Art is a labour issue, part 1: wages

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. I don’t disagree about with the crux of your post. Deciding to play for free is an individual choice, _asking_ someone to play for free is a labour issue. Shouldn’t have happened.

    One point I have to make in disagreement with you, Kickstarter, while it can be construed as patronage, is a different class of it, and as such is actually quite radical. It is democratising patronage and joined with the nature of the Internet is already allowing for long tail musicians to be both discovered and funded.

    Furthermore, following some regulatory changes that have already happened in the UK and are happening now in the US, soon you’d be able to collaboratively fund a venture rather than buy a product. In a nutshell, you’d be able to invest in the artist herself/himself by allowing him/her to offer shares in her/his venture to seed it and share in its success.

  2. Valuing what artists do free of profit notions in an era of high to late capitalism?

    For starters, I’m not convinced that art is superfluous to market forces as I imagine (without bothering to check the figures) that Australia profits enormously in export dollars from the Arts industry (but agreed: distributing very little of that money at a grass roots level).

    As with domestic situations, where and when does unpaid labour in the making of does art start and stop?

    I know, from listening to interviews Palmer has given, that she uses social media as a contact point with her fans, getting them to tweet suggestions for song lyrics as well as supply musical instruments etc required for gigs and recordings.

    Sometimes labour and goods are given freely as a labour of love in the making of art; at other times that labour of love can sour: especially when people see themselves being exploited for and by market forces from which a trusted other profits.

    (The Wailers and a line-up of backing singers Versus the Bob Marley Estate being a good example.)

    • I checked the figures and The Australian Major Performing Arts Group has it that “The creative industries contributed $31.1 billion towards GDP in 2007–08. This is greater than a number of traditional industries such as: agriculture and fishing, communications, accommodation and hospitality, and the supply of electricity-water-gas.
      Despite generally difficult economic conditions, in 2011 the Australian live performance sector generated $1.3 billion in revenue.
      Australian feature films earned $42.9 million or 3.9 per cent of the total Australian box office in 2011 which is on par with Australia’s major opera companies’ ticket sales alone. The 28 Australian major performing arts companies as a group generated over 4 times this income in ticket sales with a box office revenue in 2011 of $176.2 million, which that the arts are not “superfluous to the market” as suggested in this post.

      • I actually think the figures you’re quoting there are misleading. You can’t look at GDP alone, or indeed the aggregate figures, to accurately assess their ability to perform in the market, as it were. The fact is, the majority of MPA companies in Australia are heavily subsidised. A huge number of even those companies regularly run at a loss, or break even with sponsorship and donation if they’re lucky. That’s not to mention other arts orgs in the small to medium sector in and outside the performing arts. Wages are often very low, where they exist at all, and a large number of companies require volunteer work in order to run. A huge proportion of arts companies and organisations would fold, no question, without direct donation and government support because they just can’t survive on the sale of product/service provision alone. We subsidise them precisely *because* they do things that we understand to be important outside of their capacity to make a profit.

        • Good counter points which I don’t refute. I guess I was suggesting how the arts are profitable in a micro-economic sense – more as a way of supporting what I had previously expressed in support of your overall argument – the lack of distribution of monies earned through the arts at a grass roots level – which, given the Arts GDP profile, should allow Arts bodies to apply pressure to government and industry for increased support at all levels. I see the arts being a future growth industry, not that I value the arts for economic profitability reasons – not at all really – but the money has to come from somewhere, and that is an area that could be exploited more by the Arts.

          Top post, by the way.

  3. “immense talent and highly developed skill is no guarantee of a paycheque.”

    Just as lack of talent and blunt-fingered lack of skill can sometimes lead to extraordinary success – uh, I won’t mention the titles.

  4. “But patronage is not a radical funding tactic, despite Palmer’s high-profile and exceptional success with it.”

    I apologise for raising a side issue, but I’ve seen this view put without qualification regarding Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign a few times in different features and essays now.

    I think it’s important to clearly acknowledge (especially in a debate about pay for artists) that Palmer was not requesting patronage so much as a prepayment for services and goods rendered – each category of “patron” expected to receive an album, art book, combination of the two, invitation to a party, or other consideration.

    Arguably the amounts involved were gold-plated or intended to accompany the thrill of patronage – of charitable over-contribution to her album budget, but it’s careless to imply that she received a $1.2m “slush fund” for recording and touring purposes when a sizeable proportion of that money had to be spent on the agreed goods etc.

    It was, in many ways, much more a conventional pre-sale campaign tied up in a new platform and badged in a deceptive way, than a campaign for funding.

    That said, I’m not a supporter of hers, I’ve just seen this glossed over enough times to want to object.

    • I have actually heard Palmer speak explicitly about patronage (her word) as a way forward for artists on multiple occasions. And given that she is (or at least has been on many occasions) an advocate for it, I think it’s worthy of analysis.

