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.
It is tempting to blame the holes in the logic here on Lawrence Lessig and his followers. Don’t get me wrong; many of Lessig’s ideas about copyright and free culture are nothing short of brilliant. His legal theory, viewed in isolation from the real world, is a thing of vision and elegance. His dream of a robust public domain, with works that other artists can liberally borrow, steal from and build on, is a good one. The problem is, like many theories, this one has a hard time explaining how, in the midst of a revolution in the modes of cultural production, people are going to keep themselves in cat food, if you catch my drift. The success of Lessig’s thinking, the promulgation of his ideas, has occurred in a media environment that is still largely bound up with gatekeepers. Your WordPress blog is just never going to have the cachet of even a guest-blogging stint at The Atlantic. And one still, generally, needs the anointment of a record company in order to get the kind of press and, hell, capital investment, that it takes to make one’s first albums a success. (Palmer herself was associated with a label until just three years ago.) And it sure helps to have three seasons of your TV show already produced and available for years on DVD to build the kind of audience who will gladly donate millions to keep you going.
Therein lies the rub: In this sort of hybrid environment, where we still have gatekeepers, creators still need to leverage themselves with existing brands in order to break into the conversation. And even businesspeople who dedicate themselves to the arts are obviously capitalists. Sure, on one side, certain aspects of the Internet—piracy, yes, but also sheer volume of stuff to look at and listen to—are putting pressure on profits. But on the other side, in an atmosphere of growing noise, artists still need these businesspeople to give them legitimacy in the early stages of their careers, to float them reputational capital. That is why you see places like The Atlantic, a profitable institution, kick up only a minor fuss when it fails to pay people. Journalists still need the legitimacy The Atlantic can confer to stand out. And that is no doubt how the people who own profitable arts-related businesses justify their free-labor practices to themselves.
It is also why Amanda Palmer’s “model” doesn’t make much sense. It’s of course possible that, absent the support of a label at any point, she would still have become “alt-icon” that many people now claim her to be. But we will never know if that is the case. Even in her TED Talk, she says she first developed her “sense of direct connection” on tour with the Dresden Dolls, pre-Twitter, pre-Kickstarter, before any of us had heard of the word “crowdsourcing.” (I miss those halcyon days.) But it really is one thing to make friends with the captive audience in tiny, underground bars, and quite another to make them on the Internet. The latest Republican gaffe and cute-baby-animal video are tough to compete with, even if you are doing very good creative and journalistic work. And the way things are going, it’s tempting to just throw up your hands, get a regular old desk job and pass the hat for another glance at Logan Echolls.
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