Four years ago, cartoonist Jeph Jacques signed up for Patreon. The idea behind the then brand-new website was intriguing: a reimagining of what it means to be a “patron” of the arts, for a generation of creators who were struggling to transform online fan bases into reliable income. On Patreon, fans sign up to give small, regular payments to their favorite online visual artists, podcasters, vloggers, comic-book artists and other creators. For the fan, it is a bit like being a member of a club. For the creator, those small donations can add up.
“My community of patrons is fantastic, and I consider them my most valuable readers,” Jacques told The Washington Post in an email last week. He is the artist and author of the long-running daily webcomic Questionable Content; for a dollar a month, he lets his Patreon fans see his strips 24 hours before they published on his main website. His 5,000 Patreon supporters now make up between 33 percent and 40 percent of his income in any given month, he said.
Last week, Jacques could only watch as, over the course of 12 hours, he lost more than 120 pledges — more than he has lost in any entire month on the platform.
It wasn’t anything he had done, or said. Instead, his supporters were taking a stand against Patreon itself. In the hours before Jacques saw his monthly income plummet, Patreon had announced a fee change that infuriated creators and patrons alike. Many said they felt the change was a betrayal of trust, and it immediately drove away many dedicated patrons.
On Wednesday, in an announcement given in advance to The Washington Post, Patreon chief executive and co-founder Jack Conte said the company was backing away from the decision that caused all that fury in the first place.
“Many of you lost patrons, and you lost income. No apology will make up for that, but nevertheless, I’m sorry,” Conte said.
A week ago, Patreon announced it would change how the company processes payments to creators. Its initial model removes the processing fees for each payment out of the donation itself, before it reaches creators — so a fan’s $1 donation might give around 90 cents to creators after Patreon deducted fees. The new plan was: Fans themselves would pay those fees — 2.9 percent of their payment, along with a newly-standardized flat fee of 35 cents — on top of the amount they have selected to give. For instance, a donation that once cost a patron $1 would then cost $1.38. Patreon’s reasoning for the change? The new system would allow creators to keep a bigger percentage of the donation amounts their patrons pledge to them, something they believed both creators and patrons want.
Instead, many creators — and their patrons — were infuriated. Viral Twitter threads accused Patreon of changing the payment structure solely to increase its profits, a charge Conte strongly denied to me and on Twitter.
Mostly, though, creators felt Patreon was taking away some of the reasons the platform was appealing to them. Jacques’s average patron gives him between $1 and $2 a month. Creators like him, who rely on small payments, said the new system would discourage their very business model.
“What it means for me,” Jacques said, “is that the vast majority of my patrons are, to put it mildly, extremely boned.”
In the hours after Patreon’s announcement, creators sent viral tweets about their lost income, begging Patreon to do something to stop it. Conte spoke to The Post twice about the anger among creators. In the first conversation, on Friday, Conte said the company had made a mistake — not in the actual policy change, but in how they announced it to their community. It was a message Conte relayed over the weekend in hours of phone calls and conversations with angry creators.
By Wednesday, Conte said Patreon was reversing the policy change. The fee structure still needs to change, he said, but not in the way they had originally planned.
The new fees, Conte said, were always going to come with trade-offs for creators and patrons alike. “We thought these trade-offs were worth it. We thought that the cons of the new system were worth it,” he said. “And creators have been adamant, they’ve been clear, they’ve been overwhelmingly clear with this that the trade-offs are not worth it.”
“I don’t want to make excuses here,” he added. “There’s no excuse, at the end of the day. We f‑‑‑ed up. That’s on us, and that’s on me.”
Now Patreon needs to regain the trust and patience of its creators and fans. Its loss of that trust has the potential to harm more than just the company itself.
Elizabeth Simins makes most of her income as an illustrator from Patreon. She has not personally lost much support in the fallout from Patreon’s changes. A handful of $1 subscribers fled. Two existing donors, looking for a way to help creators who might be losing income, bumped up their monthly contribution to $5. It more or less made up for the loss.
She was optimistic, at first, about the changes when they were announced. As Simins looked more closely at Patreon’s policy, she decided that ultimately, the new system “disproportionately affects smaller-amount patrons.”
*ahem* anyone right now who is pressuring artists whose primary income comes from patreon to leave patreon is saying they want those artists to have no financial stability whatsoever— elizabeth simins⁷ (@ElizSimins) December 10, 2017
There is no viable patreon alternative, and everyone who’s making a living on patreon knows it
Be upset abt the new fee structures all you want, be angry at the rhetoric/attitude coming from the corporation, but don’t you dare shame artists for making their very meager stable living via a less-than-ideal platform— elizabeth simins⁷ (@ElizSimins) December 10, 2017
“My main concern has been that the tide will turn so negatively against Patreon that well-intentioned people will think they’re doing the right thing by dropping their pledges in protest,” she said soon after the changes were announced. “That will super harm the many independent artists who benefit from the platform and have no control over its policies, problematic though they might be.”
Creators, and by extension, their fans, tend to have an uneasy relationship with the companies on which their businesses depend. And for good reason: A slight tweak to a YouTube algorithm or advertising policy can have a dramatic impact on the income of someone’s channel. They might sympathize with fans who turn on the platform, but they still need those fans to stick with them to make money.
The thing is, Patreon has benefited in the past from a reputation as one of the relatively good guys among those companies. Its mission was to help creators find steady income, without compromising control of their relationships with their fans. On Wednesday, Conte admitted the fee change undermined that. Patreon “overstepped our bounds and injected ourselves into that relationship,” he said.
As another creator, Mikey Neumann, put it to me in an interview before Patreon’s reversal: “The problem here is that I don’t work at Patreon. I use it to make a living income.”
Neumann felt stuck in the middle as the controversy played out. On the one hand, he depends on Patreon. On the other hand, he needs to support the decisions of his fans not to use it anymore. “My best option is to say, I understand. What else can I do?” Neumann said. “We have to tell people it’s okay to leave. And that’s really not a great place to be if you’re a content creator.”
Neumann, whose Patreon page funds his YouTube analysis series “Movies with Mikey,” joined the platform several months ago, when his health prevented him from remaining at his job as a video game writer. Patreon was his “parachute,” he said. The support of his fans saved him. He would not have been able to get that support without Patreon.
In 24 hours, Neumann lost $250 in monthly income after Patreon announced the changes. It felt he said, akin to “when the nice kid in your class starts being really mean, and you’re not sure why.”
I paraphrased Neumann’s bullying comment to Conte on Friday. He responded, “I have nothing but understanding for that response, given how creators have been thrashed online by companies.”