Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Media needs more than subscriptions and streaming

Joan Westenberg wrote the following in The creator economy can’t rely on Patreon.:

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.

She goes into some of the reasons, including a dive into the numbers that show that Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans idea (like pretty much everything the man has written) is an unrealistic fantasy. That’s not how it plays out in real markets, on the platforms we have.

As Joan points out in the same post:

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.

Subscriptions are the hardest media or cultural product you can sell. The difference in effort it takes to sell a subscription versus a regular product such as an ebook is dramatic, and once you have the subscriber it’s a struggle to keep them.

Audiences in general rarely reach a steady state. There’s a limit to the effort and work a single creator can do to build and maintain an audience. If you hit sustainability – true sustainability that you can build on without ruining yourself emotionally, physically, and psychologically – before you reach your limit, your audience will continue to grow, probably well past the 1000 true fan mark. You’ll probably end up with a true mass audience with time.

If you don’t, it’ll decline. Obviously.

Every streaming market – whether subscription- or ad-based – will consist of a few creators who have sustainable mass audiences while everybody else will have about two hundred paying fans, if that, who are themselves mostly creators subscribing to other creators.

Many artists, quite rationally, don’t see the point in continuing to push when their numbers reach a hard ceiling. Nobody’s served by an artist destroying themselves on social media.

This is why diversification is so important and why the switch of the entire media market to only streaming and subscription is so devastating, likely would have wiped out these industries even without generative models.

Again, a subscription is the hardest media artefact to sell, by a huge margin. You could go through an aggregator who is taking care of the work involved with finding those subscribers, but those platforms are dominated by the big names. They are geared to the already popular, not new entrants into the field. The UIs of these services don’t surface smaller titles because there isn’t any money in it. Smaller names on aggregators get peanuts. Even many of the big names get peanuts.

The choice for most creators in a subscription- and streaming-dominated marketplace is to either get peanuts (sell your own subscription) or peanuts (Spotify-style royalties).

You can’t live on peanuts when you’re starting out and developing your craft. The time you have to spend hustling to counteract subscriber churn or boost ad revenue is time you don’t get to spend getting better at your craft, but that’s the only path to a truly sustainable audience in the long term.

We need active markets for single-sale products (books, VoD, Bluray, CDs, vinyl, etc) if we want sustainability for new entrants to the field, because not everybody is as lucky as Laufey (though, she is legitimately amazing) and hit it big on social media out of the gate. You need a way for people to establish themselves and build names with products that are easier to sell than subscription.

But these kinds of products are threatened everywhere. Amazon has several genres of ebooks and audiobooks locked down and is starving them with inattentiveness. Competitors don’t invest in the sector because it’d be a waste of money without regulatory action. Why fight a monopoly or oligopoly? You’ll only lose.

Music is almost entirely streaming, with single product sales slowly switching back from digital to vinyl and CDs (which do okay numbers last I checked, surprisingly).

For those who didn’t follow the music scene 25 years ago, CDs were the perfect merch for concerts and generally sold much better than T-shirts or the like ever did. So so many bands paid their bills while they were starting by doing cheap CD runs and selling them at the venues. That’s gone now.

Video is also almost entirely streaming with Blu-ray sales, as far as I can tell, doing more vinyl-style numbers than CD or DVD. VHS and then DVD sales funded so so so many interesting and weird filmmakers back in the day. Most of the weird and inventive movies that came out of the late eighties, nineties, and early 2000s didn’t make their money in the cinemas. They earned their money through VHS and DVD sales.

The zero-interest-rate phenomenon of VCs subsidising creator platforms (which are all now turning predatory, natch) softened the blow for a very short while. It was only to set up entire industries to be gobbled up by monopolies or oligopolies, but some people made a bunch of money selling their industry out in the meantime.

The number of opportunities for new entrants into the various art and media industries are collapsing and everything is lined up to reduce those even further over the next few years. Without those opportunities, art and media will end up being dominated by the lucky, the well-connected, and those with rich families.

The music scene in many countries, like the UK, is already there.

Unfortunately, the only way to counteract this in a capitalist society is though consumerism. Buy those books, ebooks, albums and movies and try to buy them either direct or through artist-friendly venues. Try to add streamers that have smaller catalogues and prioritise less well known artists, like Mubi. Commission sketches and drawings from artists. Buy prints. And if you really do like an artist or writer, and they offer a subscription or Patreon, then sure, subscribe.

But that money may be better spent buying individual books from a dozen different writers instead—one a month instead of one subscription for a year. You’ll get a wider variety of writing, a plurality of ideas, and you’ll be giving twelve artists or writers a leg up instead of just one.

The Patreon and Substack economy isn’t sustainable and as long as those are the only options we have for supporting artists and writers, those fields will continue their decline.

You can also find me on Mastodon and Bluesky