What links Michelangelo to a musician named Smooth McGroove? Alexis Ohanian, an internet entrepreneur and co-founder of reddit, has a surprising answer – and it suggests a way for you to quit your job and make a load of money while doing something you love. Maybe.
For those who haven’t yet experienced his music, McGroove has carved out a surprisingly lucrative niche singing multi-layered a capella versions of classic video game tunes. (Check out his YouTube pages for songs from Mario 64, Minecraft, and Sonic the Hedgehog.) McGroove has found a loyal following among millennials hunting for a shot of nostalgia, And they are prepared to pay a lot of money to see the fruits of his labours. Through a website called Patreon, around 800 or so fans donate money to pay for the next video – which he charges at $2,655.40 per clip. He is now producing about one video a week – easily giving him enough cash to quit his former job as a music tutor.
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Smooth McGroove sings Super Mario
Ohanian thinks this represents something deeper than first appears. Sure, Smooth McGroove is not to everybody tastes – Ohanian is mildly tongue-in-cheek in his praise – but the point is that the artist has got the funding to be creative. He calls it “crowd patronage”, and argues that it could help bring about an explosion in culture and art in the same way that money from the Medici family allowed Michelangelo to nurture his muse back in the 16th Century.
“[Crowd patronage] creates a tremendous opportunity: a renaissance,” he told BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in New York earlier this week. Talking about the original Renaissance, he said: “It was an amazing time, we learnt a lot, so much was created during that period of time and yet it only affected a small part of the world; not a lot of people got the chance to do a lot of awesome stuff during that period, but we are experiencing it again on a much bigger scale. And that is exciting, because things like [Smooth McGroove] can exist.”
It means artists have the time and money to concentrate on the creative process – rather than, say, working in restaurants. “We have seen this model work before. There was a woman who was stuck working as an airline receptionist and her friend was like – you’ve got to stop, you need to be a writer. But she never got the chance to write. So he said, you know what, take a year off, here’s a year’s salary, go write the book you always wanted to write. She got her chance, and we got To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee maybe never would have written one of the greatest works of American literature if it weren’t for a rich friend. But think of all the Harper Lees who never got to produce the content they could have. The internet is connecting these people, and now they’re finding patrons.”
BBC Future caught up with Ohanian after the event to discuss his views in more detail; see the video above for his take on the way that the internet is helping to nurture new ideas and innovation more generally. “It’s exciting because we’ve always been capable of this as humans, we’ve just never been able to have the platform to access knowledge… or share it back.”
It remains to be seen if crowd patronage does create another masterpiece, or simply more lolcats. But as Ohanian puts it, “If for each 1,000, or 10,000 or even 100,000 silly cat photos, there is one great work – it’s worth it in my opinion.”