There are five recently published items that are important to the conversation surrounding the monetary valuation of art (art, for the purpose of this piece, mainly meaning “music”). One is n+1’s editorial on compensation for journalistic writing. The second is legendary engineer/musician/asshole Steve Albini’s recent keynote speech on the music industry and the Internet. Third would be Hallelujah The Hills frontman Ryan Walsh’s two–parter for BDCwire.com about the concept of “selling out” in 2014. Fourth is Pitchfork Editor-in-Chief Mark Richardson’s tiny post for p4k offshoot The Pitch on what this entire conversation has been glossing over. And fifth, of course, is Jack Conte, member of “indie rock band” Pomplamoose and CEO of crowdsourcing site Patreon’s breakdown of his band’s tour costs and profits. There are other peripheral pieces, such as critiques of a bullet-pointed version of Albini’s stance by certain filmmakers, critiques of Conte’s piece by pretty much everyone, and Conte’s pretty ridiculous response to those critiques. Another, perhaps *the* other, would be Lewis Hyde’s entire book “The Gift,” along with writings by Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille, but I have yet to read any of those in full so I won’t push them on you. Those first five, though, are the five you really have to read if you want to think, today, about what we’re taking about, today, which is how money and music interact.
I. THIS ISN’T A SOB STORY
Let’s start, as we apparently must, with number five, Conte’s post on Medium (cynically titled “Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (Or Lack Thereof”) in which he lays out the specific costs and gains of his band’s recent 28-day North American tour. This piece blew the fuck up on the music-oriented interwebs, largely because Conte’s report seemed so absurd. Pomplamoose was spending flat-out stupid amounts of money on comfortable lodging, lighting rigs, and salaries/per diems for their backing band and crew (half of whom were superfluous, all of whom seem to be considered “staff”), essentially pouring dough into aspects of their live act that might have been dubiously necessary were they about 150% as popular as they are. In the end they lost nearly twelve grand on the tour. Conte framed this as “I’m not complaining, but – ” and “I guess it’s an investment in the future, but – ” and the musician’s Internet lashed back. The most popular refrain was, of course, “Why didn’t you fucking budget your tour better and not spend so lavishly, because if you’d done that, the absurd amount of money you grossed would’ve actually been really impressive and great for you guys/really reassuring about the amount of money a hard-working band can make on tour.” The second round of comments got very quickly to the suspicious use of a credit card for $17,000 of initial investment in the tour, and how it’s pretty weird that this apparently “down-and-out” band has such a swanky line of credit sitting there for them to use at will.
Then came the bombshell: Conte dropped the income Pomplamoose makes from Patreon, a crowdsourcing site where artists have accounts to which fans pledge set recurring dollar amounts per each piece of content (usually videos) produced by the “creators” (how I loathe that term) they support in exchange for rewards packages a là Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. This would have been fine and dandy, because what Patreon does is fairly rad, except for one thing – Conte is the website’s CEO, a fact he failed to mention in the piece itself. His namedrop, in the eyes of many, turned his piece into a weird marketing ploy that made everyone very suspicious of him, his band, and his company. A lot of people got mad. Conte published a post trying to claim that nowhere was he ever disingenuous about his affiliation with Patreon – “Look, it’s in my Twitter bio! And I don’t even claim a salary!” – but it didn’t matter, because it wasn’t in the article itself. (1)
This was the point at which the discussion about what musicians earn for their work/art/time/life that’s been going on for, oh, about fifteen years now came to a weird little head. This was #POMPLAGATE. But before we pop that zit, let’s look at articles 1-4.
