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How will the artists get paid?
Throughout history there have been a variety of ways that artists have gotten paid so they can create their work:Through an ecosystem which looks to a mixture of amateur, performance, patronage, and commission forms of payment. This essay explores that ecosystem.
There is a lot of controversy about digital media, copy protection, fair use, and internetworking. In most cases from the viewpoint of legislators trying to react to lobbyists, as I understand it, it boils down to one question: How will the artists get paid? My answer is simple: The same way artists have always gotten paid. Let's examine that issue to see how it applies to today's world.

For as long as we know, humans have had art. We find paintings in caves. The Bible talks about the songs of leader Moses' sister Miriam celebrating national deliverance at the Red Sea and the artisan Betzalel who was "filled...with the spirit of God, in practical-wisdom, in discernment and in knowledge, and in all kinds of workmanship to design designs...to make carvings... jewel-cuttings... embroidery... and weaving..." and led the building of the Tabernacle using materials donated by the Israelites. The songs of King David are still with us today, as are the melody of the medieval Greensleeves (with many different lyrics). (Coincidentally, as I write this flying on an airplane, I'm listening to a rendition of Greensleeves using an MP3 file I made from a CD I bought. Could the author of that piece have envisioned any of that?)

Art has many manifestations. I will define producing art (a dangerous thing, but helpful for this discussion) as manipulating something that can be sensed with human senses in a way that is not dictated purely for a utilitarian purpose but rather for some form of expression.

Some art is obvious, such as an oil painting. Others, like the compilations made by a DJ, may not be (but you can tell a good one from a bad one).

Art usually involves using the results of some other artist. The musician uses an instrument crafted by an instrument maker and plays the music written by a composer. An illustrator may draw images, invoked by a song written about a love story recounted in a play, on handmade paper using an intricately carved pen.

What motivates artists? For some it is just expressing themselves, no matter what others think. For some it is the joy of practicing their craft. For some, it is the "high" that comes from playing in front of an audience. For some, it is having their work appreciated and continue on in the hands of others. Finally, for some it is a way to earn a living and pursue riches. For many it is a combination.

The USA was found upon the principles of the right of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For the artist, that would be by letting them create their art and be able to reasonably make a living. The pursuit of happiness for all of us, in many respects, depends upon the artists being able to share their works with the rest of us, and us being able to use those works in ways that bring us happiness. The best benefit to society is when the most appreciated art is available for use by as much of society as possible. For the artists themselves, the best benefit is when they meet their personal goals of expression, practice, having an audience, appreciation, and material wealth. Since many forms of art and styles of practicing that art involve using the artistic works of others, the more that art can be used by others the better, too. To help the artists make their living, though, certain deals were struck with the public, such as the public allowing limited monopolies like copyrights.

Most artists do not rely upon their art to provide them with a livelihood. They have other means to provide for that. For example, most photographers, singers, musicians, painters, etc., are "amateurs" -- they do it for the love of doing it. (This is true of many pursuits of happiness, from sports to personal intimacy.) Some artists, though, make earning a living through their art a part, or all, of their career. Some types of art, especially if they require full-time devotion for proficiency, lend themselves to full-time careers if one wants to be at the highest level. However, making a living from creating art is not necessarily an indication that one's art is "better" than that from one who does not. Some amateur or part-time singers have as pleasing a sound as many full-time professionals. As in other fields, making more money than another is often an indication of business acumen and luck rather than "quality" of the art.

According to US Census Bureau statistics, there are on the order of 500,000 people in the US paying taxes for being an independent artist, writer, performer, photographer, etc. Digital camera sales alone in 2002 was over 6 million units in the US. In the one year of 1999, over 100,000 pianos were sold, and over 1.3 million guitars. Compared to the number of "professionals", there are quite a few amateurs willing to spend money to practice their craft.

The means to getting paid
As I see it, there are a few common ways that artists get paid for doing their work:

Performance: The artist gets paid by someone to have access (perhaps exclusive access, in the case of physical art like sculpture) to the art whose content the artist has chosen.

Patronage: Someone provides money to meet the artist's needs without restriction on the content of the work they create.

Commission: The artist does specific work using their skills at the request of another in return for payment.

Let's look at these a bit closer.

Performance has many variations. In the case of the work of a painter, the result of paying could be owning a particular painting and hanging it on the wall of one's home. In the case of a singer, it could be attending a concert and hearing the singer perform. In these cases, the physical nature of the art provides exclusivity -- the painting can only hang on one wall, and only those in the limited space of the music hall can hear and see the singer live.

