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Porn companies are embracing crowdfunding

As video-on-demand dries up, pornographers are flocking to Indiegogo

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The flood of free porn online has made things hard for professionals who are looking to make a living. For every video-on-demand service, there are dozens of free alternatives and outright pirated films to choose from. Facing the new reality of their industry, many pornographers have gotten creative about how they bring in the bucks, enlisting crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo and Patreon as a new way to make money in the porn business.

Over the past 14 years, Pink and White Productions has established itself as one of the leading voices in San Francisco’s queer porn scene. Its flagship site, The Crash Pad Series, has a thriving, enthusiastic membership base. The video-on-demand site PinkLabel.TV partners with a number of notable directors to provide easy, low commitment access to high-quality smut. The company’s features routinely garner high praise and have won multiple awards. And yet, despite Pink and White’s numerous bona fides and loyal fans, this past February, it set up shop on Indiegogo.

Pink and White’s monthly revenues are enough to fund regular updates and the occasional small side project, but the crowdfunding push let it get more ambitious. The campaign served as the first round of funding for a new feature film, Chemistry Eases the Pain, while generating press and PR for the project. As many production houses have discovered, it’s easier to get people talking about your big new project than the same thing that you’ve been doing for the past 14 years.

There’s another, more complicated reason why Indiegogo is such an important resource for a company like Pink and White. Some fans are squeamish about typing in their credit card number on an explicitly adult site like The Crash Pad. When they can pay through a mainstream venue like Indiegogo or Patreon, the number of people who are willing to shell out increases substantially. That gives Pink and White access to a whole new group of funders, ones who would be difficult to reach any other way.

Some fans worry that a porn site might rip them off or continue to rebill them without their consent — a notion that stems from the early days of online porn when shady billing practices were commonplace. Others say going through something like Indiegogo or Patreon often ends up being a better deal. “The prices are much more reasonable; the tier I chose is only $3 a month / $36 a year,” one person told me about their favorite erotic Patreon, noting that at Kink.com, where a year’s membership runs to $240, “the prices are really too much for my underemployed blood.”

Still, other customers noted that a crowdfunding platform felt more intimate and direct — as though they were paying their favorite performers and creators instead of some faceless corporation — and they saw their contributions as a way to fund work they care about, rather than just lining a wealthy pornographer’s pockets.

This is a familiar approach for independent artists. Pink and White made its name with arty, queer films that are significantly different from the typical fare found on Pornhub. From the beginning, their fans have been excited about supporting indie artists who showcase different kinds of bodies and different kinds of sex than the bulk of mainstream porn. But providing a different porn-watching experience isn’t always enough. In order to shell out cash, some consumers need a different porn-paying experience as well.

The shift to crowdfunding has risks. Mainstream spaces have long been uneasy about allowing pornographers to use their services; payment processors like PayPal have refused to process porn-related payments since the early aughts. In an era when it was easy to get consumers to pay for porn, those barriers were a minor annoyance. But in recent years, losing out on access to mainstream platforms has become a major problem.

There are also deplatforming concerns. A few years ago, venues like Tumblr and Patreon were relatively friendly to adult content, allowing porn creators to exist on their platforms — and, in Tumblr’s case, even proudly advertising their presence at one point. But now, both sites have cracked down on adult content. On Tumblr, there’s been a total ban on anything resembling porn. Patreon users are theoretically able to use the platform if they mark their content as “adult,” but there’s an uneasy sense that one’s position on the site isn’t particularly secure. Four Chambers, an independent erotic film production collective that had a thriving membership through Patreon for several years, had its account suspended last summer with no notice and no real explanation.

There are signs that porn sites are adapting their sales pitches in the hopes of capitalizing on the legitimacy that Indiegogo and Patreon have brought to their projects, helping potential consumers rethink what it means to pay for porn in the process. Four Chambers is now set up as a standalone membership site. Because mainstream payment processors like Stripe and PayPal won’t work with adult content, Four Chambers’ new site runs membership payments through porn-friendly payment processors, rendering it functionally the same as any other adult project.

Rather than imploring browsers to “join” or unlock access to a wealth of amazing content, Four Chambers frames its financial ask in terms of patronage and “support.” “The Four Chambers project raises money to fund new projects, pay performers and make new films through ongoing community crowdfunding,” the site declares, encouraging fans to pledge $9 / month to help the project survive. It’s not the only porn site framing membership this way: Spark Erotic invites browsers to become patrons, and Aorta Films describes its revenue as “community crowdfunding.”

Pink and White Productions is also shifting toward the language of support. In this era of bountiful free porn where everyone is looking at tube sites, “we’ve tried to hit hard the idea that this is benefiting the creators,” Jiz Lee, the marketing director for Pink and White Productions, tells me. Lee notes that, on PinkLabel.TV, every video comes with a note reminding consumers that by paying for porn, they’re directly supporting the people who make it.

It’s a different mindset from the early days of online porn when X-rated content didn’t have to prove its worth or make such a concerted sales pitch. But Lee, who has a background in arts fundraising, says that it’s not that different from the way the arts have always funded themselves.

The internet may have made pornography more accessible than ever, but if we want our favorite pornographers to stick around, we’ll need to get over our sense of stigma and remember that, at the end of the day, porn is just another art form that requires money to create. “As someone who values the arts and freedom of expression,” Lee says, they appreciate the way that this new model of porn funding reminds people that porn “does require the participation of people who want to see it prosper.”