Well hello again, and welcome back to the second part of this article asking the all-important question (to podcaster at least) Is it acceptable as a podcaster to ask for monies, and if so, how is such a request best handled? On top of this we planned to investigate the psychology behind asking for money as a podcaster - how does it make us feel as creators, and what are some of the more surprising dangers which may come from it.
As a reminder, here are some of the issues we'll be addressing in this three-part blog post:
HOW DO PODCASTERS, ESPECIALLY HISTORY PODCASTERS, FEEL ABOUT ASKING FOR MONEY
WHAT KIND OF REQUESTS FOR SUPPORT ARE CONSIDERED OKAY, VERSUS WHAT CAN OFTEN COME ACROSS AS BEGGING?
WHAT PART DOES THE LISTENER PLAY IN THE WHOLE PROCESS?
WHAT EXAMPLES IN PARTICULAR SPRING TO MIND OF SOMEONE WHO MAY BE TAKING THE REQUESTS FOR SUPPORT TOO FAR?
HOW EASY IS IT TO BECOME OBSESSED WITH THE MONIES, AND LOSE SIGHT OF WHY YOU STARTED PODCASTING IN THE FIRST PLACE?
If you're ready for this next installment, then great! - a reminder though that I am Zack Twamley, the host of When Diplomacy Fails Podcast, and in the spirit of this blog post, you can check out my podcast's Patreon page here.
With that not so smooth plug out of the way - let's begin!
So let's clear something up before we begin - this installment will examine Patreon, that incredible system where creators can get paid for their products, and fans can become investors in their favourite things, with genuine returns to boot. If you have not heard of Patreon, and are not aware of what it does, then a brief bit of background will suffice to bring you up to speed. Patreon was formed by Jack Conte in May 2013, because he was a genius basically, and somehow discerned that people would be willing to pay for the content that they love, even if the people that create that content aren't necessarily big businesses.
Patreon allows the fan of said creator - be they a musician, writer, comic author, comedian, gaming vlogger, journalist, podcasting or literally anything in between - to pay for the stuff they want, thereby supporting their creators and ensuring that their projects bring in some monies. By 'pledging' a small amount each month, 'Patrons' can receive unique rewards as well. Where this is relevant to podcasters, is that Patreon has come in handy for the likes of me as a vehicle for launching a members feed, albeit one that is far more personal, transparent and flexible than one which I would have had to create myself. Did I mention that I don't have to actually go through the emotional and physical stress of manually setting up a third party members feed? Yeah, Patreon is great for that too!
Now I should also add, that this entry will be a bit more personal than the last one. Last time we investigated whether it was entirely acceptable for podcasters to earn monies off their work. This time, our Fine Line is in a different sphere - the podcaster, the creator, and their experience, well actually in this case my personal experience, of what can happen when money enters the equation when you, as a podcaster, are not exactly used to it. It's a bit of a longer post than before, which if you like reading will hopefully excite you and make you eager to read on! If you're ready, or maybe just curious, let's begin!
Essentially, my model is $5 a month for the Xtra feed, which gives those Patrons access to episodes a week earlier than normal, free from ads and other incentives to aid me in podcast land, on top of an hour of XTRA (get it?) podcasting content every month. On top of this, Patrons at this tier also get some merchandise sent directly to their door, so they can feel like they're representing When Diplomacy Fails when they're out and about. But now that we've got that out of the way, we need to talk about something...
There's no denying that Patreon is an incredible invention, and that is has revolutionised and will continue to revolutionise the way creators will. As Patreon very truthfully explains, it is thanks to its business model that the term 'starving artist' is a thing of the past. Yet, while all this is true, and while I am evidently a big fan of Patreon, I feel like I need to talk about what could be considered, I suppose, the 'dark side' of the model. At the same time, I should add, this 'dark side' has emerged through no real fault of Patreon itself. Instead, it's more a fault of my own.
There is absolutely nothing wrong was getting money for what you give out for free. I feel we established this in the first part of this study. While this is true, and while I will challenge anyone who argues that Patreon somehow cheapens art, or that the only true creators are the ones that make no money, I can see where this argument holds water and why people would use it against Patreon. The reason why I can see their point is because, to be quite honest, when I caught the Patreon bug, so to speak, it very nearly ruined my entire way of looking at my podcast.
