In late March, as stocks plummeted and the U.S. economy braced for an unprecedented shutdown, Everett Rummage saw a sudden decline in the number of monthly Patreon subscribers to his popular weekly history podcast Age of Napoleon.
For the freelancer-turned-independent podcaster, the dip in paying subscribers on the membership platform was worrying, worth potentially thousands in lost revenue.
"In the first week, I probably [was on track to lose] $200 a month, which is not catastrophic. But multiplied by 12 months, that's a decent chunk of change. It was a little frightening," Rummage said.
The dip didn't last though. In the weeks that followed, subscribers returned to Age of Napoleon, which hosts its episodes on multiple podcast outlets but offers ad-free versions on Patreon, a platform that allows creators to charge for content.
"It's been kind of a roller coaster," said Rummage, who joined Patreon to defray the costs of running the research-heavy podcast but has since made the show his full-time gig.
Rummage is one of a growing number of writers, performers, musicians, and podcasters who have turned to fan-direct services such as Patreon, Substack, and OnlyFans to make a living. This trend has only been amplified under quarantine, as media consumption has increased dramatically worldwide.
There's been a rush of what Patreon calls "creators" looking to earn money amid the shutdown. Since mid-March, 100,000 new creators have joined the platform, and the value of current creators has more than doubled, according to the company.
While coronavirus is behind the latest upswing, the San Francisco-based company is banking on creators coming out of the coronavirus era eager to hedge their bets.
"Who knows when another pandemic or compelling event is going to hit in some way, shape, or form?" Kerri Pollard, senior vice president of revenue at Patreon, told Cheddar. "I think those who may have had all of their eggs in one basket have definitely learned that it's a good thing to diversify revenue."
But Patreon isn't the only fan-direct platform vying for this emerging market. Where independent creatives choose to set up shop is often a matter of their specific needs and the kinds of services offered to them in exchange for a sliver of their income.
Finding the Right Fit
In 2019, Epic Rap Battles of History, a comedic web series that pits historical figures against each other, was a classic case of a popular internet brand that needed a new place to call home.
The YouTube show had partnered with a larger studio network for several years before parting ways to start their own business.
"We needed a way to supplement that income that was provided by the studio," said Lloyd Ahlquist, creator of Epic Rap Battles.
In addition to a revenue stream, Patreon offered a level of freedom from the strictures of ad-based YouTube videos.
"If we got demonetized on YouTube for keeping our videos edgy, like we like them, without Patreon it would have been a massive loss," said Ahlquist. "Patreon allowed us to keep our product the way we wanted to keep it originally."
Avoiding the headache of seeking out and retaining advertisers has been a big part of the appeal of the fan-direct model, especially as coronavirus has taken a chunk out of ad revenues.
Everywhere from Facebook to The New York Times have seen digital ad revenues plummet due to the pandemic, despite a surge in new digital subscriptions and web traffic.
"Even though people are streaming more content than ever before, those cost-per-view rates are probably lower than ever before," Pollard said. "So we're looking to sort of close that revenue gap with membership."
In general, Patreon isn't precious about sharing creators with other outlets when it comes to content. The majority of users, according to Pollard, host their output on multiple platforms.
"We're definitely platform agnostic," said Pollard. "We have a lot of creators who are hosting the content elsewhere, and we've become more of a centralized content hub."
But for those creators without video or audio content to place behind Patreon's paywall, the platform mostly serves as an easy-to-use payment system rather than a place to stick content.
It doesn't work for everyone, though.
"I don't recommend it," said Mike Elk, a former Politico reporter and the founder of Payday Report, an independent news site that covers labor in news deserts around the U.S. "It was easy to use, which is why I think a lot of people are attracted to it. Then one of my friends said 'You know, you can do all the same things and even more with just a PayPal plugin on a WordPress website."
Payday Report maintains a Patreon account, but the majority of its supporters have moved over to using PayPal.
Other writers and journalists have gravitated towards Substack, an email newsletter platform with a similar payment system.
Derek Davison, the writer and analyst behind Foreign Exchanges, a newsletter that aggregates and offers perspective on international news stories, recently made the jump from Patreon to Substack after weighing the pros and cons of both services.
"I think Substack is more geared toward writers, which is the bulk of what I do," he said. "I think Patreon is still trying to figure out what it wants to be, but they've gone a lot more in the direction of other types of creative production."
Davison noted that Substack takes a bigger cut at 1o percent of subscription revenue, compared to Patreon's 5 percent cut, but that he's been able to double his subscriber base since moving.
Whatever the merits of a given platform, there is a widely held feeling that at the very least services such as Patreon and Substack offer creatives an opportunity to make it on their own.
"It's been pretty vital, especially at a time when most big outlets are cutting people instead of expanding," Davison said. "It's been a welcome thing to have a platform where people can take their creative products and build an audience for themselves."
'Hard to make a living'
Some online content creators aren't ready to pull the trigger on monetizing their output, but the option has become more tempting as the number of choices has expanded.
"I'm pretty cagey about the relationship you have with someone who is signed up for your newsletter," said Drew Austin, a former Uber employee and the writer behind Kneeling Bus, a Substack newsletter that explores the intersection of transportation and technology. "I don't want to overdo it. There's a lot of opportunities to market yourself. You have to be really selective."
Austin, for instance, recently compiled his favorite posts into a PDF that he sold for $10.
"I feel like I can do that occasionally, but if I'm constantly doing that it will eventually start to feel scammy and people will disengage," he said. "I'm also aware that I'm probably being overly cautious about that. I hear from a lot of people that monetizing their newsletter was a good idea."
For the moment, without building out your own webpage, platforms such as Substack and Patreon offer a relatively quick and easy way to host content and earn money, even if that means entrusting your business model to a middle man.
"There are times when it keeps me up at night. I fundamentally don't like the idea of the main chunk of my income coming through this one intermediary," Rummage said. "It's disturbing to think about it, but then again there are a lot of people who are in the same boat. At the end of the day, before I had this I was depending on one person, the boss, giving me money."
For one thing, it's much easier than freelancing and chasing down invoices every month, he added.
"It's hard to make a living in this country, and every way to do it has its drawbacks and its benefits," Rummage said.