Why Furry Paysites Don't Work Well
Disclaimer: While this article is not specifically adult-oriented, paysites are pretty much only found in the pornography industry, so it does deal with adult concepts. I'm not marking this article as 18+, but reader discretion is advised.
As anyone using the internet is aware, there are websites out there where you can pay a fee to gain access to images, video, artwork, and other creative works. They've been around for quite a long time, to varying degrees of success and profitability, so it's not a new concept. However, within the furry fandom, I occasionally see someone discuss the idea of creating a paysite, and a few of them even get launched. This has never really sat well with me, and it wasn't until I retrieved the contents of one of these sites that I was able to articulate why I felt almost offended by the existance of furry paysites. I won't name the specific site, but it's one that was launched by a number of artists I previously held great respect for, and whose work I enjoyed for a long time.
The Traditional Paysite Model
A paysite is a very simple model; the site offers a small sample of its content, viewers pay for an access subscription, and with that subscription, the viewer is able to access the full content of the site, generally without restriction. It's a model seen in video streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, but it's most commonly seen in adult photography, video, and artwork. Unfortunately, while they're most known for this business model, in most cases it's no longer working for them. It was a holdover from the days when such work was only seen in magazines or sold through specialty stores, and when getting that sort of content for free was so famously difficult that it served as a plot point for multiple mainstream movies. The gatekeepers of the industry always had to be paid, so when they moved to the internet, they tried to replicate the same models, establish the same gatekeepers, and have the same level of control over their work.
That doesn't work out so well on the internet. In a system designed to be so open to sharing that controlling that sharing is functionally impossible, having the same sort of control over your content that you'd have in a brick-and-mortar retail environment simply can't be done. And now, finding anything that would normally be on a paysite is as simple as typing what you want into a Google search. The traditional paysite is a dead medium, alongside newspapers.
Making A Modern Paysite Work
While the traditional paysite model is toast, it's not impossible to create a site that people will pay to access. You just have to go into it knowing that anyone who can use a web browser competantly will not pay simply to access content, there has to be more to it than that.
The MPAA's approach to fighting piracy is very educational when trying to figure out how to make a paysite work. "You can't compete with free", they say, whenever they're challenged to do something about piracy other than attempting to sue the entire internet into oblivion, or legislate it into submission. And, sure, if you're only competing on price, you can't go lower than zero. But price is just one of many ways for a business to be competitive, and the worst one a business could pick, because someone will always undercut you, and on the internet, your work/product is always available for zero. So, getting people to pay simply to access your content is an impossible model, and if you think you can make it work somehow, you're setting yourself up for disappointment, and/or financial loss.
If a website trying to get people to pay for its content can't compete on price, and can't really compete on convenience either (the method that will ultimately be a win against mainstream piracy, as witnessed by the music industry's success at reducing music piracy), it can still compete with the free, open internet in other ways, sort of. Personalized content, exceptionally high-quality content, and personal service are ways that a site can get an edge, if the sales pitch is right. Exclusivity can work, though it requires more innovation and creativity than most are willing or capable of putting into it, and a lot of times, that innovation can make the audience too narrow to be marketable. And for visual artists, access to custom commissioned work is something that can be converted into a paysite model, but I'd wager that it's less profitable in the long run than the normal commission model. Comic artists have a better angle to work from, since they can essentially sell a subscription to an ongoing story, something people will often pay for (I've donated to webcomics to get access to new strips before they're posted publicly, for example).
Ultimately, the paysite is not a very profitable business model, but in the mainstream internet, it can sometimes still work, and even work well.
Why Can't Furries Do That?
The biggest reason why paysites don't work within the furry fandom, or within fan communities in general, is that there's no way to make the paysite model competitive, nor is there any way to run a paysite without compromising some of the community's core values.
The traditional paysite competing factors, price and access, are impossible competing factors on the open internet, but they're especially impossible within a fan community. One of my biggest gripes with fandom artists is that every single one of them undervalues their work to an obscene degree, but so many of them have been doing it for so long that it has, unfortunately, created an environment where $20 for a simple color digital piece is the norm. And when someone can get a custom art piece catering to exactly what they've always wanted, for the cost of dinner at a restaurant, who would pay a subscription to look at art done for someone else? Plus, unlike the mainstream world, artwork and artists are such an integral part of the community that every furry website (or any website used by furries) displays an around-the-clock stream of fresh material, 24/7. There's so much new material just on my Twitter feed that, half the time, I can't even keep up with sites like Furaffinity and Deviant Art. The fandom is bursting at the seams with new material of all kinds, and even if your interests are extremely niche, it's a reasonable assumption that someone is drawing it at any given time. And if not? Save your pennies for a week or two, grab a commission, and voila, custom-tailored artwork, just for you. Even better, you can get a commission in a livestream and chat with the artist while they're drawing it! Fun!
