Back in May, when Amanda Palmer ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund her latest album, she set her sights on a target of $100 000. Her fans went above and beyond the call of duty, pitching in almost $1.2 million, and her project became the highest-earning Kickstarter campaign ever. Then in September, she sent a call-out for ‘semi-professional’ musicians to play unpaid on stage with her at her gigs, and the shit hit the fan. In fact, it hit the fan so hard that in the end Palmer and her crew decided to completely rebudget so they could not only pay the volunteer musicians who had been enlisted for future shows, but back-pay all the previous volunteers as well.
The question of ‘when you should work for free?’ pops up a lot in the arts world, perhaps more so than in any other. The furore over Palmer’s Kickstarter and her ‘crowdsourcing’ of musicians (which as far as I can tell is just a new name for regular old local call-outs and auditions) may have died down, but the issues it raised about the arts and the economy, labour and personal choice, are ongoing. It’s worth looking at that response in a bit more depth, not to attack her further on this issue, but because an analysis of some of her arguments might help open a broader conversation about the relationship between art, money and labour.
In defending herself against the uproar, Palmer explained that from her perspective, ‘as the musician in charge of the show, the reality – not the theory – is always more important’. Presumably, this means that while in theory ‘all musicians should be paid’, in reality Palmer hadn’t, at the time, included casual musicians’ fees in her budget. It isn’t quite clear why she didn’t, particularly since her fans went well above and beyond what she asked of them in funding her project. It’s enough to accept that she hadn’t budgeted for them, and that she knew there were plenty of people who would do what she asked for free. But the inevitable consequence of reality-trumps-theory position is that reality becomes theory. One can postulate all one likes about how artists should be paid, but if one never attempts to actually do that, then it will never actually happen.
Palmer has said on many occasions that her solution to the theory of artists’ financial woes, for those who don’t want to be slave to the corporate monolith, is to return to a system of patronage. She sees Kickstarter (and programs like it) as essentially a version of this, with the financially struggling artist requesting money in advance to produce a work of art. And in the wake of her phenomenally successful funding campaign, her claims that ‘this is the future of music’ certainly seemed to have some clout. But patronage is not a radical funding tactic, despite Palmer’s high-profile and exceptional success with it. In fact, it’s inherently conservative, as it effectively relies on the goodwill of people with money (and perhaps the even more exceptional goodwill of people with very little money but a lot of passion) to donate towards the artistic realisation of those without, and never seeks to overturn that distinction between the haves and have-nots. Kickstarter itself is less like patronage than it is a traditional market exchange, except with money supplied in advance of production, as backers are materially rewarded for each pledge on an increasing scale depending on the size of their donation. Patronage doesn’t make it easier for emerging artists either, nor does it provide support for artists who are still developing their craft: a prerequisite of the model is an already-existing exposure of talent, and in the case of crowdsourcing, an already-existing and loyal fan base.
By way of defending those artists who did get up on stage and play for her for free, Palmer explained that for a lot of her artistic life, and in particular her early career, she also performed for free. Using her experience as a street performer as an example, she discussed how she never expected passers-by to pay her, and she never shrieked at them when they didn’t throw change into her hat. She said that she was extremely happy to be able to give her visual artists some money for their time, but then went on to suggest that it was sometimes the lot of emerging performers to work for free, that she and many others had done so in order to build an audience, and there should be no shame in that.
YOU don’t have to play for free. but i hope you won’t criticize me for wanting to. and hope you would try not to criticize or shame other musicians for making their own decisions about how to share their talent and their time.
It’s easy to say ‘your choice, fair enough’ but the reality is not that simple. ‘We’d like to pay you but we just can’t’ is not an unfamiliar argument. In fact, as many people pointed out at the time, it’s the same argument used by businesses and organisations all around the world who have the money to pay people fairly for their labour, and yet don’t. The fact that it’s true in some cases (and especially true in the arts) doesn’t change the bitter taste it leaves in people’s mouths. But despite widespread recognition of this, there is very little discussion about why artists struggle to get paid.
It’s not because artists are bad at what they do – immense talent and highly developed skill is no guarantee of a paycheque. And it’s not because people don’t love and cherish the arts. The passion that people show and the lengths to which they will go to demonstrate this passion – Palmer herself is a prime example – is evidence enough of this. No – it’s about the market. It’s about the arts being treated as a ‘fringe’ concern, rather than a crucial component of a healthy society, part of the glue that holds communities together. It’s about the practice of art being considered something that is done only for fun, thus play rather than work, as if something can’t simultaneously be creatively fulfilling, personal, contemplative and a worthwhile social contribution that deserves a liveable wage. And perhaps, also, it’s because we still recognise the arts as something that has the capacity to stand outside the market – to mean something beyond the market, even if we often have trouble articulating precisely what that is. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that such a thing shouldn’t be financially supported.
The struggle of artists to get paid suggests that art is superfluous to the market, but it’s not superfluous to us. In that very distinction lies the suggestion that actually, despite the multiplicity of choices it offers, the market can’t fulfil our every need. And so we need a broader conversation. We need a re-examination of the political and social structures that provide material support for the development and diversity of artists. But we also need a radical shift in thinking about art itself, about how we articulate what it means to us, about its place in our society, about how we value what artists do, away from the notion of profit.