Generally, patronage is the act of supporting or favoring some person, group, or institution. A patronage system has different characteristics depending on the area in which it is practiced.
Political leaders often have at their disposal a great deal of patronage, in the sense that they take decisions on the appointment of officials inside and outside government (for example on quangos). Patronage is therefore a recognised and legitimate power of the executive branch. In most countries it has the right to make many of appointments, some of which may be lucrative, or sinecures. In some countries, high level appointments may be reviewed by the legislature; in other countries, such as those using the Westminster system, this is not the case. Some countries, such as the United States, permit the legislature to review some appointees, but not all.
In politics, patronage more narrowly defined is the practice by holders of political office of appointing their followers or fellow party members to positions,. For example, those could be high-level posts such as ambassadorships, or lower-level civil service posts. Even blue-collar jobs on the government payroll may be sought after. Such overt political patronage is seen as a tool for rewarding and enforcing loyalty; loyalty is the criterion for selecting a person rather than more meritocratic considerations. The selection process, if not the competence of the person, is then, naturally seen as questionable. There is a fine line dividing this from rewarding supporters corruptly with government contracts.
Political patronage, while common in almost all nations, is unpopular among voters and if too blatant, involving the appointment of grossly unqualified candidates, can hurt a leader. A common story of excessive patronage is Caligula's appointment of his horse to the Roman Senate (the actual story is more complicated than the version often related). Nepotism and cronyism are more specific types of abuse of patronage.
See also: political machine, Patronage in the Gilded Age
Classical musicians worked primarily under the patronage system: royalty or the church provided resources for composers. That is, patrons operated as sponsors. This kind of system continues across many fields of the arts. Though the nature of the sponsors has changed, the term patronage has a more neutral connotation than in politics. It may simply refers to direct support (often financial) of an artist, for example by grants.
Sometimes consumers support smaller or local businesses or corporations out of loyalty even if other cheaper options exist.