Paying For Art

denherr asks, How is an artist, such as a musician or writer supported to create and contribute if his creations have no economic value, and his individual creativity is limitlessly remashed into collective works? How does he feed himself? I love learning from your free presentations but where ultimately does the money(or oil) come from for your beer and your plane tickets to the conferences all over the world?

denherr, this is an old argument, but in brief, there are many ways to pay artists without levying a per-play or subscription fee on works, and without requiring royalties. In fact, most people in the world manage to make a living without these special privileges.

Take a brick-layer, for example. Every work he creates is an original work, but he doesn't get a patent or copyright for it, can't prevent other people from copying it or selling it or giving it to friends, etc. A brick-layer is paid for the time he lays bricks.

A chef, even a famous chef who creates unique dishes, is in the same situation. Recipes are shared freely and are almost never owned (indeed, cuisine would cease to exist if no person could duplicate a recipe). Chefs don't charge royalties, don't get copyrights, and yet make a very good living.

The people who write technical documents, who create commercial jungles, who do graphic arts or commercial work are also in the same situation. They again must surrender any royalties or rights to the work they create. But they do not die of starvation or fail to pay the rent. They make very good, sometimes even wealthy, salaries.

The situation where nobody pays a musician or artist except by buying individual copies of his or her work is unique. It probably wouldn't exist at all, except that it was created by music and book publishers as a means of underpaying artists (most of whom actually do struggle to make a living - so much for the beneficial effects of copyrights and royalties!).

If it weren't for the whole publishing and copyright mess we find ourselves in, artists would probably make very good livings, earning and keeping the entire profits from their live shows (instead of repaying advances they had to obtain from their publishers). Fans and patrons would pay for specific works, and people would line up to pay enough money to sponsor, say, new Lady Gaga song.

Most people in the world get paid for the time and effort they put into something. There's no reason artists can't be paid this way, except for the fact that publishers want to keep ripping them off.

This is how I get paid. I don't sit on my work and demand royalties; I share it as widely and freely as I can. This has resulted over the years in my being hired for a series of positions where I am paid to create even more work and share it (though occasionally my employers grumble that they should sit on the work and collect royalties, not realizing that this would in fact restrict my ability to create new work).

By sharing my work freely, people around the world are able to see it, and they willingly pay for me to come and speak to them. I do not collect speaker fees, but I do require that they pay my expenses, because otherwise I could not afford to travel to their cities. We both benefit, because I then use these trips to produce work that we share with other people around the world, and the cycle continues.

You might think, it's not a very good deal for some organization to pay several thousand dollars to fly me to their city. But consider the cost were they to buy books from me instead. They could get maybe 30 or 40 copies of an academic text for the same amount. This way, they get all my content I ever create for free, as many copies as they would ever need. It's actually an excellent deal for me.

What does my employer get? My employer is the government of Canada (it might have been some company, or a university; it just happens to be the government). They get the reputation from sponsoring my work, they get significant input into what I work on and where I work, they get me to contribute some of my work to Canadian companies (resulting in outcomes like this). I promote Canadian culture and values in Canada and around the world, stimulating business (and maybe even tourism) for Canada. It's a good deal for my employer.

What don't I get? Filthy rich. There's never going to be a million dollar payday in my life - no album that goes platinum, no book that hits the best-seller list. But you know what? I'm OK with that - because giving up the decent life I have for a longshot like fame and riches is a sucker's game. And for those of us who do anything outside popular culture - anything philosophical, academic, esoteric, radical or fringe - fame and fortune will never ever happen. Not only would I have to give up my nice home and salary, I would have to give up the things that really matter to me - my art, my creativity - to play this sucker's game. It`s not worth it.

So that`s how artists can be paid. We can pay them the same way we pay bricklayers, the same way we pay chefs, the same way we pay me. And what we get for that, I would wager, would be a beautiful thing.


  1. interesting. Just would like to add my own addition to the benefits of artists and creators bit. For me its also more important to be read, to be able to share and follow my passion than be living off it. A true tribute you can pay to an artist is to understand their work and read it than to pay for it to a publisher.
    Also as long as i do it for the love of labor, its all ok. Filthy rich artist can turn into someone producing for the love of money and thats where the passion dampens and writing what people want part becomes salient. I atleast believe if you dont write for yourself more than you write for people, maybe you should re-consider writing at all or any art for that matter. If that doesnt make you happy and brings peace in your life, its not worth it.

