A shot from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter video. (Credit: kickstarter.com)
Commentary on the propriety of “working for free” in the arts and other vaguely creative professions like journalism has been at an all-time high the last two weeks. In one ring, we have a working journalist who was asked to contribute, for free, to The Atlantic’s website. The man in question, Nate Thayer, reacted to this request with a blind fury that seemed at once righteous and frankly overwrought. He had evidently been cushioned from the realities of online journalism for some time. Requests to work for free are not new, and particularly not new from The Atlantic.Ta-Nehisi Coates himself pointed out that he had begun working at The Atlantic website for free, as a guest blogger for Matt Yglesias—marquee name though he is now.
Meanwhile, in the TED Talks–land of you-paid-how-much-for-that-ticket, the musician Amanda Palmer believes that artists should stop charging for their work. Instead, she says, they ought to “let” people pay them. Her argument, as Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon points out, is slightly stronger than the standard “people will pay for things they value” argument. Palmer thinks artists can guarantee monetary and logistical support, by reaching out, developing, and nurturing a community of devoted fans on the Internet. Twitter followers, her philosophy holds, will donate reasonable amounts of money, or couches to sleep on on tour. They in turn will then support projects that jittery corporate suits find too risky. She cites her own success as evidence that this model works, which last year saw her raise $1.2 million on Kickstarter for an album.
While Coates and Palmer differ somewhat in the particulars of their arguments—Coates makes a far better argument, one less driven than Palmer by bullshitty “inner creativity” talk—the animating philosophy is the same: If you make it, they will come. Which sounds like an insult to the people in their respective fields who have tried the same routes—the blogging, the Kickstarters, the Twitter feeds, the donated journalism—and ended up, well, somewhere south of $1.2 million and a gig at The Atlantic. Some people would say that the others simply aren’t talented enough to rise to the top of the crop, and of course in many cases that is simply one hundred percent true. But there are a lot of artists out there struggling right now—Nitsuh Abebe, at New York, wrote a great piece on the struggles of the indie-popular Grizzly Bear a few months ago—for reasons other than talent. If you talk to the kind of journalists who do valuable work—some here at The Nation—they will tell you that they find it difficult to do in this marketplace. And a Kickstarter with the label “I’d like to do hard-hitting journalism about poverty in America,” for whatever reason, is never going to do as well as one called “The Veronica Mars Movie Project,” which as of this writing has raised $3.2 million and counting.