(Oh my stars…I apologize in advance for the effed-up formatting. Apparently, copying and pasting from FB into WP is a Very Bad Idea indeed…I’m working on it, but it seems that the visual editor is unable to cope with this mess)
(Sorted. I think)
This evening, Amanda Palmer posed a couple of questions about how we perceive artists that I’d like to take a stab at. I apologize if I’ve covered this ground before. I feel as thought I must have done so, but I couldn’t find any posts on this subject, so let’s rectify that, shall we? These questions were originally posted on Twitter and then on Facebook, but my responses won’t fit on either of them without spamming a million or so people’s feeds, so I’ll just answer here.
The questions, for those of you who didn’t click the above link, are:
your feelings about artists “flaunting/hiding” wealth.
hard-working-indie-artist feels they must “keep it real” by hiding wealth and driving a shitty car on purpose to win cred from their community
hard-working-hip-hop-artist feels they must “bling out” by flaunting wealth they may/may not actually have to win cred from their community
do we feel differently about different artists “working for The Man”. is it okay for a “commercial” artist like kanye/madonna/taylor swift to sell products for ford motor company or google, but we’d hold a different set of judgments and threshold for, say, the decembrists, or neil young? what if the artist is transparent and openly “laughs all the way to the bank”? or gives the money forward, to charity? or to more art?
and….is it fair to hold different artists to different levels of “purity”? do we?
what about iggy pop doing insurance ads?
bob dylan doing a car ad, tongue-in-cheek?
lady gaga using half-fake and half-real product placements in the “telephone” video and calling it warholian?
would it have made it “better” or “worse” if we knew the dollar amount of the check she was paid for the real ones? or do we just Not Want To Know..TMI?
is the new generation just inured to the concept of “selling out”?
or have we evolved PAST “selling out” as money for the arts has become impossible to find and every artist is forced to get creative??
So, how do I feel about artists attempting to match their apparent “wealth” with whatever is expected of an artist in their niche? I feel bad for artists who feel the need to do it, but I understand it. There’s a certain amount of marketing that goes with monetizing art and the image of the artist is a huge factor in this marketing. This isn’t anything close to new, mind you. Warren Ellis did a marvelous rant on “authenticity” using Doktor Sleepless as his mouthpiece in a comic named for the good Doktor. “Authenticity” is a product. He discusses Richey Manic, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Memphis Minnie, Justin Timberlake, and, Big Bill Broonzy. I’ll quote the bit on Broonzy because it speaks specifically to this subject:
“In 1938, a sharp-dressed bluesman named Big Bill Broonzy who’d be tearing up Chicago, played in New York for the first time. But a blues guitarist in a good suit brewing up the primal muck of rock’n’roll with drummers and bassmen didn’t seem authentic enough to the Carnegie. So the concert programme described him as a proverty-stricken farmer who had been prevailed up to leave his mule and make his very first trek to the big city and they had him do acoustic guitar blues on his own. From there to his death twenty years later, he booked pretty much nothing but acoustic gigs. Because fake Big Bill Broonzy was deemed the authentic version.”
(this is from issue #5 for anyone who wants to read the entire thing, and I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t want to)
I guess my only caveat is that it feels better when the artist is in control of their persona, and displays of wealth are definitely part of that. I’m sure its all a mix of the artist’s wishes, the norms of the genre, and the marketing machine of the label. If the artist is driving the train, you get Bowie or Madonna. If not, it can be pretty ugly.
I feel much more strongly about the second question, and I am strongly for artists having commercial control of their music and forming partnerships with whosoever they desire. This is a big deal, and it irritates me now end to see artists called “sell-outs” for licensing their music. It’s always been about licensing, only now, the artists have more freedom to chose with whom they get into bed. Bear with me, because this is a pretty long answer…
In ye olden tymes, in the days before the internet, we had artists and we had fans. Unfortunately, it was very difficult for them to connect without an intermediary. Creating recordings of music was expensive, but not prohibitively so, and the equipment to play back these recordings was dirt-cheap. However, mass-producing copies of these recordings on plastic and then distributing them was extremely expensive. In fact, it was so expensive that not very many companies could do it, and those that could held an extremely powerful position over both artists and fans.
And man, did they ever abuse that position.
Only a tiny amount of any sale of recorded music would go to the artist. A vastly greater sum would go to the manufacturer and distributor. This almost makes sense, because that was the really expensive part of the process. Remember, though, the actual product was the piece of plastic. The artist was licensing their music to WEA or Columbia or some similar entity to add value to their plastic so consumers would buy it. Music was not the product; it was marketing for plastic disks or tapes.
Fast-forward (wow, is that expression starting to show its age?) to the present and the landscape has changed remarkably. Music is still expensive to create, although adjusted for inflation, it’s slightly less so and the means of production are now in many more hands. The fans are still there. However, thanks to the magic of the internet, reproduction and distribution are now approaching free. The old middleman now adds almost now value to this part of the transaction.
Now, the middlemen aren’t about to go quiet into that good night. They’re trying to buy enough politicians to get the police to legally enforce their position in the middle of all transactions. They want to force fans to pay the same price for music that they did back in the “plastic disks on trucks shipped to the mall” days, even though the part of the transaction that justified the cost is now out of their control and essentially free. They’ve tried all manner of copy-protection software and hardware schemes, all of which have had the predictable effect of making the “legitimate” copies of recorded music less useful to fans than pirated copies.
These days, it is simply not possible to enforce payment for digital recordings. I cannot emphasize this enough. There’s no point in having a discussion about recorded music that does not recognize this fact.
The net of this is that recorded music is free to anyone who wants to get for free. It didn’t have to be this way. The ill-will generated by the major labels has driven otherwise law-abiding fans to discover that piracy is easy and very low-risk. This means that any money generated by the sale of recorded music is very much like a tip. The payment might as well be optional, but it represents a desire on the part of the fan to ensure that the artist receives compensation.
There is, however, very good news for artists. The things that the artists can control are more in their control than ever. Live performance, merchandise, publishing, and commercial licensing are still there for the taking. The art is a means of marketing these revenue streams, and it is not absolutely necessary to have a record label at one’s disposal to take advantage of these streams.
So, to finally get around to answering the question, I do not see any significant difference between licensing your art to sell a car and licensing it to sell a plastic disk produced by Sony. They’re both a type of commercial licensing, only now, the artists seem to have many more options for partners. I don’t have any problem at all with any artist choosing to monetize their art in any way they see fit, so long as they’re not obviously trying to gouge their fans (we’ll call this the Metallica effect) or selling products I personally find odious*. It’s hard enough to turn art into a living wage; I’d be a real asshole to criticize artists who are succeeding at it.
* I’ll cut Los Campesinos! a little slack here. Even though Budweiser is nasty, it was kind of awesome to hear “You! Me! Dancing” several times a night on the television.