Photo by South_agency

Crowdfunding in an empty street

Not everyone can succeed at the art of asking

Artillery Row

A few years ago my spouse hung out with a comedian friend at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “They have,” she said with horror, “to go and beg people to come to their shows!” I didn’t mention that they had to beg people to pay afterwards too. 

The online tip jar. The after-show bucket. The YouTube donations drive. We are in a golden age of crowdfunding art, and you can’t move online for a creator panhandling you for a donation for their content. In a celebrated 2013 TedTalk, “The Art of Asking”, Amanda Palmer posited this crowdfunding model as a path forward for artists to live directly from audience support. That audience would pay for the artist’s work, not out of compulsion, but out of a desire to help someone they felt connected to.

It requires an individual comfortable with giving up privacy

There seems to me a fundamental problem built into this model: a lot of people don’t feel comfortable asking for help from their audience. Frankly, it’s a little demeaning to have to do so even after you’ve already invested time in making something; obviously people who make stuff think it’s good or they wouldn’t have spent time doing so. Imagine this in a restaurant — “Did you enjoy the meal I cooked you? Would you like to pay for it?” To use crowdsourcing platforms, a degree of extroversion (and at worse narcissism) is required from the outset. An individual needs to act, as the screenwriter John Brownlow told me, as “their own carnival barker”.

In addition, it requires an individual comfortable with giving up privacy, even if only the privacy of how they create. The writer Adam Tooze refers to his Substack as a “public workshop” — well, some writers don’t feel comfortable letting people into their public workshop, certainly not whilst they’re working on things. Sure, you might open it up once in a while, but not all the time, especially not if you wanted to preserve any kind of mystique. Just look at the number of big name writers on Substack who send out emails with typos in them. 

Proximity between creator and audience has value, but distance does too — the distance to think things through and come to your own conclusions, away from your Patreon pledge to offer minimum monthly content. As Brownlow, who has worked within traditional and self-publishing sectors, puts it, “Every minute you spend on crowdfunding or promotion takes away from your time spent creatively, and so the creative side suffers.” The truth is, the skills to run successful crowdsourcing campaigns and self-promote are different from those needed to create good artistic work. We risk celebrating not the best artists but the best self-promoters. 

Crowdfunding models live by personal connection; the bigger their personal following, the bigger an artist’s potential rewards. You are asking people to invest in you, which is in many ways a return to an older model of personal patronage. This engagement doesn’t even need to be positive — I once had a person send money to my Ko-Fi along with an abusive message about my hair loss. For the sake of clarity, I am always happy to receive abuse in this format.

There are people who really relish this sense of personal connection. As the writer and musician Ariane Sherine says, her Patreons are “more like friends”; she even exchanges Christmas cards with them. The requirement to constantly supply your audience with content can be overstated — most people giving you money for your work are happier to receive an amount of it they could realistically consume, and scarcity creates demand. 

Donations are not substitutes for a living

Still, creative people can easily get stuck on a content treadmill — making so much stuff for so little money that they burn through their ideas, their time to develop new ones and finally themselves. The economics of platforms like Substack and Patreon are brutal. There’s a tier of big names making money, who have built existing reputations in legacy media outlets. Then there’s a vast scrapping mass of lower and indeed non-earners competing for peanuts. Even artists who do well see wild fluctuations. The comedian Alasdair Beckett-King, whose videos regularly go viral, saw high levels of Ko-Fi donation during lockdown, but has since, he tells me, they have dried up. Donations are not substitutes for a living.

For most people who embrace crowdfunding, what they get out of it is at best pocket money. You can be successful in gaining attention with gaining money; creators who are constantly being told how great they are and how much their audience values their work can easily forget that they’re not actually making any money. At least they get an audience — there are plenty of people who commit to crowdsourcing who don’t even get that. 

Behind all these structures, there are too many people making stuff, and not enough people happy to just consume it. The demands on audience attention are now so great that there are simply not enough viewers to give everything its due, resulting in a vicious competition for the attention there is. In addition, there is a real danger of, in John Brownlow’s words, “fan burnout”, from demands to donate or support far too many different campaigns.

What about crowdsourcing as a way to artistic freedom? There’s no evidence for me that trying to keep ten thousand subscribers happier is any more liberating than working with a publishing house. Both legacy and crowdsourcing funding models have their drawbacks, and both stem from the same problem: the lack of money in the arts.

What’s needed is a cultural world where there’s a little more largesse around — a bit more money for consumers to support work they liked, a more serious critical culture, and legacy media less subservient to an unholy combination of dogma and marketing. All that would be better than promising people pots of gold at the end of the self-promotional rainbow. Even in these circumstances, most creators wouldn’t be able to give up their day job, but they could at least go somewhere nice on their holidays from it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover