Business & StrategyMusicians

Amanda Palmer Is Home: Why the Kickstarter Queen Embraced a New Way to Fund and Create Art

July 17, 2018Olivia Seitz

Amanda Palmer is known for a lot of things (or Things, as she calls them). 56 of them, in fact. While the mainstream media is better acquainted with her previous endeavors — things like making it big as one half of The Dresden Dolls, breaking the record for money raised on Kickstarter as a musician after she went solo, and authoring The Art of Asking—her fans simply know her as Amanda F***ing Palmer: Maker of Things.

Each Thing she releases is a project—often a music video, new song, or special performance—supported by her 11,000+ patrons. They pledge to pay a fixed amount per Thing. Their support changed Amanda’s entire world: everything from what it means to be successful, to what she can create, to why she creates at all.

In our interview, Amanda opened a window into her Patreon experience: how her patrons changed everything, what other creators joining Patreon should consider, and even insight into the nitty-gritty details of running a Patreon campaign.

To help you navigate her insights and advice, here’s an outline of what’s to come:

  1. Why Amanda Never Returned to Kickstarter
  2. The Transformative Power of Patrons

  3. Amanda’s Advice for Fellow Creators

  4. Making All the Things: Insights Into Amanda’s Strategy

  5. Last, But Not Least: What Patrons Mean to Amanda

Why Amanda Never Returned to Kickstarter

In 2012, Amanda Palmer broke records by raising over $1.2 million on Kickstarter to fund her album Theatre is Evil. As the artist behind Kickstarter’s largest evercrowdfunded original music campaign, you might think she’d return to the platform with glee. She hasn’t.

What most people don’t know about her Kickstarter campaign is that it didn’t make a profit.

A screenshot from The Verge, which ran an article on Amanda’s record-breaking Kickstarter.
A screenshot from The Verge, which ran an article on Amanda’s record-breaking Kickstarter.

“I promised my Kickstarter backers the moon and I cheerfully over-delivered, knowing that longterm it would provide a stronger relationship with my fans,” Amanda explained. Production costs, transaction fees, taxes, delivery mishaps and more each took their bite out of the total.

The value of the Kickstarter campaign wasn’t the profit (since, well, there wasn’t any). It allowed Amanda to make her art. But even more importantly, “The Kickstarter exercise was hard proof that my community wanted to support my endeavors wholeheartedly (and blindly) because I pre-sold 25,000 copies of an album that nobody had heard,” she emphasized. The campaign did what it needed to do.

But would she do it again? “I looked back at the entire exercise, scratched my head, and said, ‘Would I do that again?’ And the answer was no," she told us. “It was too much work for an unsustainable system. I love the platform. I love the ethos. I love the people and I love it for what it's good for: big pushes to make a one-time project manifest.

“But Kickstarter as a musician isn't sustainable. If you want to make serial content, it's like asking someone to subscribe to a magazine every two weeks. It's not the way you do it.”

And that revelation led her to try another platform: Patreon. Because she spent her life building a relationship with fans, because she delivered what she promised in the Kickstarter, because she’s Amanda F***ing Palmer, those fans came with her. They’ve been here for the last three years, supporting her artsy, eclectic projects each time they come out.

Whatever she’s doing is working: over 11,000 patrons have supported her throughout the creation of 56 Things and counting.

Now that you know why she’s not on Kickstarter anymore, it’s time to ask… why Patreon?

The Transformative Power of Patrons

Amanda has always been known for her close relationship with fans. In her book, The Art of Asking, she recounted nights of couch surfing, impromptu performances, emailing, and Twittering. So why should her relationship with her patrons (instead of her previous fan relationships) make such a big difference?

Transformation #1: Art for Art’s Sake

Amanda’s patrons allow her to pursue projects that have “art potential” but no “commercial potential.” Never before in her career had she experienced the creative freedom she does now.

For example, she collaborated with animation artists to create a short film about a conversation with her definitely-still-asleep husband, Neil Gaiman. While the video itself is intriguing, touching on ideas of individuality, she could never have funded the project without her patrons.

Amanda’s animated short film, “Behind the Trees,” could never have been funded without her patrons.

Things like that aren't possible in the world because they don't have any commercial potential. There was no other universe in which these things could be funded. I still get full body chills when I think about the fact that I could use Patreon to fund absolutely anything I wanted—from literature, to film, to animation, to painting, to fine art, to the spoken word,” she mused.

Artwork for The Ride, a patron-only release inspired by Amanda’s patrons.
Artwork for The Ride, a patron-only release inspired by Amanda’s patrons.

The result? A proliferation of art that’s meaningful to her and to her fans. Sometimes they merely enjoy the results, and sometimes they serve as her inspiration: for The Ride, she asked patrons to describe what they were most afraid of at the moment (in less than 50 words) and wrote a song based on their responses. She doesn’t believe that they would have been so open and raw in any other corner of the internet and loves that she can provide a safe environment for them to share with her and with each other.

“I've really come to understand that my role as a songwriter and an art maker has a whole untapped level of exchange because I'm now in this committed relationship with my patrons. And we talk to each other and I can utilize their words and reflections in my art in a way that I never quite have before,” she said.

Transformation #2: Measuring Success by Impact, Not Media Mentions

Not only has that relationship changed the way and the speed in which she makes art: it also changed her fundamental definition of success as an artist.

Throughout her career, she believed in the same milestones of success everyone else did: getting a music video on MTV, having your song on the radio, being featured in Rolling Stone, and so forth. But she now believes these markers—while not without merit—hardly scratch the surface of true success.

Instead, Amanda Palmer measures her success by the number of people impacted by her art. “If I create a piece of work and my audience of 11,000 people is affected enough to tell me that they were moved, changed, or inspired by that piece of work, I can chalk that up as a success. Because my patrons are in it for the long haul with me, and I trust them more than I trust Rolling Stone. Their opinion about my work doesn't weigh as much as the collective opinion of the people who really understand me and can put my work in context,” she explained.

Amanda greeting a fan during an after-show signing. Photo credit: Andrew AB Photography.
Amanda greeting a fan during an after-show signing. Photo credit: Andrew AB Photography.

That’s not to say the adjustment has been easy. Every day, she works to recalibrate her “bananas ideas” about success to align with her goal of impacting people in a real and powerful way. Since her patrons are also her financiers, that adjustment is far more possible. She doesn’t need critics or record labels to create “success.”

“It feels like the most triumphant final word I could have over critics who haven't understood me. The last word isn't, Ha! you finally understand me and have to write about me and cover me.It's, Ah-ha. I have finally found a way not to need you,” she emphasized.

“I never even realized how much Kool-aid I had been drinking about why I was making art in the first place. Did I have something to sell or did I have something to say? Only after I had really sat with Patreon for a long time did I realize that, fundamentally, I wanted to be an artist not because I wanted to be famous, not because I wanted to be rich, but because I wanted to be seen and because I wanted to share things with the people around me. Patreon has made that more possible than any other system.”

Her patrons have transformed her outlook on art and success—and she couldn’t be more grateful.

Amanda’s Advice for Fellow Creators

Amanda is completely at home with her chaotic life as an artist funded through patronage. That’s not to say that it isn’t hard work, that she’s never failed, or that she hasn’t had to go back to the drawing board time and time again. It means that the benefits—her ability to make her art, her way, in her time—outweigh the challenges. For creators looking to succeed on Patreon, Amanda had a few pieces of advice before digging into specific tactics.

Creator Advice #1: “Patreon Is Not a Magical Money Tree.”

All too often, artists who turn to Amanda for advice don’t understand the Patreon business model. “Patreon is a tool you can use to let people pay you who already want to pay you and don't have a way to do it. You always have to build a trusting relationship,” she explained. “It isn’t a platform for absolute beginners.”

In other words, you need to build a relationship with your fans beforeyou can ask them to support you on Patreon. People who don’t know and trust you aren’t likely to part with their hard-earned dollars. And when you do have an audience, you have to ask in the right way (a topic she covered in The Art of Asking).

What many people don’t realize is that even though her Patreon pulls in tens of thousands of dollars every month, that money doesn’t result in massive profits. The money she earns from Patreon is invested back into her team, into the artists who collaborate with her, and into the rewards she provides her patrons with.

And when you collaborate with so many people on so many Things (for Amanda, that’s 750 different people and counting), it’s costly. Sometimes it takes hiring a second or third video crew to make the music video pop, or hiring a second artist because the first one couldn’t make what you needed in time. You might have unexpected accidents (like the time, before her Patreon days, when a cat peed on a whole box of T-shirts!).

Sometimes, you have a great (or, it seemed like it at the time) idea that costs way more than you thought. For example, Amanda shared a lesson learned from her Kickstarter experience with her patrons in a blog post.

“Amanda's bright idea: Why not just offer free international shipping? I bet the amount of orders we get will cover the difference!!!" The retrospective answer: Because it will literally cost you over one hundred thousand dollars, idiot."

Fortunately, she’s since worked out how to offer free international shipping to patrons.

Hayley Rosenblum and Michael McComiskey, Amanda’s full-time employees, rocking the merch van.
Hayley Rosenblum and Michael McComiskey, Amanda’s full-time employees, rocking the merch van.

And of course, there are the regular costs of doing business. Monthly operating costs are usually about $25,000 to cover payroll for her full time staff, their insurance, her insurance, tour insurance, equipment insurance, office rent and expenses, website maintenance, phone bills, taxes, her manager’s cut, her booking and literary agents’ cuts, and oh yes—paying the accountants. All that is before the cost of the Things themselves (read: not free).

Some of these projects are loss leaders because I want to make good f***ing content for my fans. And sometimes when my projects go over budget, we make no money and sometimes negative money. Art is not ‘color by numbers.’ It does not cost exactly $8,400 to make a piece of art. And sometimes you just have to let it fly and know that the fans are going to trust you. That's a big part of this process, the constant trust fall of, it's going to cost what it's going to cost. Sometimes it's going to be nothing and sometimes it's going to be everything.”

Takeaway for creators: Setting up a Patreon doesn’t mean money will start pouring into your bank account. It takes work and a willingness to commit to quality over pure profit; only then will your fans trust you enough to continue supporting what you do.

Creator Advice #2: Talk About Money.

One of the most difficult parts of Amanda’s work is the intersection of art and money. She believes money is where a lot of artists get tripped up: when you run a Patreon or a Kickstarter campaign, there’s no code of etiquette for how everyone gets compensated in the end.

Those awkward, dicey conversations with collaborators is part of the process because you can't hide behind your record label, your manager, your producer, and the other people who were cutting the deals for you. You have to do it and you have to be accountable and answerable for how you manage the intersection of art and money,” she said.

Amanda with two collaborators, Zoe Keating and Melissa Auf der Maur, during the Mother music video shoot. Photo credit Krys Fox.
Amanda with two collaborators, Zoe Keating and Melissa Auf der Maur, during the Mother music video shoot. Photo credit Krys Fox.

Her solution was to decide what her policy would be and stick to it, no matter what. That way, “you know where you stand and you know where your moral, ethical, financial, accountable feet are planted and you will not let people f*** with you,” she added.

“We’re the only ones doing this at this scale, so we're having to make up a lot of ground rules and a code of ethics and then just fly and hope that we're doing it the right way.”

Takeaway for creators: Force yourself to have conversations with collaborators about money. The sooner you determine a just policy regarding how Patreon funds are distributed, the easier that will be.

Creator Advice #3: When Things (Inevitably) Go Wrong, Apologize.

Amanda struggled for years to put together a team that could move as quickly as she did.

She needed a team that could follow her in her “bizarre ballet dance” of creating art, changing her mind, cutting one thing and adding another, deferring ideas and swapping others in. There’s never a dull moment in Palmer’s headquarters.

“I’ve learned the hard way that having a standard, run-of-the-mill, music industry manager and team while running a Patreon is going to be difficult. I had to search the ends of the Earth, but I feel like I've finally found a really phenomenal team,” she said.

But even with her dream team behind her, things still go wrong: after all, they’re human. And they’re trying things that have never been done before. The important thing, Amanda believes, is that you and your team members are transparent and honest when making mistakes.

Reflecting upon her Kickstarter experience, Amanda shared, “The learning process isn’t about what goes wrong—the tee shirts that get peed on by an assistant’s cat, the records that break, the poster tubes that get crushed, the addresses that get printed too light, the books that bend—  the most important lessons were how we fixed things and how we communicated. It was how we apologized again and how we sent handwritten notes saying, We're so sorry that this is the third record we're sending you. We hope this is finally the right one. Here's a sticker.”

