The Price of Art

I’m friends with a musician (not Vince Gill) who is considering throwing in the towel or at least going on strike, until he can find a way to support himself through his art. This isn’t a debut; he’s been playing and touring for thirty years. He’s had no illusions about his chances of hitting it big, but he’s persevered for a very long time by working hard, growing his talent, and creating a following.

But it’s not enough.

He’s sick of social media, he’s sick of planning his life out 16 weeks, he’s tired of having to do online shows for Paypal “tips”…in short, he’d like to pursue his art, entertain some people, and not starve doing it.

Right or Privilege?
When my friend posted this quote from Vince Gill, above, in his frustration, there were many sympathetic voices, but also an undercurrent that I didn’t expect to see or hear: to sum up, the sentiment of some was “be thankful for what you have…creating art for a living—any living—is a privilege.”

When I read this in several different places, my artist’s schizophrenia kicked in. On one hand, Artistic Matt appreciates the humility and the inner peace it must take to accept that you’re not going to have the kind of monetary success marginal talents we see online, on television, and in the movies all the time get simply because of a look or a stroke of luck. What amazing fortitude it takes to be totally okay with chipping away at the artistic life, just happy to be alive and doing what you love.

On the other hand, Angry Matt feels that this approach is sanctimonious and obsequious. Forgive me for trotting out this weary example, but generations of coal miners and steel workers in the 19th and 20th centuries were told to count themselves lucky that they had a job. Even when they lost hands and eyes and died of black lung and cancer, fingers were wagged at them (or truncheons broken across their backs) when they asked for, then demanded, pay and benefits commensurate with the services they were providing.

I don’t want to compare myself to those men and women who sacrificed a lot more than their manuscripts for workers’ rights; the analogy is tenuous. But I feel the same kind of capitulation being asked of me when I’m expected to count myself lucky I can even write for a living.

Why don’t those people count themselves lucky that they get to read my work?

Paradigm Shift
If you can get past the initial anger and the quick glance back to the history of labor, what you’ll see is that this is a paradigm shift in how we value art. Creativity is now content and content today takes a lot of forms, many (or most) of them free. Intellectual property–of which art is a subset and writing a further sub-subset–is not a physical, fungible product. As a result, I believe, it’s a service and, more to the point, one that can be digitized. And digitized services of all kinds now inhabit a different model than they did twenty years ago.

There’s nothing new about this concept. After the bubble of the late 90’s everyone wanted to know how we were going to make money off this new thing called the Internet. Saying “we’ll get advertising” wasn’t going to cut it…and it won’t cut it for art. The key is to crack the nut on how we monetize “creativity as content” moving forward.

The cracking of that nut is going to cause pain. People who shouldn’t be rewarded, will. Deserving artists will go hungry when they should be given a place of honor. These are the aches of evolution and it might not be pretty while we work the kinks out.

The Path Ahead
As the paradigm shift tosses us around in the short term, I believe artists of all kinds will simply have to remain flexible if they want to survive. If today’s model is to give your novel away to get exposure, you give it away. If you have to play your guitar online instead of touring cities by bus, that’s what it’s going to take. The artistic life is going to be miserable for a while until the new norms (perhaps crafted by us as we bumble through) take over.

But remember this: understanding and respecting the privilege of being paid for your art and expecting compensation for it are not mutually exclusive propositions. If I ever make a living off my writing, I’ll count myself blessed, but I will ask that others respect it as well…and that means supporting me while I produce the art that they enjoy.


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Art and Obligation, Deep Thoughts
10 comments on “The Price of Art
  1. Great post, Matt. Ya know, I see your friend’s point, but ultimately you’re either born to do something or not.

    I think you and I write because we have to. We have to or we’re miserable. We have to because we’re born to.

    We do it now for very little money and we do other work to support our habits, and my gut tells me that 10 years from now, even 20, we’ll still be doing it even if the money still stinks.

    I hope I always hold onto the dream that success can happen and if I ever get discouraged and think about hanging it up, I hold you’ll knock me upside the head and encourage me to keep going.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Stan – Thanks for stopping by. I believe everything you say. Even if I have to drag my ass to the chair most days, I’m still born to write and I’m going to do it whatever the rewards. And I’ll be sure to knock you in the head if you do the same for me. LOL!

      • Absolutely. It’s a deal.

        And we really need to be there for each other. I’ve been reading all the archive postings of Joe Konrath — I’ve made it a goal of mine to read every single blog posting since he launched his blog in 2005 — and while it’s pretty time consuming, one of the things I’ve finding (besides a ton of great knowledge) is how many have writers have given up on the dream.

        Granted, seven years is a long time, but as I go through the comments, it’s amazing how many have given up on the dream; at least from what I can tell. No blog. No website. Or abandoned blogs and websites.

        We nobodies need to hang together like crazy until we’re somebodies, and then whoever makes it first, needs to reach down and help the other.

  2. char says:

    I agree with Stan’s post. One good thing about the prices so low is that more people can enjoy the art now (and for people like Vince Gill and his quote above, that adds up to a LOT of money). Artists, Musicians and Writers have for the most part always struggled monetarily (excepting a rare few); this isn’t a new thing because of the digital age. (***And lastly, I just finished your One Bad Twelve and really liked it. You have an amazing talent. Keep on writing.)

    • Matthew Iden says:

      “Artists, Musicians and Writers have for the most part always struggled monetarily…”

      Isn’t that the truth! We have to remember the years, decades, and centuries when “starving artist” wasn’t just a cliche. That’s why I wanted to make sure people understood that I respect the privilege of writing for money…it’s not something to be taken for granted. But if anyone tells us that gratitude is all we can/should expect or deserve for our efforts, watch out. (I know you’re not in that camp…just shaking my fist at imaginary foes)

      And Char, thanks so much for grabbing OBT and reviewing it…I really appreciate it and, as a fellow writer, I know you KNOW how much I appreciate it! Thanks a ton and let me know if I can help you in return.

  3. katkasia says:

    I wonder if the other element in this debate is the sheer bulk of art being produced – especially as it is all more accessible now in the digital age? As more of us are creative in various fields (and let’s not discourage that!), does the volume of work contribute to its being devalued?

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Kat – A great point and one we’ll all struggle with in the coming years. I’ve seen said in several places that the age of millionaire writers and 7 figure advances is over. That’s the democratizing effect of the Internet; that immense volume of art you mention reaches the public at a price. Perhaps few of us will hit it big while more of us will just make a living…as long as we continue to press for respect and compensation commensurate with the value we offer.

  4. jakeescholl says:

    Living the dream is different from just wanting to make a ton of money. Living the dream is having passion with whatever dream you have. 🙂

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