Fixing the ‘broken internet’ with Amanda Palmer and Patreon
Amanda Palmer has been a songwriter for more than a quarter of a century — way before the internet was a thing. But now she has the internet to thank for keeping her in the music business.
Palmer is a big benefactor of Patreon, a platform for creators to crowdsource financial sponsors or subscribers. The company revealed its massive growth — doubling over the last year to 1 million active backers and 50,000 creators — last week.
After an exclusive performance with Palmer, Edward Ka-Spel, and Patrick Wright (of The Legendary Pink Dots fame) at Patreon’s office in San Francisco, Mashable sat down with Palmer, Patreon CEO and cofounder Jack Conte, and one of Palmer’s benefactors, Justin De Vesine, to discuss the business of being an artist and how it could change.
The interview, conducted by business reporters Kerry Flynn and Patrick Kulp, has been edited for length and clarity.
Kerry Flynn: What was the best part of tonight?
Justin De Vesine: Seeing the other people. I once depended on the goodwill of other people. Now I’m in a position to give back to all the people in the world who have supported me growing up and being a bum.
I’m getting to support other people doing that. It’s not just that I’m here watching one of my favorite artists, to support with this thing that I created too. I’m seeing so many people benefit from it.
Kerry: I want to chat with you about blockchain. You mentioned it onstage as a way to fundamentally change the industry. What do you see as its potential?
Amanda Palmer: I’m an internal optimist. If I’m going to turn on my complete optimist head: blockchain will allow music and musicians who make content to function freely in the marketplace in a way that instead of randomly rewarding and/or punishing creators, it will allow compensation with fairness.
If the future of blockchain manifests in the most democratic, fairest, it will sort of be the antidote to the punishing blockbuster, fuck-show of the 80s and 90s. Instead of having to convince the entire world of your worth in order to get compensated for your art, you will be able to reap the benefits of actual benefits of actual human community. Instead of the Prince, Madonna, MTV model, which worked for the select 1 percent of artists but didn’t actually help the village of artists in their local communities.
Jack Conte: I would say that the overall philosophy is the same in that the web is really terrible at turning value into dollars. There’s so much value in the energy that Amanda’s community has. What you add to people’s lives and the joy that you bring to people. None of that manifests in dollars. The web is not there yet. All these new technologies… there’s a lot of untapped value.
“The web is not there yet. All these new technologies… there’s a lot of untapped value.”
People think that I’m optimistic about it. I’m think I’m really realistic. I think in a decade it’s going to be very normal to be an artist. You can be a doctor, a web comic, an artist because the web is going to so set up for helping kids get paid.
Amanda: The extremism of blockbuster hits of the 80s and 90s is going to fundamentally have to be dismantled.
Jack: “Machete” made you over $20,000.
Amanda: Yes, and I talked about this in my Ted Talk, but success as measured by blockbuster, Madonna-style, everywhere-ism is just going to go away:
Jack: Why is the music business and the arts business, why do they have to crank out world famous hits every day? The laundromat down the street, it works. The local restaurant that does a million dollars in sales. Small business has been possible for hundreds of years. Why isn’t it possible for artists?
Amanda: But a lot of responsibility lies in the minds of the artists. As children of the 80s and the 90s we grew up looking at the model of art and celebrity being exemplified by Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson. We didn’t have a whole lot of different models for content distribution. There were other models: The Legendary Pink Dots and the local punk band and the local indie band that distributed tapes and put up flyers.
You’re in the the giant spectrum of music distribution. You could be bizarro and distributing your indie, self-duplicated tapes and flyers, or you could be a whole thing. But there was no middle class of artists because how could you distribute to an artist if you didn’t have a massive major label?
“To call that person a starving artist is a disservice. I’m excited to watch that term disappear.”
Jack: But that’s the cultural change. The generation above us still uses the terms starving artist. I fucking hate that term because it dichotomizes what is no longer a dichotomy. They’re hiring employees and they’re building businesses with 20,000 unique readers and they aren’t dinner table names. To call that person a starving artist is a disservice. I’m excited to watch that term disappear.
Amanda: If you start from the romantic era and go up to now and you draw a line, our romance around artists is so fucked. To somehow gracefully dismantle the romance, the idea around the starving artists… it’s painful. It feels sacrilegious to dismantle the dream of the bohemian starving artists. No, it’s possible that the middle class artist can make a living and support their family with such and such technological structure because there’s nothing sexy about that and that’s as a child of the 90s where selling out was a part of the vernacular.
There was being in an indie band. There was being a pop artist, make all the money and have all of the fame. Or the other artist is be a starving artist but have all the respect of the fans. If you have anything in between, no one’s going to believe you.
Jack: I’m so excited to be leaving that planet.
Amanda: Exactly it’s so fascinating. The obsession with black and white. Not game to jump on that bandwagon. That things can be functional and reasonable, doesn’t have to be black and white. That we can find a way to make this work. Celebrate the reasonableness of making a sustainable artists ending work. It’s fucked.
Patrick Kulp: What type of artists do you want to support on Patreon?
Jack: When I think about Patreon existing for a long period of time, we want to fund all people that make art. Musicians have a tough time using our product when they’re on the pattern of releasing an album every three years. Patreon’s not the product for you. I would like to fix that. We’re not working on the fix right now, but we wouldn’t be accomplishing what we want without that.
Kerry: Amanda, what parts of the internet do you use personally and professionally?
