The creator economy can't rely on Patreon.

I've been thinking about a friend who used to run a cooking channel on YouTube. When she first started, it was just her goofing around in her tiny apartment kitchen, sharing recipes and little cooking hacks. And people loved it. She was able to quit her office job and do her channel full-time.

Eventually, her viewers were asking for more recipes, more elaborate productions, and fancier kitchen gadgets to review. Suddenly, she needed some serious cash to keep it all going. She started taking on sponsors, then product placements, then brand deals. I watched her churn-out videos, just ads for knives, mixers, or meal kits. And I could see the light going out of her eyes a little.

She felt like she had no creative freedom or joy in her creations. And the only answer had been a pivot to direct financial support. But despite racking up tens of thousands of views per video, she struggled to convert more than a tiny fraction into paid subscribers.

Finally, we were grabbing coffee, and she just broke down. She asked me, "At what point am I selling out? And is it even worth it?"

I didn't have an answer. I don't think anyone does.

Creators who are burned out by renting space on someone else’s platform and playing the Shopping Channel game, squeezing dollars out of sponsored promotions, eventually shift toward a direct funding patronage model.

The promise of it is certainly attractive.

But it's just not realistic.

From Ghost to Patreon memberships and everything in between, there are more options than ever for artists, musicians, writers, and video producers to get paid directly by their audience. It's the 1,000 true fans theory that we've all been sold for the past 15 years - that all you need is a strong mailing list of people who give a shit, and a healthy living will follow.

Unfortunately, a theory is all it is.

Put simply, the numbers don't add up. Data from Patreon and Substack suggests the average conversion rate from follower to paying fan is about 5%. This means a creator would need a total fanbase of 20,000 followers to yield 1,000 paying supporters. And building a core fanbase of 20,000 engaged followers is extremely difficult in today's crowded creative landscape.

Relying solely on organic user payments rarely provides reliable and adequate income. Creators soon discover building a subscriber base is far easier said than done. Though some succeed due to viral content or niche popularity, creators are more often stranded in the discouraging and disappointing gap between audience reach and monetisable support.

In a crowded market, the supply of content creators hoping to profit from their work directly outstrips demand. The number of YouTube channels, podcasts, Substack newsletters, and other independently produced media has exploded. The signal-to-noise ratio is utterly unhinged. Talented creators struggle to stand out and attract an audience, let alone convince fans to pay up regularly. It is statistically unlikely that any random podcast or YouTube channel will blow up in popularity to the point of replacing the creator's working salary through direct payments.

And even when virality strikes, all forms of content rely on easily substitutable free alternatives. YouTube and Apple Podcasts offer a nearly endless feed of free, on-demand videos on every topic imaginable. Convincing music and video fans to pay even a few dollars monthly for exclusive content requires immense effort when similar artists offer work for free. The same dynamic applies to written content. With so many high-quality blogs and news sites available at no cost, it's a hard sell to entice swathes of readers to pay for niche reporting or commentary.

The challenges of direct audience monetisation go beyond marketplace saturation and free rider problems.

The transactional ask inherent in requesting money damages community trust and goodwill. Turning fans into individual revenue streams backfires, breaking the genuine parasocial relationships creators build with their audiences. The shift from viewing fans as community members to income sources changes social dynamics in ways many find unpalatable.

Creators themselves dislike the constant hustle associated with extracting money from fans. Having to endlessly pitch subscriber benefits and exclusive content takes mental bandwidth away from simply creating high-quality work. The non-stop social media promotion required to maintain income flows also detracts from production time. Burnout is common for independent creators struggling to balance business development and content creation.

This is not to say achieving direct fan funding is impossible. Writers like Ben Thompson at Stratechery prove that. Critically, though, it remains the exception rather than the norm.

More commonly, independent creators utilise audience monetisation to supplement other incomes. Partnering crowd-funding models with advertising revenue, part-time work, freelancing, grants, merchandising, or institutional funding helps mitigate the uncertainty of relying purely on consumers.

And that's a good thing. Hybrid income streams hedge against the risk of inconsistent audience support drying up. Viewing direct monetisation tools as only one part of a sustainable funding model keeps expectations realistic. With multiple paychecks, a drop in Patreon backers or newsletter subscribers only sinks part of the operation.

The primary objective in any creative work should always be developing and disseminating content that truly resonates with and engages your audience. The content should be meaningful, insightful, written, recorded or filmed for your audience. The people who give a shit. The people who care.

If anything obstructs this goal, it must be eliminated or re-evaluated, regardless of its nature, even if that means abandoning monetisation strategies. They should never compromise the quality and relevance of the content. The audience's need for meaningful interaction should always take precedence over any potential revenue generation.

And creators should be strategic and intentional in their approach, diversifying their income streams and not placing all their hopes on a single form of monetisation. It's the only way to build a resilient, sustainable creative model that can withstand the ebbs and flows of audience engagement and market trends.

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