Pick any artist, videographer, or creative type off the street today and they'll likely recognize the membership platform Patreon. It functions like an ongoing form of Kickstarter, allowing users to dedicate small contributions to creatives on a monthly or per-item basis. And if Patreon is the “economic engine of internet culture,” the data-crunching Graphtreon website is that engine's personal mechanic, popping the hood to inspect the gears and ensure everything's running smoothly.
In 2018, that's a service that Patreon's users are increasingly interested in. After all, last month marked the lowest point in Patreon PR history: A December 6 announcement revealed Patreon's plans to swap out a five percent service fee for creators with a transaction fee that would charge supporters 2.9 percent of their pledge combined with a flat rate of $0.35 per pledge. Creators saw a massive loss of supporters merely in anticipation of the extra charge, and Patreon quickly reversed their decision a week later. But they couldn't erase the abruptly delivered takeaway for tens of thousands of creators: Patreon is a public company with investors to appease.
The company is undoubtedly a huge boon to creators everywhere, but there's no harm in keeping track of how that revenue comes in and who it's flowing to. Since the stats site Graphtreon as the closest thing Patreon has to an industry watchdog, I decided to interview its creator and sole proprietor, software engineer Tom Boruta.
Revealing Unknown Success Stories
Tom started the site in early 2015, after realizing that he had been checking individual Patreon campaigns daily for months, simply out of a natural curiosity in their progress. In a decision many in the tech industry can no doubt identify with, he decided to automate his hobby.
In the first few months of Graphtreon's existence, one fact stood out to Tom.
“Surprising to me was the number of super successful creators on Patreon which I had never heard of,” Tom tells me.
“I think that goes down to the fact that most creators only need around 1,000 patrons to make it a full time gig, sometimes even less. The more passionate their fans, the fewer they need to make their campaign a success. This is in stark contrast to the advertising model where you need massive numbers of eyeballs to be a creator full-time.”
Graphtreon surfaces these creators who might otherwise go entirely unnoticed by the world at large, even while pulling in tens of thousands of dollars each month. Pages like “Top Creators” and “All Creators” can be sorted by category (podcasts, music, photography) and each categories' thousands of campaigns can — with the click of a mouse — be ranked in ascending or descending order by number of patrons, earnings, earnings per patron, days running, or date launched. Visit an individual creator's Graphtreon page, and you can track their daily progress across months or years.
Another Graphtreon page, “Hot Creators,” exists to highlight creators with 300 or more patrons who have seen the largest percentage patron growth in their category over the past 30 days. Without it, you'd never know that one Patreon campaign, Cryptocurrencymember, has ridden the cryptocurrency boom from two patrons on December 22, 2017 to over 2,100 patrons today.
My favorite success story from the site is the couple that earns over $7,000 a month by sharing haunted objects with a fanbase of just 210 patrons. But Graphtreon doesn't just find under-the-radar successes: The site also shines a light on the long tail of campaigns that are merely scraping by.
Just Two Percent of Creators Earn Minimum Wage
Graphtreon is currently tracking 84,888 creators on Patreon who have at least one patron, and they collectively earn an estimated $10,613,096.81 monthly, from 3,227,366 individual pledges. Fun fact: An additional 459,058 creators without any patrons exist on the site, which is likely a testament to the ease of the site's onboarding process.
But that ten million a month isn't distributed evenly. One of the biggest statistics Graphtreon has revealed, covered by publications like The Outline as well as Quartz and Bloomberg, is that just two percent of Patreon campaigns currently make the equivalent of the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In other words, the service isn't a great way to make a living. And a large chunk of creators aren't earning much of anything. Of the creators Graphtreon tracks, over a fourth — 23,188, Tom tells me — have just one patreon. We can't all be Chapo Trap House, the irreverent left-wing podcast that is Patreon's top earner with an absurd $92,000+ a month.
Graphtreon Growth: “Way Beyond My Expectations”
Condensing and shaping this much information into readable numbers isn't a task without speed bumps. Creators can choose to hide their earnings, leaving that metric blank on Graphtreon, though Tom does offer a “best guess” feature that's based on the average earnings of creators in similar categories.
Differences in how creators ask for money can muddy the statistic waters, too: Some creators are paid per month, while others charge per creation. Dealing with these issues doesn't seem to have hurt Graphtreon, which enjoyed over three million pageviews last year.
“Graphtreon has grown wildly since I started it and continues to grow in traffic and influence, way beyond my expectations,” Tom says. “The site's traffic has grown immensely from 76,000 pageviews in 2015 to 1,000,000 pageviews in 2016 and then 3,275,000 in 2017.”
So what is Tom's opinion on Patreon's proposed fee change and their subsequent PR troubles? Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who has been obsessed with the site enough to create Graphtreon in the first place, he's willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“I have talked with many people at Patreon and I think they try to do what's best for creators,” Tom explains. “I bet you they honestly thought most creators would really like the fee change. It might have been an echo chamber problem where people inside Patreon were hyping themselves up on how this change was going to be great. However, it doesn't seem like they got enough input from creators beforehand and the backlash of the announcement made that quite evident.
I do applaud Patreon for reversing course, as a lesser company would have ignored the backlash. As a software engineer myself, I know there was probably a ton of work already put into this change and now they have to scrap what, I presume, is months worth of work. Despite the recent negative developments, I think Patreon is a great company.”
As subscription models become more popular, sites similar to Patreon are springing up, from Kickstarter's clone Drip to the coffee-themed Ko-Fi. Some platforms are trying to create their own Patreon-replacement, as exemplified in YouTube's nascent “sponsor a channel” option.
But Patreon remains the undeniable heavyweight of the industry, and anyone hoping for a bellwether to the subscription service in 2018 and beyond should find everything they need in Graphtreon.
Read more about how creatives can get started on Patreon.