I’ve done it, you’ve done, we’ve probably all done it. We’ve written something that’s really clear, concise, and entertaining that cuts right to the heart of an important point…and then ruined it with a single paragraph that goes so far off the point that the entire piece seems kind of crap.
Cord Jefferson has a good post over at Gawker about trying to work as a writer in this strange digital age wherein artists are frequently asked to work for free. It’s an interesting article, full of personal experience and basic industry common sense. It’s worth a read.
However, it’s hard to discuss non-traditional payment models these days without bringing Amanda Palmer into the argument. Cord Jefferson really does not like Amanda Palmer.
Wealthy musician Amanda Palmer, who last year raised $1.2 million on Kickstarter to produce and release a record, recently used a TED talk to expand on the idea that artists should be willing to work for free. After relaying a story about how she used to be a street performer, Palmer, who is married to a very successful author named Neil Gaiman, told an audience of people who’d paid $7,500 apiece to be there that musicians shouldn’t “make” people pay for their work, but rather “let” people pay for their work. She also explained that she found it virtuous when a family of undocumented immigrants huddled together on their couch for a night so that she and her band could have their beds, because her music and presence was a fair exchange for the family’s comfort. After about 13 minutes of explaining why she is content with people giving her things, Palmer received a standing ovation.
For what it’s worth, I am a fan of Palmer’s music and I find her relentless connection with her audience interesting and endearing, so I am coming at this from a very different angle than Jefferson. Whatever my biases, though, Jefferson grossly misrepresented Palmer’s TED talk, which says a lot more about him than it does about her.
The very first word he uses to describe her is “wealthy” which, even if it were accurate, isn’t really germane to what she had to say. As a long-time fan, I can assure you that for the vast majority of her career, she’s been anything but wealthy. The dig about her marriage to Neil Gaiman, which was apparently another attempt to cast her as wealthy and privileged, is even more unfair and less relevant. Even if she’s well-off now (and I don’t know that that’s the case), her story of how she went from being a street performer to being well-off without putting price tags on things is kind of the whole point of the talk, isn’t it?
The point was certainly not “artists should work for free.” If that’s what you took away from it, probably need to watch the video again. Neither was her main thrust “people should give her things.” She was the one who was giving her art away and then letting the audience offer support as they saw fit.
As Palmer pointed out, the modern model of mass-producing reproductions of artist’s work, wherein the distributor had a monopoly to hold over both artists and customers, is an anomaly and it has run it’s course. The price/value of art can no longer be determined by the cost of reproducing and distributing the art because both of those items are essentially free now. We can argue about whether or not that’s a good thing or not, but it is an undeniably true thing. The safety blanket of licensing your art to a distributor is over. Your work can now be losslessly copied an infinite number of times at almost no effort, and those copies can be accessed from any point on this planet.
So what are you going to do about it? Amanda Palmer is trying to share with you the things that have worked for her. Those things might not work for you. Those things might not be things you would want to do. But for fuck’s sake man, don’t get pissy because she’s figured out how to do something that you haven’t. She’s giving it away, for free. Don’t act so whiny about it.