      I don’t think Kickstarter itself is patronage per se, I think it’s a market exchange, as I explained. And I don’t think I implied anywhere that she had a bottomless “slush fund”. But this is not the first time she’s asked for direct support. She doesn’t always do it via Kickstarter, but I don’t think viewing her system under the umbrella of patronage is unfair, given the above.

  5. How do you produce art in a free market without SOME dependence on money! You’re not just peripheral to to the economy because your sentiments are. It’s like protesting for peace, writing a letter about saving a forest, being a uni student who opposes commodification of education or writing a critique of the economic principles of an artist and being expected to be paid for any of your own creative work. Perhaps you shouldn’t put a price on creativity or art, but in order to BE radical, you need to turn a systems weapons against itself. Oh, I can’t believe I just admitted that. It’s almost like a moral compromise, isn’t it?

  6. ‘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.’

    That is an interesting post Stephanie and has certainly made me think (no mean feat!).

    I think though I have to disagree with your conception of art being ‘work’ rather than ‘play’. To the extent you are referring to musicians and artists (painters, sculptors, actors etc) it seems to me these pursuits, if taken up as a means of livelihood, lend themselves more closely to the mode of existence of the petit-bourgeois, ie as a small business owner.

    While this analysis might break down when applied to actors contracted to a TV series, eg Neighbours (were I seem to recall them taking industrial action a few years ago)I don’t think it would sit well, and would thus be quite unconvincing to most working people, that artists deserve a wage for performing personally fulfilling labour. This is particularly in a world where the vast majority of people work jobs they rarely find fulfilling in any sense, personally or materially.

    In fact I would suggest that those most likely to find personal satisfaction from their labour shade off into the professional middle classes where they begin to become distinguished from the working class.

    Anyway, hope that stimulates some more discussion.

  7. I think China Mieville is good on this (as on many things):
    What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?

    * * *

    This would only be an exaggeration of the national stipends already offered by some countries for some writers. For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it’s easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity.

    But who decides who qualifies as a writer? Does it take one sonnet? Of what quality? Ten novels? 50,000 readers? Ten, but the right readers? God knows we shouldn’t trust the state to make that kind of decision. So we should democratise that boisterous debate, as widely and vigorously as possible. It needn’t be the mere caprice of taste. Which changes. And people are perfectly capable of judging as relevant and important literature for which they don’t personally care. Mistakes will be made, sure, but will they really be worse than the philistine thuggery of the market?

    We couldn’t bypass the state with this plan, though. So for the sake of literature, apart from any- and everything else, we’ll have to take control of it, invert its priorities, democratise its structures, replace it with a system worth having.

    So an unresentful sense of writers as people among people, and a fidelity to literature, require political and economic transformation. For futures for novels – and everything else. In the context of which futures, who knows what politics, what styles and which contents, what relationships to what reconceived communities, which struggles to express what inexpressibles, what stories and anti-stories we will all strive and honourably fail to write, and maybe even one day succeed?

    • Jeff, you seem to have a very optimistic view of the internet and the possibilities it lends the left cause. I may be reading between the lines, but you seem to see it as an instrument central to the existence of a democratic media. It’s free, accessible to anyone who can be bothered (through a library or other community facility), anyone can contribute and it is certainly a site through which people can communicate instantly and through a variety of mediums.

      But what about the portion of the world who do NOT have access the internet? It is also fashions illusions about the living standards of those who do have access to it. So their drinking water might not be safe, but at least they can look up that recipe or skype home about their rickets or the latest on the civil war. Just like other forms of media, those that are marginalized (either by choice or otherwise) end up more silenced by something that acts to reinforce the power of those who have access to it (little slice of hegeomony, anyone? Grandma?). In my opinion, this is a form of technological colonization where those that resist it are inherently disadvantaged-globally- but perhaps more locally WITHIN states which depend on it more. Computer illiteracy is perhaps more disabling and disadvantageous than ACTUAL illiteracy (remember those days before spell check?) (When you weren’t allowed to bring a calculator to a test because you had to THINK for yourself) (Do we remember why we need to think?). You also have to be aware that the internet requires a really AUTONOMOUS mode of media consumption- Larry (yes, the notoriously happy one!) isn’t going to actively seek out alternative news sources if he has his news home site bookmarked to news.com.au. This is WORSE than reading a newspaper because you’re not going on a trip to a newsagents to be inundated with a bit of perspective in the form of the other headlines that exist. You’re not seeing the physical variety, your patterns of media consumption are limited to that which you consume and that will in turn influence what you read or think further….It’s like trying to give yourself an education. Think about the websites that you frequent, why you frequent them, and the endless possibilities of information out there…how do you find out about them? Search engines let people find the ‘facts’ they WANT to exist, reinforce patterns of thought already there…”The best books…are the ones that tell you what you know already.” (Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four)