If you didn't know before, I have something of an obsessive personality, and I also tend to get really quite involved with what I'm doing when I podcast. All this is fine of course; something as involving and time-consuming as a podcast would never be tenable if you weren't a bit obsessed about it. History podcasting, I feel, requires a certain type of personality to keep plugging away in their chosen subject - which is often obscure anyway - only to produce something which they may be proud of, but which they accept will never reach the kind of audience as, say, the latest true crime podcast, or even the most popular history podcaster in Dan Carlin.
To us history podcasters who dwell in the obscure, this very obscurity and lack of notoriety comes with the territory, and in some ways we even relish the fact that we have the opportunity to bring the unknown and unusual out for the listener, because so few other creators would dare venture into such an apparently unrewarding realm of study. Why not just popularise it? Why not find some trending topic of the Second World War, or even give up the ghost altogether and embrace the latest rage in podcasting - the aforementioned true crime bug?
The reason why I and so many others like me continue to plug away, broadcasting the news of history to our comparatively small audiences, is because we value above all our product quality. This quality is found in everything from our research, to our writing style, to our powerful conclusions, to the 'exciting' (it's exciting to us okay?!) stories or figures we may dig up. Quality is our badge of honour, and we embrace the weird and rare just as surely as an author battles his way through a publishing company to get a book written on a topic which nobody has heard about. It's important to us, and through this passion our product will become better known; its quality will hook skeptics and its content will fascinate the history enthusiast if only he/she knew where to look.
If you take the subject you are most passionate about, whatever that may be, you are guaranteed to be better at talking about than someone who has no interest. Similarly, since I have zero interest in football I would never dream of engaging in some fantasy football podcast experiment. All of this makes sense; as a podcaster, and a history podcaster at that, tasked with analysing my given subject, I would be lying to myself and taking my audience for granted if I began a project which my whole heart was not in. We don't need to compare ourselves to others - even other history podcasters - because even though such success would be nice, that success is not what we strive to achieve, necessarily; what we strive for is to tell our story and to tell it well. That is our success.
Now that that's been said, I want to explain what happened to me and my podcast when I added Patreon into the mix.
I still remember the first donation I ever got from a listener. I had been podcasting for about 6 months, and one of my listeners, a guy called Tyler, emailed me and asked whether I was going to set up a donation facility, because he wanted to give some monies as thanks for my hard work. It'd be wrong to say that a lightbulb went off when I saw that email - I never, at any stage in my podcast's development, thought about launching it in terms of the money it would bring me. In May 2012 when I launched When Diplomacy Fails, history podcasts were on a small enough scale and contained a small enough community that when I entered into it, I felt like a member of a tiny group on the fringes of the podcasting circuit. You had the giants of course - Mike Duncan's History of Rome being the most notable example for me, with Dan Carlin's Hardcore History following shortly behind him.
I had no illusions about being a giant - I mean for crying out loud, I remember when I got my third download and wouldn't shut up about it. The reason why the third download was such a big deal was because I knew someone other than myself and my Mom had downloaded it. I was a 20 year old first year college student, who was amazed that someone across the world wanted to hear my take on some historical event that happened over 100 years ago. That feeling was what truly got me hooked, and is what has hooked me in this crazy realm of history podcasting ever since. As is generally the case though, the initial excitements become replaced by even bigger excitements. I remember telling people about 100 downloads, and thanking my listeners for 500. For 1,000 downloads I believe I bought myself a pint. After that it was harder to keep up.
After 3 years of podcasting, I handily reached 1 million downloads, and released an episode on that event to celebrate. It was just me and my buddy Sean, talking about the last few years and how crazy it was that the podcast had been heard in so many countries, and by so many people. Around this time, I did happen to meet some higher ups in the BBC, who talked to me about the podcast, and this was of course a massive - and I would argue necessary - ego boost. It enabled me to believe in myself more and dream bigger for the podcast. In a sense then, I would mark May 2015 as the moment my ambitions for the podcast started to grow to dangerous levels. Some time later I set up a PayPal subscription model, whereby listeners could give me a small amount every month if they so desired. This model would keep me ticking over until I made the move to Patreon, and some loyal history friends continue to give me money with no return through this model, and support me through Patreon. That still amazes me.
