and still be perfectly comfortable forever – it’s bands who are just now building a little steam but who otherwise exist in total obscurity that can’t make gas money. We should focus on them first.

I’d love to hear how you think about patronage. Please tweet me if you’ve got a good answer.

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