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It's time to get out of the way of artists making money on the internet

4 min read

I'm spending some of my time trying to better understand how people who make creative work on the internet - writers, artists, musicians, indie developers - can build an audience and make a living from their work.

I have a lot of questions about how these creators can find people who their work resonates with. This is the opposite of founding a startup or a small business, for example: there you're finding the audience first, and building something that resonates with them. While some creative work is along those lines, more of it comes from a different creative space. The work is some function of the creator's need, with the feedback loop from the audience factoring into the mix as it grows.

Community-building, then, is a big question - particularly in the world of opaque social media algorithms that get in the way of talking directly to your followers. I'm calling it "community-building" becaues while promotion is a component, it's not the whole purpose, nor the overriding instinct. Finding kindred minds is a more immediate emotional need, even if the financial act of covering your bills is closer to the base level of Maslow's Hierarchy.

In the current ecosystem, community-building and compensation have been rolled up into one set of tools. By providing value over the top of facilitating transactions, platforms can attract creators. The more creators they attract, the larger the audience they bring with them, and the larger the cumulative profit they ultimately earn.

Medium does this well: by submitting work to the Partner Program, you're much more likely to be featured on the homepage and in its newsletters - and its payments are not insubstantial (here's my featured story Rules for Resters). Substack performs a similar trick for email newsletters (I subscribe to Daniel Ortberg). Patreon attempts to do it for every kind of creative work on every medium, which is a tricky balancing act (I back Hallie Bateman and Mastodon).

Everybody is more or less aligned here, and real money is being made, but this bundling makes it difficult to tailor your revenue or community-building tactics to your audience. One size has to fit all.

This may work for some creators; others, not so much. Every community and audience is different, and understanding their needs and desires is a core part of building a following, and a subscriber base. It's not about what you assume their needs and desires are; it's all about getting to know them as real people, and through this holistic understanding, developing unique insights about them. These insights can validate or invalidate your assumptions, but they can also take you in entirely new directions. (This principle applies to both artists and business founders, although, as I pointed out earlier, the starting point in this learning cycle is probably different.)

There's a clear benefit to making payments easier, and having a common gateway to do that, so that audience members don't have to enter their credit card details again and again and again. But that doesn't mean that everything needs to be bundled. There's also a clear benefit to having the tools of community-building and taking payments made out of small pieces, loosely joined, so that you can create the stack that makes the most sense for your own community, with tools that are tailored for them. One size fits all services are the first step, and maybe the entry point. But this is the web, and more is possible.

Patreon et al don't just want to own the payment relationship between artists and their audiences; they want to  own all aspects of that relationship. They want fans to visit their homepages instead of the artists' own. Ultimately, they want to own the way artists communicate with the world - making those communications subject to their own rules.

By establishing open standards for one-click, peer-to-peer payment that can then integrate with multiple tools, artists can potentially be better served. They can meet their audiences where they're at. They can make money without adhering to anyone else's rules. And they can more quickly reach a point where they're covering their costs through the work that they love.

This open source, decentralized world is coming. It's great news for anyone who wants to see a diverse cultural landscape where anyone can make money on their own terms, without regard for language, borders, or what someone at a desk in San Francisco thinks would be nice to promote. And it will change everything.