II. MAYBE YOU COULD BE MY INTERN
This fall, the magazine n+1 got in on the money-for-art conversation with their editorial “The Free and the Anti-Free.” While focusing largely on journalism and the way it has changed as an industry over the past twenty-odd years, n+1 was the first member of the dialogue, as far as I’m aware, to invoke Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift” and the possibility that maybe art is simply not meant to be commodified the way say, underwear or tacos are. The n+1 article sums up the positions of the “Free Culture” movement, as epitomized by Aaron Swartz and other like-minded individuals who argue that “Internet = everything is free,” and the “antifree” movement, which is somewhat less vocal, but which essentially posits that, you know, people should make money for their work. The editors then posit a contrast between Hyde’s gift-oriented stance towards art and that of one Frenchman named Pierre Bourdieu, who insisted that pretty much everything could and should be represented monetarily. n+1 lands really oddly – they say they’re with the antifree, and Bourdieu by extension, but conclude their piece with this soft poo rhetoric – “One did not become a writer in order to starve, but nor did one become a writer in order to get rich. So why did one become a writer? Here Hyde is, in the end, more helpful than Bourdieu. We want our $50, and so much more.” That’s the end. No solutions are offered, no indication of what “so much more” really means. No hardline stance, either. Still, the n+1 piece is important because it ably outlines the essential conflict in which we find ourselves so deeply mired.
III. JUST A BAD PENNY ?
“The Free and the Anti-Free” opens with a discussion of Steve Albini’s legendary ’94 polemic “The Problem with Music”, in which he dropped a boatload of knowledge and actual monetary figures to depict just how completely fucked musicians of the era were by the entire corporate label/manager/music-biz machinery. It’s a very famous piece, and I suppose it’s kind of necessary to read it if you want to understand the keynote address Albini delivered in Melbourne last month at the “Face The Music” conference. Not so much for it’s content, but for it’s tone. Because, Steve Albini, noted dickhead/asshole/curmudgeon/hater/pessimist, is actually pretty stoked right now. If Steve Albini is stoked, something must be good. So what’s got Steve all hot and bothered?
That would be the Internet. And file-sharing. And piracy. And the demise of the label-centered music industry that we’ve all been moaning about for so long. Albini’s speech is all-around fascinating, and while he definitely makes some oversights and generalizes quite a bit, his larger set of points is really good – those who are griping about the good ol’ days when being a musician was a lucrative enterprise are delusional. The Internet allows musicians more consistent, direct interaction with their fans, and allows fans more immediate access to all the fucking music they want to hear. This means fans are more excited about the music they’re hearing, they know it more deeply, and they’re more willing to spend $20 on a concert ticket than ever before. And technological advances means you can record something halfway decent with nothing but a MacBook Air (make that fully decent with the addition of a USB microphone). All of this is good largely because it cuts out all the absurdly superfluous middleman muckery that the pre-Napster system indulged in with such abandon. Albini doesn’t think you’re going to make a fortune at music in this day and age, but you never really would have anyway, and now you can at the very least stand a chance of not only making a buck or two but of reaching markets you never would have reached before, of becoming closer with your fans than ever was possible, and of having vastly more creative freedom than you were previously allowed.
(Albini’s other big point is a huge one, and I can’t do it justice right here, but it’s worth mention. He suggests a complete overhaul of intellectual property laws. We should, Albini opines, consider the “release” of music the way we consider the release of “a bird, or a fart.” That is to say, once we put our art out there, it’s no longer ours to keep, influence, or expect money from. It’s out there, for everyone else. This is a huge thing to think about, and I/1%J will likely come back to it in some later post, but for the moment, let’s stick to the topic at hand, which is #POMPLAGATE.)