And this is where the mainstream paysite model completely breaks down. A paysite, in essence, charges for the privilege of looking at material, so in a fan community that, at its core, is a place for artwork to be shared freely, how do you get people to pay to look at it? You don't. I've thought about this for a long time, applying my professional critical eye to all the furry paysites that have come and gone. I've yet to find a way for any paysite to exist without broadcasting the message that out of the tens of thousands of furry artists constantly drawing and sharing freely, creating an overwhelming flood of new work daily, such-and-such artist's work is so special that you don't get to look at it for free, you have to pay to look at it. It's a message that is fundamentally incompatible with the furry fandom, and while some people will still pay for it, the public relations cost to the artist(s) involved will be dire. The situation is similar for other potential aspects of the paysite model. Exclusivity, artist access, custom/personalized work, ease of delivery, and premium service are all things that are not only freely available throughout the fandom, they're a core part of what makes the furry fandom function and exist. Trying to charge for any of these things is not something an artist can do without seriously and irreparably compromising values that the bulk of furries take very seriously.
There are two sites that come to mind as examples. The first, and most famous, has been operating far longer than I've been part of the furry fandom, run by an artist named Jeremy Bernal. As far as I can tell, his site is profitable, but I'd guess he's not making anywhere near a livable wage from it. More importantly, though, is how the site dramatically changed his place in the fandom, and his relationship with fandom members. Before his paysite, he was a reasonably well-respected artist in the fandom, even one of the core pillars of it at the time. But once he started his paysite, the work he did outside of it decreased almost to nothing. His site was mostly popular with non-furries who think furry artwork is attractive, and his work has always been mainstream enough to attract non-furries to his paysite, but hardly anyone within the fandom was biting. It didn't take long for his fans who didn't move to the paysite to discover other artists and quickly forget about him, and even the ones who bought subscriptions generally didn't keep them very long. As time has gone on, he's faded into obscurity, to the point that most furs don't know him as anyone other than the guy who files DMCA notices against furry imageboards that post his artwork. He still has a Furaffinity account, but he only posts teasers that advertise his site, and he doesn't really participate in the fandom at all anymore. And on the occasions that he does interact with other artists, it's only within the walled garden of his paysite, where they draw each other's characters and play "secret clubhouse" together, charging people to peek through the clubhouse windows.
Which brings me to the second example, one created by MifMaf and Carotte, artists who used to be highly active in the fandom, and whose work I used to follow and enjoy. It's a fairly niche site, but with enough of an audience to presumably get a few subcriptions from time to time, and I distinctly remember when it was created. When the artists involved floated the idea, their posts about it were absolutely flooded with negative comments, including cautionary posts from older artists who had tried, and failed, at the paysite model. They proceeded anyway, the site was born, and as I predicted, they're following the exact same path as Bernal's site. A number of artists have signed on and done occasional work for the site, in addition to their usual fandom stuff, but the core artists running it have very quickly faded into obscurity. MifMaf has posted five new images in the last year outside the paysite, and Carotte hasn't done much more. In fact, for a long time, I honestly forgot I was still following MifMaf on Furaffinity, and I have similar thoughts every time Carotte pops up on my DeviantArt feed. Their participation in the fandom at large has dwindled to almost nothing, and there are a number of other artists who've shown the same pattern (though none that I was especially fond of or knew about). They've withdrawn out of the fandom that brought them the audience they needed to even attempt a paysite, and now they simply sit in their secret clubhouse, constantly drawing each other's characters, charging the masses a fee for the privilege of peeking in the window. Meanwhile, everyone else is playing in the rest of the playground, having more fun and kinda forgetting about the secret clubhouse.
With the way the fandom works, it's pretty much impossible to start a paysite without it turning into a childhood secret clubhouse, where artists hide away amongst themselves and create in a vacuum, charging people for the privilege of peeking in the window. The problem with doing that is, eventually, no one remembers that your clubhouse exists, and even the people paying to stand around and peek through the window will figure out that they can have way more fun in the playground. And if you ever come out of the clubhouse, all the other kids will be having fun without you, while you try to catch up.
So, artists who are thinking about paysites, don't hide away in your clubhouse. Come out to the playground, and have fun with the rest of us. It's way more fun to be just another kid playing tag with the whole school, than to be president of a secret clubhouse all by yourself.