      As for the article- the absence of book spines on a shelf does not necessarily indicate the dissolution of the importance of things that mark our identity- instead, people will have little “symbols” such as those on GoodReads, Facebook or other websites which “define” them. This isn’t even a physical product anymore, rather an increasingly fluid one which illustrates the predominance of that capitalist mentality. Doesn’t cost anything to “make” a book. Produce a website. It’s not even a tangible thing. And if alienation from the products of labour were a problem when they WERE tangible, what are they now? The internet reinforces individualist perspectives. It makes us more fragmented, more divided (politically) and less able to connect with people who experience that world similarly at local levels (crucial to any radical political activity, I think). “…even technological progress only happens when it’s products can in some way be used for the diminution of human liberty. The fields are cultivated with horse-ploughs while books are written by machinery” (Nineteen Eighty-Four)

  8. Here, Here AnnOrther! The internet , and social media in particular, has perhaps been one of the worst things to happen to the Left in Western nations and closely parallels the ascendancy of globalised neoliberal capitalism, reinforcing its fragmenting and individualisaton of society.

    It’s now enough to ‘ Like’ a Facebook post, ‘ sign’ an onlinepetition or post a comment and sit back in satisfaction that you’ ve struck a blow for freedom. Meanwhile real grassroots activism has collapsed while the Left talks to itself in echo chambers like Twitter.

        • It’s a shame to digress, as this post raises some very interesting points, but I’m genuinely interested in what you base that assertion on, Dave. Occupy? The Tottenham riots? From my balcony, social media has enhanced grassroots protest by allowing quicker communication for mobilisation (not to mention reporting in countries with media embargoes), and has actually given armchair lefties (who were previously fairly passive critics), a way to participate in a ‘struggle’ from their chair -most of them would never left the chair anyway.

          • Hi Maxine. I recall standing in the cold one Sunday morning last year outside a TV station as part of a picket against a infamous right-wing journalist and TV host. There were four of us, along with one very hungover cop. The protest had garnered over 300 messages of support and intentions to attend on FaceBook.

            I don’t doubt social media had some role to play in building the Occupy movement, though to be honest I was able to get a much better sense of it via ‘traditonal’ media such as news and journal articles online and in print. This is distinction to the virtually incomprehensible alarmism and sloganeering I picked up on Occupy Twitter feeds.

            I really don’t think social media is a substitute for real-world activism. Just today I was leafleting and postering my workplace when a student struck up a conversation with me that lasted half an hour and concluded in her taking away an armful of leaflets to hand out to her classmates and who was enthused about bringing them to an upcoming rally. That sort of connection is priceless, and I guess really the one of the intentions of activism is not to make the armchair lefties feel even more smug because they’ve bashed out a few tweets but to get them out of their armchairs and into the streets!

          • Dave,

            I like the way you think. It’s one thing to use a system’s weapons against itself, and it’s quite another to stop washing your jeans, bag out Bono and the half assed nature of celebrity activism, and then whip out your own iPhone and complain about neoliberalism.


  9. Yes, and kind of suspicious that even the “random” “viral” success stories — under the neoliberal system — are books like “Fifty Shades” about the joys of bondage to the 0.001%…

    You hear the rhetoric a lot that publishing is “purely commercial,” that it’s not out to sink original talent or writers with genuinely dangerous ideas about society — but I’m pretty suspicious of that libertarian “Corporations are A-moral, not IM-moral” rhetoric… I think amorality and immorality are very often the same thing, and, in cases where amorality isn’t immoral, it’s at least an enabler of immorality. You can’t help suspecting that a lot of good writing throughout history has been ignored *because* it was TOO good, without being flattering to the elites.
    e.g. Varlam Shalamov’s gulag stories were far smarter and bitterer than Solzhenitsyn’s, but they had no propaganda value when it came to promoting US foreign policy, so today it’s Solzhenitsyn that gets remembered as the Great Gulag Writer.

    The market has killed a lot of talented writers who were ahead of their time (Phillip K. Dick — greatest magical realist in US history, lived his entire life poor, died young — John Kennedy Toole — wrote an incredible novel, rejected by every major publisher, killed himself, publishers went “oops!” after it no longer mattered).

    It’s been standard practice for a long time for poets to all have day jobs; I think it’s becoming that way for writers in general — figure to emulate here might be someone like Harvey Pekar, or Kafka.

    Writers should brace themselves for the possibility that their writing will only be read posthumously — under a different regime which no longer considers it a threat. (“Dead Souls” was only published unabridged under Stalin.) Once the politics of the book no longer seems current, it’s actually advantageous to promote it in a “national treasure” role, for patriotic reasons.

    In every society, the Virgils — the regime brown-nosers — will always prosper more than the Juvenals — writers of unflattering truth, whether it’s poetry, sci-fi, gonzo, or even Literature — but Juvenal’s life is the one worth living.

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