But where does this mini bio all lead us? Well it leads us to modern day When Diplomacy Fails, and leads me into detailing what happened to the podcast when I discovered Patreon. For the first time in my life, albeit for a brief period of time, money became more important than actually creating that obscure history which was for so long my bread and butter. The rest of this post will unwrap that experience, so if that sounds interesting to you, read on.
I first joined up with Patreon following some prompting by a loyal and long time listener Mike. I had been hovering around the idea for a time, but I had initially avoided Patreon on what I considered 'principles' because I believed that - although this sounds mad to think about it now - this podcast wasn't my job, so I shouldn't get paid for it. I have of course since changed my tune. Another big part of me was worried about something else though, which, again, will sound a bit strange if you consider our Patreon is at $424 a month and counting (!!??). But that worry was that if I set it up, nobody would pledge their support, and that I'd be looked down on, in podcasting circles and elsewhere, as the history podcaster who failed at Patreon. I worried that through my failure on Patreon, I wouldn't be seen as a success.
You can probably tell then that I was already in the wrong frame of mind when I did eventually join Patreon at last in late February of 2017. It was an exciting, intimidating experience, and after investing a whole load of time in the whole process I was terrified that it would fail. How does one even fail at Patreon anyway? You can't, that's the great thing about it, yet I had set myself a certain standard of attainment for my supremely time consuming hobby. Through this pressure I believed that my listeners or visitors to the Patreon page would have their own ideas about how much the podcast was worth, and that if they saw my Patreon totals, and these totals were lower than their expectations, they would judge me negatively for it. I told you I was in the wrong frame of mind!
Already my problem was that I had started to equate Patreon income with success. If I got a pledge that day, it was a good day, and my work as a podcaster was validated, but if I got no such pledge then everything and everyone hated me, and didn't think me worthwhile. These ridiculous, self-induced pressures only became worse over time, and probably reached a peak around the time of late March. Since the podcast is 5 years old this May, I had planned a whopper project to coincide with it. It is since finished and ready to go, but I think it's likely I was suffering from burnout by the end of it. Anyways, the whole equating-pledges-with-success thing got immediately worse the more time I spent in podcast land. I set myself an insane amount of work for each day on top of my actual job as a researcher.
It became the case that I was belting out stuff to coincide with those pledges. If someone pledged their $5 I could then feel as though I was appreciated, but say the following happened, which often did, and I went two or three days without any new pledges. By the end of the third day I was beginning to feel somewhat panicked. "Were these new Patrons dropping off?" I'd ask myself; "would they even care about my work if I kept going?", "What's the point in creating any more podcasts anyway?". It should be added that Patreon wasn't just the only thing I thought about by this point - it was also the only thing I talked about. I am getting married on 6th May this year - so yes all of this was not at all timely, but instead of wedding and honeymoon and my new life with my wife, I was stuck staring at my laptop screen pressing refresh on my Patreon homepage.
I had literally invested all my hopes, dreams and emotions into that momentary verification that came with the news of a new pledge. And it wasn't like one a day was enough - as soon as one came in I would become even more obsessed; checking my phone for emails, reading Patreon blog posts that I'd read hundreds of times already, posting about Patreon on social media. When I got no returns I became then more depressed than if I'd gotten no pledges at all that day, and yet it took a good while before I could actually step outside of myself and realise that everything in Zack's world as well as that of When Diplomacy Fails had all gone terribly wrong.
In the previous portion of this article I made a not-so-sly reference to Board and Bale and its creator 'Michaela' that ran it. Board and Bale, if you weren't aware, referenced the true crime podcast which rhymes with it (I can't give you more hints than that!). In that post I referred somewhat snootily to 'Michaela's' propensity for getting angry at listeners for not signing up, for using the kind of guilt-bomb language that I hate such as "Only X% of my listeners judged it worth their while to give this podcast any money" or "I've been doing this for free all these years and yet so few of you have given back". These are ugly and terrible statements, yet even though I never went so far as publicising such statements in the realm of When Diplomacy Fails, such thoughts had long since filtered in and out of my mind for some time.