As a result, she says, “we've built a community, family enterprise that prides itself on accountability, responsibility, apology, and a family vibe of understanding and forgiveness. Because something always goes wrong.”

Takeaway for creators: Expect things to go wrong. No matter what, the important thing isn’t that something went wrong: the important thing is how you fix it. Be accountable and apologize whenever needed; your fans will stick with you because of it. Take the time to build a team that can be accountable and transparent alongside you

Making All the Things: Insights Into Amanda’s Strategy

Amanda has learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work for her fans. While she’s absolutely “making stuff up” as she goes, it’s still informed by past experience and by what the fans themselves have communicated. While she and the team strive for excellence, perfection isn’t attainable when it comes to running a Patreon campaign.

Photo credit: Hayley Rosenblum.
Photo credit: Hayley Rosenblum.

Every day I have to wake up, look at the pile on my desk, look in the mirror, and remind myself that there isn’t some golden standard of Patreon that we're going to finally unlock. We're actually creating this with our bare hands. We’re making up a lot of random rules. Case in point, how many Things do we release a month? What order do we release them in? Are we going to release this first because it's the expensive project and this second because it's the cheap project? How are we going to pay our collaborators? Is it going to be on some bizarre, Patreon-based scale? Are we going to pay our collaborators a flat fee?”

Those are real questions she and her team work to unravel. Her rewards, her Things, and her ground rules aren’t static: they’re changing with the needs of her team and her patrons.

With that in mind, here are a few things she and her team have learned.

Campaign Insight #1: Thank-You Cards Can Drive Sign-ups

One of the exercises Amanda tried to boost patronage last year was to offer a thank-you card to any patron, of any tier, who wanted one. They expected about 3,000 patrons to take them up on the offer. Instead, they got 9,000 requests!

The exclusive thank-you card sent to Amanda’s patrons last year.
The exclusive thank-you card sent to Amanda’s patrons last year.

Since it was a one-time offer, it was possible that many fans would sign up as patrons just to get the card, then bail. But the team was pleasantly surprised that out of all the patrons who came for the card, 87% stayed to support Amanda long-term. That’s significant in and of itself; more so when you consider that 2,540 fans (compared to her usual rate of 300-400 per month) became patrons that month!

In other words, the expense of creating the cards was worthwhile compared to the sustained support of new patrons.

Campaign Insight #2: If You Charge Per Creation, Budget Conservatively

Most creators who charge per item created allow patrons to place a monthly cap on how much they’re charged. For example, a $10/Thing supporter might cap donations at $20/month. So if she releases three Things per month (not an unusual occurrence), the first Thing will make the most money, the second Thing will make a little less, and the third Thing will make even less.

Knowing that, you have to decide how much you can afford to create each month based on how much your patrons are able to support. If you assume you’ll get as much for your first project of the month as for your third, your budget will likely fall short.

Campaign Insight #3: Physical Merch Is Good (But Not Paramount)

Physical merchandise doesn’t matter to as many fans as you might think.

“My fans don't need shit in their mailbox as much as they need to know that they're supporting my creation of music, music videos, and live performances. For a lot of them, it's enough to get the digital artifact. And that was a difficult lesson to learn for someone who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and clutches my vinyl records to my chest.”

image6

That’s not to say that physical merch isn’t appreciated: Amanda implemented a new ‘Art in the Mail’ reward for higher-tier backers. It promises fun art surprises a few times throughout the year. Those who want it sign up; those who don’t, don’t. So far, it’s working out well and it gives Amanda a way to commission independent artists or draw something herself as she sees fit.

That said, she still offers far less physical merchandise than she did with the Kickstarter, and both she and her fans are happier for it. She has more time to make what they really want (all the Things!), and they have less “shit in the mailbox.”

Campaign Insight #4: Amanda’s Third Thing = “The State of All The Things”

After speaking with her patrons extensively, Amanda learned that one of the things they valued most were her updates and commentaries, small offerings that helped them get to know her as a person. While she doesn’t think those things are necessary for success on Patreon, they’re true to her personality and her fans love it.

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That led her to an experiment that’s several months underway: near the end of each month, Amanda posts “The State of All The Things.” It’s a post that details what happened that month, where the money is going, what patrons can expect going forward, and more. It’s long, it takes a ton of time to write, and it comes after her one or two art Things, meaning that only patrons who haven’t capped their donations are funding it.