IV. THE FUTURE IS YRS / SO FILL THIS PART IN
So Albini’s happy, yes. Optimistic, even. But he seems to gloss over one key aspect of this whole shebang, which is that to throw one’s music out into the air and let everyone get their hands on it means also letting corporate entities – streaming companies, advertisers, Apple, Google – get involved. And so maybe Albini’s is an anti-label stance, but it sure isn’t an anti-corporate-influence stance. This is where Ryan Walsh gets involved. His piece, “Some Alternatives,” starts off with some bizarre accusations Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan leveled against Deer Tick for spending a few nights in a Sour Patch Kids® sponsored loft in Brooklyn. After acknowledging the basic absurdity and hypocrisy of calling anyone out for “selling out” in 2014 (especially if you write for a website that pays you via insane amounts of ad revenue) Walsh gets into the nitty gritty of hey, how do we, as musicians, want to interact with corporate entities? In the process he talks about podcasting comedians’s twisted endorsements, and Tim & Eric’s insane advertising career. He chats with guitar hero Marnie Stern about how much money she makes (not much), and with “the pariah of Pitchfork” Chris Ott, who likens today’s musicians to “starving rabbits.” Walsh gets into the math of Spotify – main takeaway being that according to Nielsen and Billboard’s new rules, it would take all of America to stream a musician’s work *twice* for that work to be halfway to certified Gold – and what it means when Taylor Swift and Drag City, respectively, refuse to put their music on Spotify. He concludes with a beautiful reference to the old saw about Robert Johnson and the devil, deciding he doesn’t buy the modern version – “it was a foggy November night, and an ‘indie’ band goes down to The Brooklyn Patch” – any more than he buys the bit about Satan. The idea being that who cares where a band is getting their money if they’re producing works of genius that the rest of us are moved by? Corporate influence isn’t a problem for Walsh, because as he sees it, someone has to fucking pay for music to be made, and if we listeners aren’t going to do it, who are we to bitch about Sour Patch Kids® throwing some bands some bones? It’s not like Deer Tick are now writing songs about candy that scrapes the roof of your mouth. “Artistic purity” is doing alright, regardless of corporate involvement. (2)
I can’t say I agree with Walsh on this point – if the devil does exist, he wrote the fine print on your corporate marketing contract, and while I don’t think artistic integrity is necessarily compromised by doing deals with that devil, I do think musicians are people who should feel weird about their interactions with corporations just like the rest of us, Gawker writers included – but his piece is excellent for being so thorough, for hitting so many interesting points, and for it’s basic claim that “selling out” hasn’t existed for quite a long time now.
V. THE CLERIC’S LARDER
The same day Walsh posted the second half of his piece, Mark Richardson took to The Pitch – Pitchfork writers’s outlet for blog-like, labor-of-love pieces shorter than 3,000 words – with a bit called “Three Points Missing From the Streaming Media Debate.” While I think calling all this “the Streaming Media Debate” is stupid at this point, Richardson’s three points are all actually really fucking important. First is that we really can’t make comparisons between the “then” of the Big Label System and the “now” of piracy and streaming because there’s very little data about “then.” So let’s stop harping on about how great it used to be. Second is that no one has *ever* really made much money as an artist – this is just a weird fallacy that we’ve all come to believe, and here Richardson follows n+1 in invoking Hyde’s “Gift.” The thrust is that when artists make money, as they should and sometimes do, it is usually “outside the context of market capitalism,” residing more in a system of “gift labor,” as Hyde puts it. The third point is that there is definitely money in the music business, it’s just not going to the right people – the artists. Richardson concludes with essentially the same point I made above about Albini’s “release” stance – Do you really want to open your music up so wide that it’s being used to sell shoes, or sunglasses, or candy without your consent? Steve? Steve?? STEVE!??!? (3)
VI. BECAUSE I KNOW HOW MUCH TIME THAT WASTES
So this is where we find ourselves, this is the context in which #POMPLAGATE occurred. Other players are involved, of course. The David Byrnes, the Amanda Palmers, the Damon Krukowskis. But their arguments are rendered somewhat obsolete by #POMPLAGATE – or if not obsolete, simply irrelevant. Even the people with the seemingly best intentions for artists – even when they are artists themselves – are impossible to trust because they are also middlemen who stand to profit, or because they are already financially successful musicians commenting on the issue from on high. I’d almost argue that #POMPLAGATE proves that people like Conte and Palmer (who is now selling books on the topic, and presumably charging extra for signed copies) are first business(wo)men and second artists, which leaves artists in the same position they’ve always been – outside of the conversation. A point Albini labors over is that the central tenet we’ve all been operating from – “We need to figure out how to make internet distribution work for everyone” – is fucked in its very syntax, because that “we” and that “everyone” do not include the people most central to the conversation – the artists. Richardson, god bless him, is here, too, stating very bluntly that “if anyone is going to be paid for the buying and selling of music, shouldn’t it be the artists?” (The irony here, of course, is that, to quote Chris Ott in Walsh’s piece, ‘”Pitchfork makes more on ads in 6 months than Yo La Tengo has made in its entire career.”‘ Come back to the light, Mark!)