I started to think of how unfair it was that more listeners weren't supporting me; how unreasonable it was for them to spend like, what, about $20 a week on coffee, but none on me for giving them such quality stuff over all these years. I started to think bitter thoughts, like unhealthy thoughts about my audience, to the point when a pledge of $5 came in I'd be offering expletives to them in my head, without even thinking too much about it, because they didn't give me more. It's only after writing all this out that I see how terrible it sounds, but when you're locked inside your own head, you rarely see the problem staring you in the face. Nothing had changed in a practical sense. My listeners still loved my work just the same, and the quality of my work, even considering the time constraints I mentioned before, had not diminished enough for me to think it was bad. This was because I didn't think it was bad anymore - I didn't think it was bad because I didn't care. I had gone full circle - I went from loving it all, to loving the money, to hating the listeners, to hating the podcast. There was only way that this circle could end...
"Why couldn't I have a more popular podcast?", I'd ask myself - "Why can't mine be as successful as Hardcore History, or the History of Rome or the History of English?" I started to hate my own podcast because it wasn't making me enough money, because it wasn't being successful enough in monetary terms to suit my case. So I'd gone from hating the consumers, to hating the product - how long do we reckon it'd take before we start hating the seller? It happened predictably enough - "Why does my podcast suck?" became "Why do I suck at podcasting?". Nothing, again it has to be emphasised, had changed in my work, and no listener would have any idea, as far as I'm aware, that I ever felt this way, but at the same time I feel it needs to be said.
I remember having the epiphany while in the shower - for some reason all my good thoughts come while in the shower. I had been really frustrated that day, really disenchanted with podcasting, and I had begun to hate my subject material even though I knew I used to love it. What was worse, I hadn't had a new pledge in about three days, so I was feeling rejected and unsuccessful to boot. I wish I could remember exactly what put the epiphany into my head to begin with, but it seemed to occur when I picked up the shampoo. There was some slogan involving a pun on the label, and I thought it was funny enough to laugh out loud a small bit. I am quite normal most of the time. Then I remember saying out loud, just really naturally, "I miss podcasting..." It was a strange thing to just up and say, and once I said it just kind of hung there, long enough for me to hear what I had just said properly and mull it over. I think what I meant to say was something more along the lines of "I miss podcasting without all of these self-inflicted pressures on myself to succeed, just like in the old days", but those three words seemed to do the trick.
I really did miss podcasting, because what I was doing by this point wasn't podcasting at all - it was a job, but it was worse than a job, because I was forcing myself to do it, and obsessing over the 'salary' which Patreon provided. It's no wonder I'd begun to hate everything - if you can hate your hobby, then you're well on your way to hating pretty much everything else. I opened up the laptop again and looked at the Patreon total, and then cheekily pressed refresh again. This time, when it stayed the same, I didn't wince, or flinch or curse my non-existent Patrons. This time I did what I should have done so many weeks before - I took a deep breath, I marveled, for perhaps the first time, at the actual money I had made by this point, which I would never have seen from podcasting a few months before, and then I went and I checked my emails, because I felt strangely compelled to.
Then I remembered why I'd come to check them. Whenever the email for a new pledge came in in the past, it would overshadow pretty much everything else that came through. And sure enough, there were a few opened and ignored emails from listeners from a few weeks back, right around the time it all started to go belly up with this Patreon experience. I started reading and responding to them. It was as I wrote to these listeners of mine that it started to slowly dawn on me. How utterly, completely wrong I had been. Here I was, talking to listeners halfway across the world, who contacted me solely for the reason that they liked my podcast, and wanted to say or get some advice. Now I could talk to them and answer their queries, satisfy them that the guy they spend time listening to is both normal and nice. Little did they know of course, that they had actually taught me something as well. Considering the length of this post it probably won't surprise you to learn that I like to be elaborate with my email responses, since I always felt my listeners deserved such a response for taking the time to contact me in the first place. As I launched on many a long winded email then, it started to click within me - this was my success.
These listeners, brought to listen to history because of the desire I instilled within them to learn more, were testaments to the impact which my podcast could have on a person. How important money seemed, how important that instant gratification appeared to me, when I first started to feel it come in. I had always said that my greatest desire to inspire a passion for history within someone else - as any former student knows, the mark of a great teacher is their ability to do that. Here were these listeners providing me with living proof that I had done that, that I had made a difference to them and their passions. Some issued questions about studying history, about a topic of history they wanted to know more about, for book recommendations or just a general thanks for opening an era up to them. It was an amazing experience - even though I had skimmed over these emails before in my Patreon-induced stupor, it was like I was reading them here for the first time.
