Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Will Write For Food

I'm a latecomer to artist/musician Amanda Palmer's TED talk, but her thoughts on the changing relationship between artists and fans may be even more relevant now than it was in 2013. In her talk, Ms. Palmer argues that artists shouldn't sell their work--instead, they should give it away for free and trust that their fans will be generous enough to support them.

Ms. Palmer gives numerous touching examples from her own life where this patron/artist model has worked for her: an immigrant family that gave up their beds for the night so her crew could have a place to stay; a nurse that drove across town to deliver a neti pot when Ms. Palmer requested one on Twitter; a sheepish downloader who handed her a $10 bill by way of apology. It's clear that Ms. Palmer has many fans and this system really works for her.

I love her message of allowing people into your life and not being afraid to ask for help. I'm a firm believer that most people have generous hearts and jump at the chance to help when given the opportunity. I admire the close relationships she's developed with her fans and how she uses social media to connect with them.

Still, I have to admit I'm struggling a bit with the overall message. Somehow, it feels like this barter-economy cheapens art.

Part of the reason why the music and publishing industries are experiencing growing pains is that no one can seem to agree on how much a creative work is worth.  Even Hachette and Amazon can't agree on the price of an ebook. We can price out the cost of paper, bindings, and distribution to determine the physical cost of production, but when the book is turned into a digital format it becomes immaterial. We are forced to put a value exclusively on the content.

How do we quantify the personal experience, the imagination, the skill that goes into writing a book? Even if we determined that a writer should only be reimbursed an hourly wage--say, for the sake of argument, a paltry $1 per hour--most books would costs thousands of dollars to produce. As a culture, we view the artist's time as free, and by extension, their work, too. We balk at $24 hardcovers and $12 ebooks, but happily fork over the same amount for a meal out, alcoholic drinks, or another t-shirt that we probably don't need.

Ms. Palmer touches upon an economic truth--an object's value is based on what someone is willing to pay for it. Sadly, a great many of us have decided that we don't want to pay much at all for books or music. Has our collective attitude toward artists gotten so low that Ms. Palmer's barter system looks like a viable option? Why must the artistic economy be any different than any other form of commerce? When we see the doctor, he doesn't treat us for free in hopes that we'll offer him a chicken dinner in exchange. At a store we don't grab a pair of jeans off the rack and offer the cashier what we think it's worth. Shouldn't we view artists and their works with the same respect?

What do you think? Is Amanda Palmer's patronage model a clever solution to a shifting paradigm    or does it devalue art?

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