The New Artisan

The idea of the creative-for-hire isn't really a new one. People have been commissioning art for centuries now. However, the relationship between patron and artist has changed dramatically in relatively recent times; the ultra-rich individual has been replaced with a middle-class crowd, and the internet has supplanted face-to-face deals, but I think the most important development is the rise of internet services that attempt to act as technical platform that allows the artist to focus on their art — at the time I write this, that space is primarily occupied by Patreon, though there are others in the field as well, such as ko-fi and fanbox. They all have in common the ability to easily handle payment processing, website management, and content hosting, to some degree. While I think this is a natural evolution of the internet and is largely just the market moving to fill an untapped space, I think we need to be careful of how we approach this kind of problem in the future.

Let's start by looking at the main problem that caused these sites to come into being. Say you're an artist1 in the early 2000s-era internet, and want to take donations and contributions from people who like your work. Your best bet is probably adding a donation button that links to Paypal, with a website you made yourself with WYSIWYG software or hosted on a service that provides pre-built templates. All in all, we're looking at probably a couple days' worth of research, maybe a couple of bucks a month in operating fees, and maybe a few hours a month for upkeep on the website; toss in a few more if you're adventurous and are using a bare web server and uploading the HTML yourself. And that's all if you want an entirely static affair — want certain content to be available to people who only pay a certain amount? You're going to have to learn some programming, my right-brained friend.

So with all that in mind, the rise of the current crop of middlemen makes perfect sense. You can set up an account on any one of them in minutes and immediately start posting your work and receiving payment — most of the time you only pay an amount proportional to what you make, too. You never have to see a line of code just to get some money in return for your efforts, either. And it's all wrapped up in a visually-appealing UI/UX that's likely better than anything you could come up with yourself. What's not to love?

A decent little bit.

The price to pay for all of this convenience is that a private company is now in control of no small part of your side income, or horror of horrors, your main income.2 Sure, you could argue that that's no different than the rest of us. But you're not an employee of Patreon; you don't get health insurance, you don't get PTO, and you're certainly not given severance. You've got no protections. You're a user. You've got all the downsides of working for someone else with none of the benefits.

Another argument is that you were always at someone's mercy, even back in the good old days. Sure, there were still corporations between you and whoever else gave you money, but the ones who were, like the web hosts, were largely fungible — and the ones who weren't, like the payment processors, behaved more like public utilities than anything else.3

You could also say that anyone using the current platforms as their primary source of income is crazy. At least in their current state, I might be inclined to agree, but for better or for worse, anecdotally people want to be supported by such platforms. The new rush of people attempting to make their fortune via Patreon-supported content or by becoming a livestreamer or Youtuber speaks to how appealing it is, especially considering how lucrative it can be at the very top. I think we owe it to these guys to at least try to brainstorm a better solution to this mess.

Now, as I said previously, I think the current state of things are more due to these sorts of platforms being extremely new (Patreon was founded in 2013, for instance) than any kind of inherently sinister motive, so I don't want anyone dogpiling on the companies themselves, either. As I see it, there are three ways out of this problem — a technological solution, a licensing solution, and a legislative solution.

The technological solution is straightforward: Create patronage platforms that allow the individual to fully own the means by which they do their work.4 This would take the form of a website package that would provide Patreon-like functionality while being able to be deployed on any server of the creator's choosing, ideally with a one-time payment (were it to be commercial) instead of a subscription model that could be held over the creator's head.

The upside of this approach is obvious: Once the code's in your hands, nobody can take it away from you. Angry payment processors/hosting providers aside, nobody can kill your business but yourself. You're also free from the prospect of yet another middleman taking an additional cut of the haul.

The downside is also obvious: We're (potentially) back to where we started in the early 2000s in terms of usability for non-webdev-inclined people. Which, in the case of art, is probably going to be most of them. There's still some room for variance in regards to usabillity, though; a full-stack web app that screams for container orchestration and a 6-head DevOps team is a far cry from some simple Javascript that can be integrated with a hop, skip, and a <script src="http://">. That said, even in the latter case, it's not the same thing as creating a Patreon account and posting art commissions in under 5 minutes — centralized services have a convenience advantage that's difficult to ignore. However, with the growing IndieWeb movement accompanied by platforms like neocities, as well as new web APIs such as Web Monetization and Web Payments, this route is a lot easier than it would be in decades past. There's still the hurdle of convincing artists that the loss of convenience would be worth the increased freedom, but I think that can be done. As it becomes cool to run your own website again,5 that issue may end up solving itself.

The licensing solution basically involves keeping the centralized model used by contemporary sites, but licensing the code under a Free/open-source license, maybe the AGPL. It's not particularly hard to create a Patreon clone in my opinion; they're just a good ol' CRUD application with a thin layer over a payment processor, after all. So the code doesn't provide any particular competitive advantage. So, why not license the code under something permissive? This gives your users the peace of mind that if you start mistreating them or otherwise misbehaving, they can pack up and set up shop elsewhere.

Or that's the theory, at least. There's a couple major assumptions that this approach makes, the first one being that someone else will host a new instance and invite everyone else back, instead of the userbase slowly migrating to other platforms. Secondly, that the act of moving shop wouldn't hurt any existing users. A lot of larger artists/content creators are large enough that they could move anywhere and their supporters would follow, but I doubt this is true for smaller names. And since — to the best of my knowledge — most patronage platforms act as a middleman between the artist and the patron, you won't get paid until you make the move and convince your patrons to make the move, on top of that.

There's also the legislative solution, which basically would get the government to label artists on patronage platforms as protected in some way, perhaps as full-fledged employees. On the bright side, you've got some (hopefully) decent protections for those starving souls who won't be subjected to the every whim of some overvalued startup.

On the downside, you've got government in your internet.

I intentionally don't get (too) political on my blog often, but the hands-off free-for-all that we've got going on online has served us well in terms of innovation and ingenuity so far, and I'd hate to see that get dissolved. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments (or lack thereof) long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. Getting kicked off of Patreon cause you ticked them off or whatever is pretty light and transient in the grand scheme of things. So let's think of a less heavy-handed approach before we take the nuclear option and all get our toys taken away, okay?6

In my view, for the vast majority of people at the moment, the centralized services we have now are "good enough." Like I said earlier, they're not actively "evil" or anything, and broadly-speaking seem to do good by most of their users. Still, I think there's a kind of sword-of-Damocles situation going on here, and it makes me uneasy. It'd be better to brainstorm possible solutions now while times are easy, than before we get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Further on down the road if everyone starts running their own mostly-static websites, I think having smaller self-hosted solutions would be best — but we'll probably end up crossing that bridge when we get to it.

Footnotes

[1] - Or any sort of non-technical person, really.

[2] - While I don't discuss them explicitly in this article, this same problem befalls anyone trying to make a living via content creation on Youtube, Twitch, or similar services. Note that livestreaming video is a much harder technical prospect if you want a Twitch-level audience without having Twitch-level infrastructure, compared to just static images.

[3] - Well, sort of. I wrote a college paper a couple years ago about payment processors acting like the private companies they technically are. I'll put it up here one of these days.

[4] - The irony of using that phrasing in a discussion of inherently capitalistic endeavors is not lost on me.

[5] - Not that I have any bias on the matter.

[6] - Guess which solution is my least favorite.