Crowd-Sourced Artistic Patronage

There’s an interesting discussion going on at TechDirt about the evolving business model being used by musician Amanda Palmer.

One commenter, Kevin Stapp, sums it up perfectly:

The more I hear about ‘new business models’ for musicians the more I’m reminded of a very old business model: patronage. Throughout much of history artists (painters, composers, sculptors, etc.) were supported by patrons who commissioned the artist’s work. Some of the greatest works of Western art (think Sistine Chapel) were created at the behest of a rich patron. The unique aspect of the patronage model is the patron commissioned the artist to create something out of a true appreciation for art itself. There wasn’t any real intention to take financial advantage by reselling the work. Patrons paid for art for the art’s sake alone.

Amanda Palmer’s efforts to connect with fans is a sort of crowd-sourcing patronage model. These ‘fans’ are really just patrons of the art Amanda Palmer creates. Rather than find one patron to support your art you find 50 or 100 or more. Like the rich patrons of history the fans aren’t interested in profiting from the artist they support; they simply appreciate the art itself. It will be interesting to see if the patronage model supplants the commercial profit model for music.

This Crowd-Sourced Patronage model, as Kevin dubbed it, seems to draw together a lot of the strands of thought that have emerged in the past few years – Kevin Kelly’s “1000 True Fans”, the “Freeconomics” ideas discussed by a multitude of people, and multi-way open communication between fans and creators (as opposed to press releases).

So what are the basic features of Crowd-Sourced Artistic Patronage?

1. Build a base of true fans

This is the foundation of everything. Your “true fans” are your patrons and without them you won’t succeed.

Kevin Kelly’s seminal post 1000 True Fans describes how an achievable number of fans can provide the financial support an artist needs (note: as Kevin mentions, it doesn’t have to be 1000).

You need to work hard to get—and keep—these fans.  And this hard work should be fun.  Again, quoting Amanda Palmer:

i started my band in 2000. we didn’t play rock clubs. we played in our friends houses, in our own houses, in art galleries, in lofts, at parties. then we gradually brought the party indoors, into clubs that would book us once they knew we’d bring in 50 drinking/paying bodies. i treated our email list like gold. i obsessively stayed up all night and added named after every show. we took the time to meet every single fan who wanted to meet us after every show … but this wasn’t because i felt it was mandatory…i did this because we LIKED it.

2. Free-up the abundant, charge for the scarce

If a component of your work is freely reproducible and freely distributable, then don’t try to restrict or control it.  For a visual artist this might include digital reproductions of your artwork (the images on your website).

Artists often talk of people “stealing” their images.  When they say this, they don’t mean that people are breaking into their studios and making off with their canvases.  They mean that someone has downloaded an image from their website.

I’ve blogged about this before in more detail. I know it’s an emotive issue with some artists, who argue furiously against letting people freely distribute digital reproductions of your artwork at no cost to you, potentially bringing you more new (paying) fans for your real artwork.  However I’ve never heard a good business reason why an artist should try to restrict this free marketing.

My position is this: the digital reproductions of an artist’s work are the legal property of an artist (unless they sell the rights on). I’ve never argued against that legal position. However, I have taken the business decision to allow—and encourage—anyone to download and freely distribute the digital images of my artwork as I think this is a good thing, both for me as an artist and for my potential customers (my 1000 true fans).

Meanwhile I continue to work on my actual (non-digital) artwork, for which I will be charging money. I’m charging for this component because it’s scarce, and not digitally reproducible at little or no cost. If you want to read more about what exactly I’m doing (including what I’m charging for and what I’m giving away) then I’ve covered it in more detail here.

3. Continually engage with people who like your work

Keep your lines of communication open, and actively encourage—and facilitate—a dialogue between you and your potential customers. Don’t rely on them to come to you (and your website) – go out and connect using toolls like Twitter.

If you have any feedback I’d be really interested to hear it.