Amanda: I’ve watched the culture of Twitter change dramatically in the last year, which I find upsetting because Twitter felt to me in 2008 and 2009 to be the absolute antidote to the internet not being centralized. All the sudden all the people that I liked and I knew were centralized on Twitter, but now it’s become again decentralized.
The clubhouse feel of Twitter is disintegrating. That doesn’t mean I don’t still love Twitter. It’s incredibly useful, but the locus of the internet keeps changing. And as an ever-moving target—and I’ve been on the internet using it as a tool with my fans, with my community with my family—I’ve watched it go from LiveJournal to MySpace to Twitter to Facebook grudgingly but never authentically and I find myself thinking is it leading us or are we leading it? And like the fickleness of platforms on the internet is only just becoming apparent to me, having moved from one platform to forums to MySpace to LiveJournal to Twitter to this that and the other things.
I’m only just now starting to take a longer view… What there is [is] a lot of people, a lot of people who want to have a conversation, who want to find each other. And they want to thrust themselves into whatever venue will be the most, most effective, convenient platform for that moment. And you watch everyone gravitate toward Facebook where it’s not serving the community purpose totally fairly, totally democratically.
“I’m like fascinated by what is happening with Facebook and whether it will sustain because how long can you run a shitty bar and expect that people are going to show up?”
I feel fundamentally slutty. I’ve bounced from one platform to another saying I will go where the love is, where the community is, where the attention is. I find myself wandering around as a ghost. What I want to do is talk to people so I’m going to go where people are. Same thing in the metropolitan community is you’re going to hang out where your friends are. You’re going to find yourself there.
With what’s happening now with net neutrality, I’m like fascinated by what is happening with Facebook and whether it will sustain because how long can you run a shitty bar and expect that people are going to show up, talk to their friends, buy the overpriced drinks, deal with the shitty lighting and just stay where they’re going? I want to believe in a better internet. I want to believe in the internet where it feels like it belongs to people rather than the organization. I feel perpetually guilty that I’m floating on top of the wave.
Every musician nowadays, every person using the internet, how phenomenal would it be that the internet 5.0 could finally serve it back and at we figured it out where everybody feels comfortable and the lighting is good.
Kerry: What do you think about Kickstarter versus Patreon?
Amanda: The growth on Patreon reminds me of the growth of Kickstarter. One thing Patreon and Kickstarter. Kickstarter is the most helpful when you have a single moment in time, a single project, a single position to take. A single thing that you need to fund and build energy around.
Kickstarter never going to be sustainable for an artist that was going to have to run a Kickstarter every six months.
Kickstarter never going to be sustainable for an artist that was going to have to run a Kickstarter every six months. Not with the much attention. I still find myself looking at my entire breadth of projects and say that might be a good Kickstarter project, a single book with a single artist because it’s only going to happen once and it will have an audience of 3 to 5,000 and those people want that one thing.
And Patreon. Patreon is asking people to trust you forever, to take your credit card and basically enter a long-term relationship. When I first started my Patreon the metaphor that I used that was perfect is that Kickstarter is amazing it’s like an incredible hot and steamy one-night-stand and Patreon is like getting married and those people in an open relationship those two things be able to be together.
Justin: It’s partly what you’re saying where I have faith in what you’re doing. I want to see what you’re going with this expanded creative opportunity. Also you’re giving these things that you do out to the world. Patreons get it first or an inside look but here’s this thing for the rest of the world to enjoy. I got a huge amount of benefit for people supporting me when I was young and poor.
Amanda: And this brings a really important point up where so Kickstarter is for specific you make a record, you make a project, you hire people, you bring other people in, you get to share the wealth. I paid the engineers, the studio, the musicians, the crew.
The same way that I was shocked but not shocked in the crowdfunding community. I remember waking up one day and saying it isn’t about commerce. Oh people actually do want to help each other. It’s not the commerce. People get and feel pleasure by the fact of supporting other artists, helping other people. Now I can see it because the numbers are sitting in front of me.
With blockbuster culture, with government-funded art this really could completely change the world, could completely change how we feel about the spread before us. Instead of just trusting the government to fund the public sculpture or just the radio to play what we want to hear on the airwaves or trust the television to play what we want to see. That’s been a false paradigm, and there’s a different truth below that. People creating art and connecting through art can create an entirely different dialogue We’ve been eating simply what’s at the table because we’re hungry versus thinking in a much larger way of what we might want to consume.
Jack: Of course there’s a driver for Kickstarter. The people who want the signed whatever but half the people just want to vote with their dollars. They just want more of that thing in the world or more of that people in the world and they’re voting for it.
Amanda: It directly contradicts everything that capitalism has taught us that there’s a supply and demand of art and supply and demand must determine what’s good and as we’re seeing it’s simply not true. And yes and that drives to the very core of all of what we’ve been saying. What we’re used to. That entire model was the scarcity model.
If you pay $15. If you win, I lose, if you’re in the super special fan club, you’ll have it and those other suckers won’t have that. All of that is now become undone and it’s a restructuring of everybody’s head to realign a way of thinking about artist, audience and art. A fan club doesn’t to run on the gasoline of scarcity. It can run on abundance and work.
Jack: The desire to be a patron of the arts is an age-old human desire. It used to be a privilege reserved only for the ultra-wealthy.
Amanda: You had to have so much wealth. You had to have so much money to make art. The amount of resources who took to create certain amount of art was unthinkable compared to how nowadays you can run down to your local shop and buy paint and buy a canvas. That was impossible a thousand years ago.