Through laws, we have added additional, non-physical exclusivities to provide additional opportunities for performance payment, providing additional means to earn a living for a wider range of artists. For example, copyright laws let song writers have a way to get paid for performance during a limited (but sufficiently long to have economic meaning) time. Basically, you, as a singer, must not perform that song writer's work and receive performance payment yourself without also paying the song writer. This is a means for writers to get paid as one of the results of some of their work. (It's not turning their work into property. It is just a simple technique for monetizing one aspect of the result of their work in a way that society finds acceptable.)

Patronage has always been part of art. Without people paying more than their "fair share", many artists and forms of art would not be practical. Most people find particular art and artists that they especially like. People with "extra" means sometimes use those means to help those artists carry on as they wish with their art without needing to have other types of jobs, or needing to meet the desires of a larger public. The "monetizing use" model described above does not always work in balance with the financial needs of the artist and art form. The benefit to the patron comes in knowing they are helping to promote the art, or in bringing benefit to a larger community as a type of philanthropy. For those without a "gift" of being artistic but with the "gift" of business skill, luck, or rich family, it is a way of expression and sharing their gifts with others. Sometimes, the patron is really us all, when the government sponsors the art (a very important case).

A variant of patronage is when the patron pays for the privilege to get something related to the art work or artist, usually for a price much higher than the perceived value to others. Examples of these related performances are items of clothing with the artist's image, memorabilia such as items that belonged to the artist or autographed by them, ancillary items to the art like CD inserts with lyrics and essays, and presence at a reception attended by the artist with a chance to have a personal discussion with the artist. Sometimes the patronage is purchasing the art directly from the artist in a way that returns a larger amount of money to the artist than they would get through normal distribution.

A purchase of a CD at a concert is often a combination of types of patronage along with performance, where the price of the CD is high, there is an option for it to be autographed, and the artist is the one behind the table selling and listening politely to your comments as you express your appreciation of the work through the purchase.

Commission is a type of support for an artist that is often overlooked. Paying an artist to perform their artistry for a particular purpose has always been important. Painters have always done portraits for the wealthy and others. Composers have written to celebrate the events in the life of a noble, at the request of the noble who pays for the privilege. Illustrators have created logos for companies of all sizes. Commissioned work allows the artist to practice their art while bringing particular benefit to the one who does the commissioning. For those that get joy out of practicing their craft, or in the appreciation of their work, or in being paid, commissioned work is very important. Often, it allows the artist to hone their skills while earning a livelihood. Using that skill and savings, the artist may then be free to also create other art that is an expression of something more inner directed. Sometimes the commissioned art is of value to a wider community, and is a form of patronage from society's viewpoint.

As we've seen with desktop publishing and small business web sites, a much wider range of companies are able, and required, to take advantage of professionally created content -- the commissioned work of artists. Graphic design, illustration, photography, video, and other artistic skills are being used by everybody. The cost to produce this material, in terms of equipment, is constantly dropping, but the need for a "trained eye" and other skills is growing. We don't accept the homemade look in as many places as we used to. The smallest of businesses is insisting on "a professional look", according to the research I've been seeing. Big businesses are expected to use professionally created content in more and more places. All of this means more opportunities for commissioned work for the artist.

Throughout time, artists have put together for themselves a mixture of each of these ways to earn a living (funding themselves, performance, patronage, and commission). See my writeup of Buskin and Batteau for a discussion of the mix one pair of singer/songwriters have put together. (Most people have never heard of them, but if you read the writeup, you'll see why they are an interesting example -- you probably have heard their work.)

Free release
In many cases, artists' work ends up being appreciated and used by a wider range of people than those that gave them money. An artist whose work is too confined usually does not do as well from their own, nor society's, view. Unpaid or unplanned exposure to an artist's work is often the source that leads to a patron or other income. Without exposure, there is no audience, no appreciation, and no reuse where your work lives on (the "most sincere form of flattery", which is a motivator for many). Without free exposure, many people without means or who do not know of an art form or of an artist's work would not be inspired to become artists themselves. (How many stories do we hear of children repeatedly sneaking into theaters or concert halls, or hanging out in libraries and museums, later to become major artists in the field?)

There has always been lots of free release to society, where the artist is not paid for their work. Fair-use carve-outs in legislation and foreseeable difficulties in enforcement have made the copyright laws work for society. (Again: These laws do not make works property, they are just schemes that enhance exclusivity and scarcity that help bring in some money from performance where the physical nature of the art does not provide it. They are not mimics of physical exclusivity, which in any case, themselves vary from art form to art form.) Built into many types of performing art is a way to not be paid, though sometimes for a "diminished" form of that performance. Copies of popular or important paintings or sculptures have always been made, for example.