  2. Stephen -- Once upon a time, publishers employed editors who worked closely with writers to produce excellent books (Max Perkins comes to mind), but as soon as publishing became big business, that all ended, to the disgust of many dedicated editors, who'd ventured into their professions with a passion that made them overlook low pay and lots of evening and weekend work.

    After my first novel's publication more than ten years ago (by a small commercial press) my eyes were opened to US publishing. It's not a pretty picture, and getting book number two published never came together. Editors are pushed to find a book that fits into a particular category, that promises significant payoffs, that has an author who's camera-friendly. It's no longer about quality books, but about sales, and those are usually two different things.

    Hooray for print-on-demand options, and for online access to places like where anybody can produce a book and make it available to everybody else. At cost or free.

    Or a writer can choose to bypass even online publishers and produce something entirely on their own and release it directly to their readers -- many are doing this, as are many musicians.

    Artists and photographers are slower to adapt to the model (though graphic artists seem to be leading the pack here)

    Change is in the air, but it will come slowly. We still have people like Donald Trump trying to get ownership of common phrases like "You're fired." (Just the other day I heard him credited as having "coined the phrase" which made me laugh out loud -- as if no one had ever said that before The Donald.)

    So if I'm up against a structure that's this ingrained, and all I have is what I produce, and the only way the structure will currently compensate me for it (not everyone is available for consulting; not everyone has that goal) is for me to hold onto a copyright and charge per copy, then finding the middle ground seems the most viable option.

  3. Stephen,

    Yeah, this is really well spelled out, and it is a obstacle in thinking I often come up against. How do we rethink labor in the digital age is my first inclination, to theorize the a kind of contextualized idea of Marx's notion of labor value in our moment (not that I could do it :) ), but the way you keep the argument grounded in the idea of artisans getting paid for what they produce, rather than one or two things perpetually reproduced is extremely useful. I guess what's interesting to me here, is how digital work, and the more general idea of labor virtualized, at first seems to have lost all its value in terms of money. But that is far from the case, as you and Alan Levine (with his amazing stories of openness videos) frame are the many ways the idea of being paid is rather different. And while we do still work for governments, states, or institutions, having control over what you produce and the means to share it freely does seem so counter intuitive to many because everywhere we are told that by retaining ownership we are somehow in a position to get rich.

    What's interesting to me, and this is on a tangent from this idea, but related---well at least in my mind. Is how tenure and promotion committees at Universities (and I am speaking from a particular US perspective here given that's all I have experience with) are seen as a means of reinforcing this idea of ownership and getting rewarded for the peer-reviewed, often locked-up published work that could otherwise be understood as a public good and resource. Case in point, there is an entire archive of a rather important 20th century poet that has yet to be scanned, annotated, and made freely available online. I was part of a brief discussion that ultimately ended in: "this project is not viable because making this work freely available online will not count for an official publication and hence will not serve those involved in any real way professionally." And fact is, none of these folks were jaded or even against the idea of doing the job, they just couldn't afford the time and energy to invest in a project they would get no professional credit for.

    And while I agree with tenure as a way to protect speech and political positions (although it seems rarer and rarer that academics are really exercising the latter part of that protection) it seems to have increasingly become a self-perpetuating force to ossify the idea of what diverse forms of publishing and sharing can be understood as valuable and rewarded in kind, or in other words: paid. I am increasingly seeing space in a school like UMW for the tenure and promotion committee to evaluate and give credit for the various digital work our professors are engaging in, but at the same time that has a lot to do with the fact we are a primarily a teaching college and don't require a book or two published by an academic press. What further complicates things is that these academic presses are increasingly running into financial difficulty (take LSU Press for example) which underscores the idea of how these presses which you outline above in terms of publishing more generally, and are increasingly becoming more and more a burden on the exchange of scholarly ideas. What's more, the are increasingly unable to financially manage the system of academic publishing that was premised on free peer-review, little or no money paid to the majority of authors, and a rather expensive publishing process paired with concomitant expenses for the book itself---many scholarly books costing upwards of $20-30 in paperback unless they are sufficiently popular.

    I mean how easy would it be for the peer review process to work online via the tools we have now post facto? Kinda like a blogging process for academics, do we still need the academic journal? I know you read them regularly and blog about them rather regularly, and let me ask you, is the work there significantly better than the work that has been unvetted, save by a network of fellow of peers?


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