Making a living being an artist

Saturday, August 14, 2010 :: Tagged under: essay culture. ⏰ 5 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

This blog seems to have veered from code and cute whimsy to Paul Screed and Bloviation. Lets add one more post to that list, in part spurred by a post by Jason Robert Brown (writer/composer of Parade and The Last 5 Years, among others) that was making the rounds for a while. You should skim it, but he's basically making his case for how it's wrong that artists get cheated out of their royalties by technology by debating the issue with someone who is actively giving away and receiving his music.

First, a note on the post: it's pretty awful. He picks an inarticulate opponent to represent the other side, to the point that it's literally Master Writer vs. Opinionated Teenager. He doesn't contest the more grounded, better- expressed arguments refuting his own position, or even really acknowledge their existence. It's as if the only arguments there are are the ones this girl mentions, and he predictably takes her to town.

Let's make another distinction: this post isn't to say stealing music is okay, it's more to say royalties are doomed, think of something else. With this I mean I won't go into the ethics of downloading music illegally because, like most discussion on ethics and law, it's just way too hairy. It sounds like it should be a no-brainer that the proposition "stealing music is wrong" is true, but a) everyone may have very different definitions of stealing, particularly when b) music isn't a good or service that easily fits most tractable economic models for production or consumption, and c) assumes both speakers agree on a moral or ethical standard, notions of right and wrong, and fair behavior. So the only problems with "Stealing music is wrong" is "stealing," "music," and "wrong."

But I do believe Jason Robert Brown, like most artists who are successful or wish to be in the traditional sense, are clinging to a model that has failed and will continue to do so. That it's not a good idea to cling to an income that is primarily sustained by royalties. Like newspapers, that model only made money when people couldn't opt-out of a bad system. You're hedging your livelihood hoping that people will choose to opt-in to the same bad system, against a better alternative.

I can't find a link, but I remember a quote from the early days of the internet, when a 12-year old kid who loved Dave Barry articles would transcribe them from the newspaper onto his Geocities site: "When someone destroys your business model not because they hate you, but because they love you, you know you're in trouble."

And people won't opt-in. The Times of London online had a 90% drop in readership after instituting a paywall. The most compelling point the girl in the post made, which JRB never addressed, was that she literally couldn't access the music legally since you'd need a credit card to buy it online, and her parents didn't support her passion for theatre.

The act of buying legally itself is also marred with complications. See this graphic of watching a pirated DVD vs. a legitimate DVD, or read about this guy who pirated Starcraft, and had to wait two days to play it when he decided to buy it. While I believe the main reason people pirate is because they're cheapskates (most people pirating could afford at least some of the music they pirate, and could cut consumption like in any other market to make up the difference), it doesn't help that the experience is often better when you pirate.

Finally, and this goes back to arguing over whether it's "right" or "wrong:" most people are incredibly confused by this. When CD burning just started, I offered to make copies of commercial CD's my family bought legally to take with us to Guatemala, for us and only us to listen to. My mom relented (and looked at me like a criminal), thinking the act of burning the CD's was the illegal part (rather than the distribution... and I'm sure some RIAA lawyer would or can make the case that it is).

So regardless of whether or not what you perceive as stealing feels wrong to you (phew), even if you were 100% right and you die and go to Heaven and God himself says "Yes, Jason, you were robbed wrongfully by your brothers on Earth," it doesn't change the fact that while you were on Earth, your model was dissolving and you were being made irrelevant. I'm not arguing right or wrong, I'm arguing working and non-working.

So what should you do instead? Um... well, I don't know. But I'm pretty sure the solution isn't to stay on a sinking ship.

I can make a few suggestions though, as this generalizes nicely into the hard problem of how to make a career as an artist. The first step is to accept that you will take a pay cut. You can't keep the salaries and lifestyle you kept in the bad old days doing the bad old things. This might mean getting a second (or different) job.

The second thing to remember is branding. You're recordings may not be worth much anymore because we can now distribute them losslessly to whoever we want. But there is still only one of you, and that scarcity should factor into your model.

So try using the technology to brand yourself. Form connections. Don't stop producing and respond to your audience. If you're lucky, you can get as famous as Radiohead and give your music away for whatever anyone wants to pay for it. If you're a little less lucky, you could probably still get well-known enough to enough people to score a regular job or commissioned work. Ze Frank did a great daily show and seems to get regular work, even getting to be a speaker at TED.

A fringe benefit of this is that you no longer have to deal with middlemen taking big cuts, and stealing. Hollywood accounting means that you could still, technically, lose money on the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson and the estate of JRR Tolkien had to sue to get any royalties from the movies). It's how TLC could sell 10 million CD's and still go bankrupt. The bad old days were bad for artists too. So leverage the technology, and work for yourself.

Many of the same artist survival tactics still apply. Persevere, and understand the hardest part of the game is not giving up too soon. Picking up a skill will help you greatly. Like John Goodman said in Inside the Actor's Studio, the most useful advice he got for his career as an actor was to learn to type, allowing him a stable day job to live off while he worked. That skill may even match your love for your art, as happened to me. At the very least you will get more perspective of how most normal, non-artists people think and work.

On an institutional level, I can't recommend enough Brendan Kiley's article 10 Things Theatre's Need To Do Right Now To Save Themselves. It caused a major splash and proposed a lot of uncomfortable truths. Many artists hated it, which is precisely the type of reaction an appropriate solution would generate in such a broken system. Incidentally, and I know this makes me a Bad Actor, but I'm tired of seeing Shakespeare.

Obviously, easier said than done. But those are my two cents.

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