The needs of the "commercial" or "professional" or "public" arena have helped balance out this free release. We can hum a new song we like for free, or even sing it along with friends around a campfire, but we can't use it in a TV commercial without paying the author. A photograph copied from a web site works fine for a child's term paper, but only the original high resolution version may suffice for a magazine, which would have staff to arrange for payment.

For each art form and artist, there are a wide range of mixtures of payment and free release non-payment that works. Like many things in life, the particular mixture can be very freeform and change over time, tailored to the individual and the particular art form. The street musician plays for all who pass by, and is funded by the few who are moved to give a donation. That same musician may have had their training paid by an uncle who wanted to help them, and eventually make most of their money creating soundtracks for corporate videos. The proportions in the mixture of users and payers, of people who don't make any financial contribution to the artist, those that make a small amount, and those that make significant amounts, varies from artist to artist and art form to art form. The creator of large sculptures for public places, such as in parks and courtyards, needs but a few patrons or commissioners. Most of the people who will enjoy the art work will have no direct financial connection to the artist. The painter of family portraits, on the other hand, will need many people who commission work, most of whom, along with their families and friends, will be the only people to see the work.

This use of a mixture of payments is common is all of selling. A hamburger is usually sold for much closer to its actual cost than the drink or fries consumed with it. The child-friendly environment in the restaurant is provided free of charge.

Fan bases are an important element for many types of art. These are the people who know and appreciate the particular artist's work, and seek it out. They are more likely to pay for "performances" of all sorts, be patrons or sponsors, decide to use that artist for commissioned work, etc. Knowing that they have a fan base, an artist can plan for the future, creating new works without upfront payment. The fan base can provide the people that satisfy the need to have an audience and appreciation.

Crucial to this ecosystem of different types and needs for payment is the discovery of the artist by people who would be users, and perhaps become part of the fan base and payers for performance, patrons, and commissioners. Frequently, that discovery comes from free, serendipitous exposure to the artist's work. A caricaturist who sketches likenesses of people in a public square is also an entertainer (another form of artist), providing free entertainment to those who watch. The crowds that form help attract others, a few of whom may become customers. Many singers build their fan base by starting as the "warm up band" to a more established act. Many people learn about new artists from friends who share what they have found and like. Performers learn of other performers with whom they pair up when they overhear each other playing at the same venue. The less expensive the act of introducing others to the art you like, the more likely you are to do it and they are to let you. The wider variety of art you are exposed to, the more likely you will find something that really resonates, much to the benefit of the artist.

The fact that there is free release is a key aspect of the ecosystem of art. The free release results not only in discovery, but also in use by other artists, resulting in yet more art. Free release is not the only source of discovery and other art, but it is a component that must not be ignored or eliminated. It is as important as variations are to biological evolution, tithing and religious teaching were to early social welfare, and competition and information are to free markets. It is also just as important that it be fluid and organic, and not mechanically absolute, as those other attributes.

Today's world
A problem with much of today's pre-recorded media art (such as sound recordings and movies) is the method of discovery. Introduction to new artists and their work is done through advertising, paid placement (narrow radio and TV play lists), and other mass marketing techniques. These are very expensive, and the difficulty of rising above the noise becomes yet more and more expensive. There is a self-fulfilling prophesy where only huge sellers bringing in large revenues are pursued. Small fan bases, even if solid and large enough to fully fund the artist themselves with a very acceptable life compared to other professions, do not fit in this model. A few big hits are viewed as more important than a myriad of small ones, each with a happy artist and happy fans. There seems to be a drive to create a few "superstars" instead of many full-time artists. This is bad economics if in catering to the big players we develop technologies and norms that hamper the "business models" of the smaller players.

Technology is making the cost of practicing many types of art less expensive. For example, recording and editing equipment of high quality that used to cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars is becoming something even a hobbyist can afford and use. Manufacturing and distribution of many media forms is becoming almost cost free. Communications to a widely dispersed fan base has dropped to a minor cost as mailing and the need for advertising is replaced with email and web sites. (Discussing this with someone, he basically asked: "Is the Britney Spears model the mainframe of the music business?")

There is a difference between few, centrally controlled sources of performance with huge audiences and many smaller sources of performance with smaller, often overlapping audiences. In trying to understand why the online market of eBay was worth so much more than OnSale, David Reed formulated what has become known as "Reed's Law". He showed mathematically that the value of "group forming networks" grows faster (exponentially) than centralized distribution (which grows linearly according to Sarnoff's Law). Just like the myriad auctions on eBay for everything from Beanie Babies to Corvette sports cars has resulted in one of the dominant players in online commerce, the totality of all the artists and their fan bases, given the right ecosystem, can be more valuable to society than the few "superstars" of the recording industry and Hollywood. Given the wrong ecosystem, this valuable and crucial source of art could die. While for certain forms of art centralized production and distribution is a valuable component, it must not be the only component.