She was hesitant about implementing it, but her patrons gave her the ‘go ahead:’

image14 image4 image2

It helps make her team’s operating costs (discussed under “Patreon Is Not a Magical Money Tree” above) manageable while keeping her patrons more in the loop than ever before.

It’s not something everyone could do successfully, but for the right creator and audience, a ‘state of all the things’ type offering is a great way to keep your lights on.

Campaign Insight #5: Amanda’s Patrons Love Events (In Person or Not)

In particular, her patrons love webcasts of events they can’t attend in person. Webcasts are one of the first Things Amanda started offering, and they’ve remained popular throughout the three years she’s been on Patreon.

Amanda at a patron-only event in London. Photo credit: Kenny Mathieson.
Amanda at a patron-only event in London. Photo credit: Kenny Mathieson.

When she can, she also sells tickets to exclusive, patrons-only events in areas where she tours. She couldn’t fund them from existing Patreon revenue, but that’s not a problem: her patrons are more than happy to buy tickets for extras. Offering them as a separate perk frees her from having to offer them as a regular tier reward (too much commitment), but gives her a chance to connect with patrons in person. Since the first round of parties were successful, she plans to offer more in the future.

Both techniques could be used successfully by any creator who puts on live shows.

Campaign Insight #6: BUILD A MAILING LIST

Photo credit: Hayley Rosenblum.
Photo credit: Hayley Rosenblum.

From the earliest days of touring, Amanda been gathering her fans’ email addresses. She’s been building the list (around 150,000 strong) for decades, and it’s her most cherished method of communicating with fans.

It’s better than Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram combined. Why? Because she owns the relationship. No one can censor or throttle her communications: it’s between her and the fans. No algorithms can take that away. She loves that Patreon displays the email addresses of her patrons: if there’s ever an issue with reward delivery or if she wants to check in and say hello in a more personal way, she can. In return, they get a special email address they can use to get in touch with her and her team more quickly.

The email list protects relationships that will only continue to grow: forging real human bonds has always been Amanda’s schtick, and that’s never going to change.

Last, But Not Least: What Patrons Mean to Amanda

A gif from Amanda’s video about how her patrons are changing everything A gif from Amanda’s video about how her patrons are changing everything.

Not everyone does Patreon the way Amanda does. Not everyone can (or wants to), and that’s for the best. But for her, one of the most impactful aspects of having patrons is the relationships that blossom from the time both parties spend together. It’s a great consolation for her to know that they will always be there for her and that she can be there for them, uplifting them and inspiring them the way they uplift and inspire her.

“I can no longer pretend that my audience is amorphous and fickle and they can no longer pretend that they’ll maybe check my music out every once in a while. It has taken a long-term relationship to the altar. We've done an official handfastening and the emotional component of that is hard to put into words, but I feel so incredibly held and supported and believed and authenticated by those 11,000 people in a way that no billboard chart position and no five-star review in any magazine could ever give me.

These people who have been supporting me on Patreon, especially from the early days, have literally held my hand—not only financially, but emotionally and spiritually—while I have walked through the flames and the swamps of life. They have seen me through the death of my best friend, the birth of my child, multiple album releases, the making of a record with my father, a miscarriage, and all of the attendant moments that make up the life of a real artist. This is not bullshit, this is not them coming to HMV every two years to check out what I'm doing by buying a piece of plastic and taking it to the register.

This is a real f***ing relationship and it's wonderful and, and it's very hard to summarize into a sound bite and that's why it's wonderful. It's wonderful because it's impossible to describe the enormity of a relationship like that, the same way it's impossible to answer the question, So what is it like to be married to Neil Gaiman? I can't answer that. It's a f***ing 10-year saga. And this relationship that I have with my patrons is now a really hardcore, really nuanced three year relationship with all of the ups and downs and ins and outs and joys and celebrations and tragedies that go along with a real life relationship.

It’s the kind of relationship that blossoms from being in a committed give-and-take exchange, one that transcends what has been possible in the music industry. It has changed and transformed artists and art from just being products to being actual working real people with real narratives. And that doesn't mean that we have to share every detail of our personal lives, but it does mean that there is an accountability, both on the side of the artist and on the side of the audience, that actually draws us closer together and makes the entire experience more real and authentic.”

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