How could I have taken these people for granted? How did I lose sight of my original goal as a podcaster? How had I come to equate the success of my hobby, my pastime, with the money it brought me? It was as if I was confronted with all of these questions at once, and even though I felt a strong twinge of shame and guilt for my past state, these feelings were quickly replaced by a lifting of a serious weight. That burden which convinced me that I'd come to hate podcasting, that I was bored with my subject, these feelings subsided. To capitalise upon this, I journeyed to the iTunes store and looked at the favourable reviews for my podcast. I didn't do this for validation from others per se, but because those 5 star reviews symbolised the fact that this podcast was supposed to be a quality product. The 5 star reviews were a testament to the fact that my podcast was good, that I hadn't lost my way, and that I could still do what I did. Nothing had changed, except for me.
As I accepted that all was well, another feeling returned - excitement about my chosen subject, combined with an eagerness to learn and the desire to build and present my story in my own unique way - literally the critical ingredients of any creator worth their salt. It was such a liberating, but also weird feeling. I was more surprised at myself than anything else, because I realised that I had become that guy - the bitter, money-grabbing guy who at one stage, had lost sight of what truly mattered. It was at that point that I had the idea to actually write these experiences down, with the idea being I can't have been the only person, the only creator, who lost their way when the money began to come in.
In search of more money, I pushed myself to over-produce - to adapt a well known phrase, it was "art for art's sake", since to me, more content meant more immediate returns in Patron land. This was plainly unsustainable considering how much of a lonely game history podcasting is, and how much the aforementioned facts at the top of this post allude to the reality: that we as history podcasters, with some monumental exceptions, will never be roaringly famous or wealthy. At the exact point when that fact became unacceptable to me, was the point that I began to hate what I do.
Even saying that though, it doesn't mean we have to remain under a rock because of our podcast genre. What I really felt moved by then, and what's really been ticking over in my mind since these events, was the fact that I don't want to make this podcast bigger to make more money - I want to make this podcast bigger so that history will be brought to more people, and so that more people will hear me, and perhaps get inspired to look deeper, as some of my emailers planned to do. Patreon is not the be all and end all to achieve this goal - it is merely the vehicle through which I can achieve it. That's when I started thinking about our motto a little more, and when I started saying it some more. Did I believe in our motto before? I did at one stage, when it had been my original intentions for history podcasting. This whole experience, to a large extent, made me realise how appropriate that motto was this whole time.
WHERE HISTORY THRIVES - that is the podcast motto, and that is the podcast I want to be, that's the platform I want this podcast to be, and that's the cause I want to serve. It's why I care so much about this, and it's why this podcast will always be at the forefront of my brain. Not because of money, not because I'm making more of it, but because of history - because I am playing my own little part in the battle to make history matter to people, in the efforts I go to on a weekly, often daily basis, to make history thrive. Even though it's lonely, even though it doesn't pay enough to be a job, and even though it takes a great deal of time and effort and work to get off the ground. Despite all these facts, despite these utilitarian considerations, I cannot stop myself from doing it, from creating and from bringing it to people all across the world. It's my passion, my love and my addiction. That is art; rather than "art for art's sake"; it is true, authentic and sincere. To adapt the famous phrase once more, in the realm of history podcasting particularly, it is the faith that I am searching for.
While in this case we didn't necessarily dwell on the issue of asking for money as a podcaster, I did examine, in my very own personal case, what the result of that money can sometimes entail. For those that don't receive it on a regular basis on receipt of their work, the sudden change in dynamic that can occur when real money does begin to come in shouldn't be understated. Patreon is thus an unquestionable game-changer in this regard, but I wanted to focus on in this post was the fact that there is a FINE LINE between accepting the money and feeling that warm and fuzzy feeling inside, or letting it define you and your work, not to mention your sense of value and self-worth as a creator. If you learn anything from this, I hope you'll remember that you, as a creator, consumer or somewhere in between, are worth so much more than the $ tally which creeps up month by month, or which stays the same. Even if we reach one person on this earth with our art, we have done something that is worth shouting about and, perhaps even, podcasting about.
Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions or queries about me or my experiences, please make sure to visit me through the usual channels. Remember to keep your eyes peeled for part 3 of this series, where we wrap up all we've learned here in a tidy little bundle - as tidy as we'll ever be in any case. Until then, take care and talk soon!
When Diplomacy Fails Podcast