Something that bothers me about the talk about Digital Rights Management (DRM), both technical and legislative, is the whole disregard for the ecosystem needed for widespread advancement of the arts. The freeform of a variety and a mixture of funding models, and the benefits of unintended free release, are part of what makes things work with art and society. Responding to opportunities that present themselves requires flexibility. The DRM systems we hear about today are rigid procrustean beds that could kill this ecology. They are wedded to narrow, simplistic business models, dominated by large publishing businesses.

In computers, we've seen that fluid, general purpose programs like word processors and spreadsheets have usually prevailed over the more structured systems. People do with them what they want, not what the creator envisioned. (I can tell you that first hand with the spreadsheet...) DRM systems we hear about are based on a particular model of use, with an aim for absolute control to that model.

With art, which is usually used or experienced by others for their own purposes, there must be generality and lack of control to let others do what they want with it. An ecosystem with many ways for unintended free-release is a requirement. Therefore, an ecosystem which looks to a mixture of the traditional amateur, performance, patronage, and commission forms of payment is a requirement. Depending upon rigid enforcement of performance payments will disrupt the balance.

Listening to representatives from the recording and movie industries, you would think that selling fixed artifacts is the only way that artists can get paid. That has never been the case, and should not be in the future or else society and art itself will suffer. Those publishing businesses may be based on that one form of payment, but the artists' livelihood need not.

-Dan Bricklin, 14 April 2003

See also: Copy Protection Robs The Future. This brings up another problem with DRM which affects the artist's desire to have a long-term effect with their work.
Mark Bernstein's posting
Mark Bernstein had some comments in reaction to this essay and the Buskin and Batteau example, especially with regards to commissioned work and patronage. He brings up the problems of "...making artists subservient once more to the whims of government agencies and the desires of deep pockets...[Dan] sees a healthy ecosystem that gave two talented folksingers a variety of job opportunities. [Mark sees] two talented performers who spent the 90's writing jingles to sell Chevies and recruit kids to join the US Army."

My response, defending some of the benefits of commissioned work, included the following:

"I like the immediacy of the advertising business," he says. "You can work for two years on an album, and when it doesn't turn into The Beatles' 'White Album' be very upset. But a jingle is written and cut very quickly, and it's on the air shortly thereafter, and that's satisfying. There's also something about getting your first idea down as the end result. Sometimes when you refine a song over and over again, you lose touch with your original impulse. There's none of that danger with jingles because of the pressure to complete your work quickly."

Jingle writers, no matter how successful, have to make peace with the fact that advertising is considered a second-class art in certain circles. I asked Batteau for his take on the topic. "Who knows how the future will judge the art of this time?" he asks. "Andy Warhol was simply painting Campbell's soup cans, and now they're considered important pieces of art. Maybe the most creative advertising music will be thought of as art in the future. You don't know what throwaway art is going to become...

I find that doing creative work for a particular purpose is often a wonderful thing to do. It's like sticking to a particular poetry form, or that scene in Apollo 13 where the engineers are given the parts available and told "make it work". Is commissioned work any worse than having to write stuff you don't like just because the audience likes it? Or playing that old hit song for the 40 thousandth time twenty years later to have them leave the concert happy?

I like your statement "It's nice to have a grant, but it's nicer to have lots of grants" -- hence my invoking of Reed's Law. When I hear "depends on one or two powerful people" I don't hear rich patron but rather big record company, with whom personal relationships have little sway, and altruism for payment is unlikely.

As far as I can tell, Buskin and Batteau spent time helping other artists, too, in many ways (Shawn Colvin as Batteau's assistant at one point according to one report), and doing lots of fund raisers. I think it was Batteau that also wrote material for Clinton to help him get elected. Not the image of slaves to big business you sort of imply. If you know their comedy leanings and style, I think it sounds more like they felt they were exploiting big business. As I try to show, things are very fluid.

Great you bring up that story about Martin Luther King's reaction to hearing "We Shall Overcome". I hadn't heard it. It's even better if you look at this quote from Pete Seeger. The one you heard is probably on this show on NPR.

The evolution of "We Shall Overcome" is a great example of how songs move along, with some changes, and can have great social effect. Being exposed to something and reacting to it, reusing it, is very important. As one who has had his work move on (and many ones that did not), I can tell you there are great psychic rewards for knowing that pebble you dropped in the pond made great waves, even if the journey there meant you didn't get the full economic benefit that was theoretically possible.

-Dan Bricklin, 21 April 2003

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