But here’s the thing – Richardson is right. Artists have never made money from art in the sense that say, bakers make money from donuts or carpenters from chairs. When I buy a donut, it’s because I want to eat it and thus give myself some calories and a brief moment of sugar-derived pleasure. I could make myself a donut but it probably wouldn’t be as good as the one I could buy, and if time is factored in, it probably would not be much cheaper either. Same goes for a chair, except that a chair has even more use value to me, and would be even harder to make – hence why it is more expensive. Music – art – has *absolutely* *no* *use* *value.* It exists outside of the spectrum of what can be put to practical use. This is what makes it art, and this is what makes it capital-A Awesome.
Our problem is that we’ve had the wrong expectations this whole time. Yes, musicians have sometimes made money, but they have made money not from their actual music, but from the live performances they give, from the physical records they sell, from the digital code people paid for on iTunes, from the t-shirts they’ve hawked, and from endorsement deals like the one fucking Pomplamoose has with fucking Lenovo. The music itself is not the object for sale, the music itself has no place as an object for sale. The only instances in which artists are making money off of their actual art are ones of patronage or sponsorship or commission – where someone subsidizes the artist directly to make a piece of art. Guess what? Richardson is right again. Patronage and sponsorship and commission are not part of the market economy. And thank God for that.
But now here we are deep in the digital age of Free Information (no matter what n+1 says against it), and there’s no putting the cat back in the bag. Streaming is hardly even relevant aside from the fact that it’s yet another way for someone who is not the artist to make a bunch of money off art. Even if streaming didn’t exist, file-sharing does, meaning musicians just aren’t going to make money from selling their art anymore. It’s all there, for free, no matter what we do. This does not mean, as some idiots fear, that artists will stop making art. Again, artists have never really made a living from art, they’ve always had day jobs, and this hasn’t stopped them. If you are an artist, art is a compulsion for you. To quote one of today’s more fascinating musicians, “It’s not that you need it / It’s that you need it.” If it’s getting harder to make time for your art because you have to spend more time bussing tables, then that sucks, but so does air pollution and you’re not about to stop breathing.
It’s time to look at the positives. Albini laid a bunch of them out really well – fans and bands now have direct access to each other. Fans, now that they don’t have to pay for an album to listen to it in full, have a much more intimate knowledge of your music. (Seriously – If you’re in a rock band, most of your audience is young people. Young people don’t have the money to buy all the music their brains and hearts are capable of connecting deeply with – i.e. a lot – which probably means they don’t have the money for your music. Would you really want to deny them your shit simply because they can’t afford it rather than have them send you an email about how much you move them?) The overlords of the system who used to put caps on creative control are effectively out of the picture. Let’s take these conditions and do the only thing that we can. Let’s jump-start the artistic gift economy.
