By Chad Ellis
So two weeks ago I was at PatreCon 2018 in Los Angeles, and as the name suggests this is a conference hosted by Patreon. It first kicked off back in 2016, with the aim of bringing creators together in a collaborative and educational way, to help everyone grow and build creative and financial independence for their projects.
The 3-day, invite-only conference was a relaxed mixture of lectures and workshops that ran from the 1st to the 3rd of November. Aimed at giving you the skills, tools, and mindset to take your creative business to the next level. To build alternative monetization streams, hiring and support for your workforce, and much more, all through the lens of industry experts and peers who have walked the walk.
With almost fifty speakers, a mix of Patreon staff and creative peers such as Amanda McLoughlin, Broke-Ass Stuart, Bryanda Law, Jackson Bird, Steven Ray Morris, Lauren Shippen, and Zach Valenti to mention just a few, you can imagine not only did we get some great insight into raising up our products, but had great fun at the same time.
PatreCon was as inspiring as it was unexpected for me. I first heard of it from some guests at my Halloween party, and after an entire articles worth of serendipity, dive bars and roof top haunts I had an invitation from Julia Schifini of the Multitude collective. I arrived with the intention of capping off a wild week by hanging out with some podcast friends, and I walked away with a fundamentally changed viewpoint of the relationship between creator and fan.
How do you get paid as a creator?
It’s a difficult concept for a lot of us to wrap our head around. There’s impostor syndrome (why would somebody want to pay for something I made?), there’s over politeness (I can’t ask people for money), there’s self limitation (I’m already making $100 a month, it can’t go higher than that!) It’s difficult to value our work when we’ve grown up in a culture that only values art that’s already successful. One minute we’re tripping over ourselves to get a picture with a celebrity, the next we’re asking the person who says they’re trying to make it as an actor what their day job is, as if they are defined by the thing that pays the bills.
Let me set the scene. You enter one of the most Blade Runner looking buildings in Los Angeles holding a box of donuts. The donuts are important. You pass couples pushing strollers and rocking baby bjorns, turns out there’s a New Parent convention going on in the upper levels. You’re directed down a staircase to the basement. What could easily be a sterile, windowless environment is lit up in gentle reds and blues.
You almost collide with a familiar face. Parasocially familiar. It’s the star of that one YouTube series your best friend is a fan of. They comment on the donuts. You walk by a wall covered in the stages of the creative journey. You see a list of events. They say things like “Building Community” and “Navigating Financial Independence”. You take in the event space, the perfect amount of room for just over 300 people. Their badges all read the same thing. “Creator”.
This is PatreCon. A place for established creators to speak honestly and intimately about every aspect of existing as a Capitol P Person on the internet, and getting paid while doing it.
I found my people in the corner, other figures in the Audio Drama world. Creators, writers and actors of shows like Ars Paradoxica, The Far Meridian, Tides, Bright Sessions and Wolf 359. I exchanged hugs and set down the donuts. They had so much to tell me. There was a guy who made a suit that plays music based on your movement. There was a woman who’s making a podcast reviewing all of English apocalyptic fiction in chronological order. Zach Valenti is typing notes on this wild retro-future keyboard.
The donuts start to work their magic. A stranger eyes them. You gesture to the open box. They come over and introduce themselves, followed by the go to question of the weekend. “What do you create?” This happens again and again. Ice broken. You’re ready to dig in to the Con.
Between panels, workshops, and talking with other creators there was a lot to take in over the weekend, so I’d like to share my biggest takeaways with you, and after that, there’s a link at the bottom to Patreon’s YouTube channel that has over seven hours of video content from the conference.
“Your 1,000 most hardcore fans”.
A popular topic of conversation from a panel the day before. The idea is that in a world of several billion people there are 1,000 fans who would pay you $100 a year to create what you wanted to create; you just need to find them.
For people who don’t want to do the math, that will net you $100,000 a year, a seemingly unattainable amount of money… until you start breaking it down.
On an individual level $100 a year is just over $8 a month. And most creators don’t need $100,000 a year. Could you find 500 of your biggest fans? 250? I’ve always assumed I’d need to reach a small countries worth of people to make any kind of creative living. Now I’m focusing on reaching that one fan at a time and providing them with attractive Patreon perks to stick around.
“Let people give you money. Don’t limit yourselves.”
Hanging out with other creators doing completely different work and reaching completely different fan bases definitely stretched my idea of support potential. It’s not up to you to decide what other people spend their money on. And if they want to give some of that money to you? You should let them. Patrons were giving one guy I met $5,000 to write a daily fiction story online. A YouTuber I met makes 2-3 no frills videos a month and has thousands of Patrons. I’m not saying that you’ll make a solid living off of Patreon. I am saying that there are no rules, and there might be a lot more people out there who will happily throw you a few bucks a month if they like what your doing. Let them.
“Be true to yourself. Niche is good.”
Sounds a bit cliche but it’s the best thing you can do to build a dedicated fan base. I follow my favorite creators works no matter what they’re making. A book? I’ll read it. A video? I’ll watch it. A podcast? I’m already listening. You’re not going to get that kind of following if you’re constantly chasing what you think will be successful instead of making the thing that you really want to make. The creators I met at PatreCon were passionate about the often very niche thing they were making. Your values come through in all of your work, your fans will identify with those values and the hardcore fans will follow your lead.
“Pay attention to the cost/benefit of what you’re offering”
Creating a thing is a lot of work. Adding more to that thing could lead to burn out, and it might not even be helping you that much. Are your Patreon rewards sustainable? Do they get in the way of making your main thing? Are they attracting new Patrons?
What about merchandise? I really want to make enamel pins for my show, but the minimum order costs hundreds of dollars. Am I reliably going to sell all of those pins and make my money back? I have a great idea for a shirt but that art for it will cost me $90. Am I confident that I will be able to sell enough shirts to cover the costs of making them?
Some people like paying for signal boosts on platforms like Instagram or Facebook. How many people are you reaching with that boost? How many of those people are likely to turn in to fans? Is there a better way you can spend that money?
One size does not fit all, an effective strategy for you will likely differ from your peers. It’s good to check in every few months to make sure you and your Patrons are getting the most out of your relationship.
“You have value. Your work has value.”
My musician friends are often baffled by the kind of support people can pull independently via something like Patreon. In the words of my roommate, you grow up thinking that you don’t have any value until a Label picks you up and decides you’re worth investing in. It took attending PatreCon to shake him out of this mindset. And it’s a difficult thing to shake. Later on in the Con he commiserate with Jack Conte, a musician and the founder of Patreon. Jack shook his head and said “Yeah. I hate that”.
A screenwriter doesn’t need to wait for a show to pick them up. An actor doesn’t need to wait for a Director to cast them. And a musician doesn’t need to wait for a label. We’re living in a time where you can build a direct relationship with your audience and where that audience can support you. It’s not easy, but the power is yours. You just need to figure out how to reach them.
The convention ended with a great big party, the perfect way to spend time with the people we had met over the weekend. The question of “what do you create?” persisted at the open bar and between sessions at the photo booth, but now the conversation went beyond that: how are we going to apply what we’ve learned? So while creators piled into the Karaoke room to belt Bohemian Rhapsody, I walked away with a lot of changes in mind for my own Patreon.
I hope that this overview has given you some food for thought for your project, and if you need some more convincing, or just want to watch some really insightful and motivating video, then check out their video contributions of the conference on YouTube!