Every other day, there's an article about how the
Internet is killing art. In the Guardian,
David Byrne was specifically blaming Spotify, but he sensibly drew out the
conclusion to other art forms. David's argument is that Spotify and the
Internet in general are ripping off artists by not paying them enough for their
content, making it unsustainable for the artists.
But if monetary sustainability is what people are
after as artists, the problem isn't Spotify or YouTube, or any other of the
hundreds of content platforms for different art forms. The problem is us, the
artists, and maybe that's not a terrible thing.
The fact is, making art is fun. Thousands of us in
the UK make art (and by art, I mean, music, theatre, comedy, computer games, film,
poetry, storytelling, visual art etc.) because we enjoy the process. Yes,
sometimes it’s tiring and frustrating and not fun at all, but most of the time
we love it.
And so, we give away our work for free, or at a
loss. We might charge for the content (if we’re adventurous) but we all know
that doesn’t cover our equipment, marketing, the courses we’ve been on, and most
importantly the hours and hours of time we’ve put in. Think of the amount we'd
have to charge if we were paid properly for all the time thinking and creating
a project. I’ve done four Edinburgh Fringe shows, and only this last one broken even,
but I'm still nowhere near getting paid for the amount of time I put in. We're
paying to play.
Those who aren't willing to accept that cost,
probably won't be making as high quality work, so will be among the many
artists who will get lost in the noise. All of us, therefore, need to expend a
huge amount of time and/or money before we get to the standard that people
might pay us sensibly for our efforts, which is when we start to stand out from
The audience don't care. They want to pay as little
as possible for their performances, so that they can see more. We can't blame
them, and nor should we, because as content creators, we're also content
consumers, and we do exactly the same. I could write a whole separate post
about the artist who whines about not getting paid, then watches Game of
Thrones illegally. This money trickles down, people!
But as an ordinary audience member, why would you
pay for a £10 performance from an up and coming artist who's trying to give
himself a wage, when down the road there's a similar act who's willing to lose
a bit of money, so he's only charging a fiver? There will always be an artist
who’s willing to undercut you because he enjoys the work.
This issue goes up the chain. There are the £10
shows that are willing to lose some money to promote the artist, rather than
the £20 shows that are not. It continues until the artist has differentiated
themselves from their peers such that there is an audience demand for their
Until then, art is not sustainable. But this is not
a new issue. Plenty of authors, poets, artists, only achieved the ability to
live off their art once they'd died. And those are the ones we've heard about.
Thousands of talented men and women have never and will never achieve
sustainability. Simply, there has always been and will always be more artists
than there are jobs, because it is enjoyable.
But two recent phenomenon have made this worse;
yes, the internet; but also a high proportion of the population attending
University. As so many more are highly educated, so many more have come out
with the idea that they deserve to be paid for a job that they want to do, even
if that job doesn't exist. There are more people wanting to become artists, so
the competition is more intense, and so people will spend even more time/money
to try and make themselves stand out from the crowd. They will spend even
longer willing to work for free.
And finally we get round to the Internet. All the
internet is doing is allowing us to communicate with and find artists easier.
If the problem is the flood of artists, then there used to be a lack of
communication holding them back like a dam. This meant artists could find small
pockets of the world where they were in demand. The internet's blown up the
dam. Artists are no longer competing with people just from their town, but from
the whole world. And there will ALWAYS be someone who's willing to undercut in
I suspect none of this is news to anyone, but given
the current state of affairs, unless you're incredibly lucky, your art will
never become sustainable. Sorry. This is because the economic value of our art
is actually highest for us, the creators, not the people we're creating it for.
So what can we do about it?
We could form a union. But there'll always be
people outside of the union who'll undercut us. This used to work for actors,
but I'm afraid they're in the same boat now as the barriers to entry have died
We could introduce a price floor, and make it
illegal to produce art for free. But a) that would mean less art was created
because the money has to come from somewhere and there's just not the demand
for all of us, and b) I'd certainly carry on creating anyway, and we all know
that art loves to go underground.
Or we could get millions more in funding. Most
artists who are self-sustaining are relying on funding from somewhere. This
would require a government with a radically different point of view that
subsidising art makes for a more exciting society, that art is more than its
economic worth. However, as artists, we need to be aware that if we take money,
that we open ourselves up to public scrutiny, and that perhaps actual starving
people rather than 'starving artists' should be first in line.
So, I don't think there is anything we can do about
it. Sorry again. But maybe it's not a bad thing. Maybe it's amazing that people
can experience high quality art for a fraction of what it used to cost, and
actually we're undergoing a cultural explosion, with the idea of creator and
consumer confused. Wouldn't it be great if everyone was an artist?
Even if you disagree, you need to accept the
situation as it is, that we are creating for ourselves, the world doesn't want
us to create art as much as we want to create it. It's wrong to assume that
your art could or should pay the bills. It is, fundamentally, a selfish but
We need to accept that the majority of us will
never make enough money out of our art, and develop proper backup careers. Find
another career that will work part-time and sustain you to your level of
comfort. This is why there are so many artists that teach art.
On the other hand, as the part-time artist becomes
more common, we need to make sure employers recognise part-time art creation as
a legitimate life choice. I have been particularly lucky in this regard.
We need to recognise that our art is an
all-consuming, expensive, but fun hobby. Like ski-ing. That doesn't mean we
should take it less seriously, but we should accept it for what it is.
we should serve as a warning for other industries this issue will hit, any
industry where people would do it for free for fun: Journalism, fashion, sport.
Maybe they can come up with a solution before they reach the same state as the