A producer named Mikael “Count” Eldridge (the guy who wrote the stupid Albini critique I mentioned) is making a documentary called “Unsound” about how musicians need to be paid and we’re all evil for downloading their music and society needs to step in and save the “artist class.” In the nine-minute trailer-thing on the “Unsound” website, a lot of musicians (including, of all people, Jurassic 5 and Diplo) and people in the biz talk about how it sucks to not be able to earn anything for their work, and how unfair it is that people like Kim Dotcom are making billions off of them. Then a “digital music consultant” named Jim Gaffin says that music, culture, and innovation are “the stuff of life,” the things that “make our life worth living.” Fair point. He then emphatically proclaims that if we allow these things to “fall to the status of a tip jar, we deprive ourselves!” (4)
But why? What the fuck is wrong with a tip jar? Another word for “tip” is “gratuity,” as in “gratuitous,” as in “unnecessary,” as in “superfluous,” as in “extra,” as in “wasteful,” as in “no use value.” As in art. I can think of no mode of monetary exchange more appropriate to art than gratuity – than giving. How better to express your gratitude for the way music impacts your life than to give freely of your own accord to the person who created it? When I spend a buck-fifty on a donut, I am not expressing my gratitude to the baker who made it – I am paying market price for the fullness I will experience in my stomach after I eat it. When I put another buck fifty in the tip jar because the person who sold me the donut was nice to me and brightened my day, I am expressing my gratitude to them for being good. Which would you rather have your art “fall to the status of” – a donut or an act of kindness?
The problem then is not with the tip jar itself, but with who controls the tip jar. If you work in a restaurant, your tips often get parceled out and distributed to you by the management. This works in the restaurant industry, and it’s necessary, because waiters have no interest in making the place run properly – they’d rather spend their time being in bands. Artists, though, don’t need management. You don’t need Kickstarter, you don’t need Bandcamp, you don’t need Patreon to get people to give to you. You don’t need middlemen skimming off the top of your tips (something that is somehow unethical in restaurants but perfectly acceptable in digital fund distribution) simply for the “service” of transferring money from one hand to another. You don’t need a “music industry.” If people genuinely appreciate your output, they’ll give you what they can afford to by whatever means you offer them. You have a brain, you have the Internet, you have people who love your work. You are your own damn industry.
So make your own damn tip jar.
(1) I’m not personally entirely convinced that Conte was being slimy by not mentioning his affiliation with Patreon. I think people who don’t have to think about journalistic ethics all the time get a pass for being stupid about it sometimes (unless they are gamers). I think Medium is more at fault here for not catching Conte’s slip. Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t, but either way, Medium should’ve intervened, though I guess they’re not journalists either. Regardless, what happened happened, and there’s no going back. This is #POMPLAGATE.
(2) Another facet of Walsh’s discussion that I find really interesting is the notion that eventually Spotify and YouTube and all the other streaming platforms will essentially just become loss-leaders for monoliths like Apple and Google and, god forbid, Amazon. The idea then being that maybe these companies could take on the role of artistic patrons the way the Catholic church and various monarchs once did and essentially subsidize all the music they want to stream, creating a bizarre feedback loop wherein the money one spends for a streaming subscription might actually go back into the music itself. This is both incredibly terrifying and incredibly intriguing. What would that world even fucking look like?
(3) The Pitch just posted an op-ed by Jes Skolnik, frontwoman of Split Feet, on this topic from a musician’s perspective, wherin she argues that musicians deserve a living wage. My response to Skolnik is that while, yes, being a musician is work – hence the term “working musician” – it is not a job, unless you’re like a violinist in the LA Phil or something. The entire basis for Skolnik’s argument is fucked from the start. If you treat art as a job, you’re doing it wrong. (That said, thanks Jes, for introducing me to CASH Music, which at first glance appears to be one of the more exciting things going on right now in the music world.)
(4) To be fair, there are some good points made in the “Unsound” megatrailer – One repeated line is that people who insist musicians should just make money from touring and selling swag are assholes. I agree. To make a living from touring would mean, as cellist Zoe Keating points out, being on the road so much that having a family or a life towards which to apply your “living” would be impossible. Musicians deserve these things like everyone else. And musicians are not t-shirt salesmen, nor should they have to be. (Unfortunately, Keating loses a good deal of my respect when she says that instead of selling t-shirts, being a musician she wants to “sell music.” Really? You really do? I would’ve thought maybe you wanted to “make” music, but okay.)