More Art, Less Money?

There’s something Sony Music Entertainment and NBC-Universal and The Hearst Organization don’t want you to know. It’s an open secret that anybody who has ever been on a subway or owned a camera already knows.

Artists will do it for free.

After the cost of the instrument is sunk, a musician can do nothing but play. For the price of a few pencils, an illustrator will draw. A camera begs to have its trigger squeezed. I often use the back of an envelope and a pen stolen from a doctor’s/dentist’s/grocery store to jot down the words that I just need to get out. And yes, I use my mobile phone to film whatever seems interesting. I might edit it into something later.

Although I desperately miss live performances, movie theatres, libraries and museums, the silver lining of the pandemic is the opportunity to see artists of all levels of fame and famine doing a simple live-stream, or recording a video, or writing their hearts out and offering it for free online. One multi-talented friend of mine started a call-in radio show during which anyone can send in videos, photos, songs, drawings and even recipes that he’ll feature on his live-stream, before calling the artist to talk about their creation. Mit Phips now streams on Facebook and YouTube twice a week. Another friend live-streams a song from her Topanga Canyon front porch every Monday morning; another is offering all their content free on Patreon. A popular London short film series, Shorts on Tap, is curating “a short a day to keep the doctor away.”

With a little bit of financial and institutional support, artists can do even more. A major initiative from ARTE, United We Stream, has teamed up with nightlife venues to put DJs in Berlin (and beyond) behind the decks in empty clubs, live-streaming dance music to homebound viewers. In theory, this is meant to raise money to save the clubs, but it seems unlikely that it’s generating much revenue. Meanwhile in New York, John Oliver is filming himself in front of a white void, while his isolated staff of researchers and graphic designers maintain the quality of his deeply-reported informative comedy. Oh, and he’s also sharing Carole Baskin Tik Toks and the most incredible contactless sporting event of all time, Jella’s Marble Runs.

Jella’s Marble Runs

I’m currently listening to a concert live-streamed from the basement of one of my favorite artists, Ed Harcourt. He releases short videos playing his songs (and sometimes giving piano tutorials) several times a week. I’ve seen him in concert five times, but never from the intimacy and proximity of his basement — until now. He’s also raising money to keep venues alive, but probably not taking home anything himself.

So, what’s the difference between this and the deluge of media and entertainment content we’re regularly exposed to?

The advertisers are gone. The sponsored-content-influencers are gone. The money is gone. All gone.

Ed Harcourt, basement concert.

I’ve seen this most clearly in the news media, which is how I’ve paid the bills for the past few years. Despite the flood of vital information we’re reading from dedicated journalists every day, newspapers are cutting staff and freezing freelance budgets, barely able to keep their heads above water. The advertisers who were their lifeline are balking, with nothing to sell. So now, it’s just the writer and the reader. That’s probably why you’ve been reading so much insightful, incredible writing on Medium lately. (Where else can a freelancer publish?)

But thanks to (yes, thanks are in order!) this moment of global togetherness and physical distancing, artists are going back to the reason they started making what they make: they couldn’t stop. Capitalism has spent too long defining artistic “success” as being able to shoehorn your imagination into a marketing campaign or branded content or optimizing it to sell merch. There’s nothing wrong with taking the money (artists have to eat too), but seeing what happens when it disappears is revealing. For artists, it’s like a free-fall divorce from the controlling ex who has been telling them what to wear, how to perform, which sounds sell, and how to be likable. Once money is no longer the main incentive and advertisers have no control over content, what happens next? Think Weimar Berlin. 1970s England. 1980s New York. Artists who are unemployed or on the dole aren’t lazy: they’re free. For a brief moment, we are all seeing the future that the 1990s non-monetized Internet promised us.

Right now, it’s just you and me and the artists. Sure, some of them have advertised their Patreon accounts, funding campaigns, Venmo or Paypal addresses, but they’re not here for monetization. Yes, they all need to live. And many of them are struggling. I don’t want to minimize that. I’ve lost most of my writing income because of the pandemic too. And of course I want to sell my book and get paid to make my film. And I hope one day we can go back to that. But the constant struggles with having and maintaining money are not new for us. Most of us live our lives just struggling to get by, but that’s beside the point. The point is, artists are, for one moment, free. I, for one, am excited to see what artists make when there is no financial incentive. So far, I’m loving it. (And supporting it when I can.)

By the way, nobody is paying me to write this on Medium. If you are a Medium member and clap for this piece, I might get a few cents though. Clap to your heart’s content.

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Wordy and worldly. Filmmaker and freelance writer covering culture, philosophy, travel, urbanization and theology. Based in Berlin.

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Emily Manthei

Emily Manthei

Wordy and worldly. Filmmaker and freelance writer covering culture, philosophy, travel, urbanization and theology. Based in Berlin.

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