See, We Gotta Be Exploited By Somebody
The recent cultural fisticuffs over Amanda Palmer’s initial decision to hire local musicians to play for her in exchange for the non-negotiable instruments of “beer and hugs” has rippled far beyond Palmer herself, becoming a talking point in a larger conversation about what it means to be an artist in the digital age. (Palmer eventually made the classy move of paying her backing band as if she were doing them a big favor, while pretending half the Internet hadn’t shamed her into doing it.)
Many defenses were offered, usually by Palmer’s vociferous fanbase (which, after all, had ponied up, on average, $44 to fund her latest project via Kickstarter and was understandably fearful of seeming like an easy mark). The first line of resistance offered was that these local musicians, themselves enthralled to Palmer’s increasingly difficult-to-detect charms, were all to happy to collaborate with her for high-fives and suds; unfortunately, this is a tactic that has cobwebs on it since it was used to justify slavery (look at how happy they are, singing and dancing and eating three squares a day — so much better than back in the savage jungle, poor fools). One can always find a lamb who’s happy to be fleeced.
It’s tremendously difficult to argue people out of doing what they want to do, even when your argument is predicated on the fact that such acts of free labor are what keeps others in your profession from earning a decent wage. In the industries, there is a word for this: that word is scab, and it alone bears enough stigma to make it a title of last resort in even our degraded economic condition. But artists must always perceive of themselves as special; their cultural production is the result of passion and genius, not like that of some laborer, and must be ever allowed to flit where the Muse flits, even if it takes money out of your own pocket, and the pocket of your fellow artists. We are all too civilized, too afraid of rocking the boat, too terrified of not getting enough attention to use ugly words like scab, to realize that if we acted in unison like the workers we look down on there would be plenty of paid work for all of us. The bosses know that, and they keep us chasing the phantoms of exposure and prestige while they pocket all the money.
But Amanda Palmer, goes the second line of defense, isn’t one of the bosses; she’s one of us! She’s an artist too! She knows what it’s like to struggle to earn! How can anyone call her a boss? Here’s how: by looking at the $1.5 million she raised through Kickstarter to fund the project. Once you start doing something for a profit, and once you hire people to help you do that something in pursuance of that profit, you’re the boss. And if you start asking those people to do that job for a discount, or worse still, for nothing, you are not just a boss, but you are an exploiter. It’s a shame that Amanda Palmer cannot see in herself the behavior she’s so decried in corporate chieftains and label bosses, the behavior she began doing auctions and crowd-funding campaigns to escape; but everyone else can see it, and most of them are smart enough to ask: why not give us the same chance you were given? Why must you revert to the same inequitable model you sought to free yourself from as soon as you got that first big payday? (Most loathsome of all was Palmer’s attempt to claim her critics were trying to stifle her creativity, arguing that “you have to let artists make their own decisions”. No one was trying to silence artists or dictate how they use their talents, and it’s shameful of her to imply that a selfish, short-sighted decision on her part not to pay people what they’re worth was some sort of censorship.)
The third line of defense was pleading poverty, and that was overrun in a heartbeat by Palmer’s own transparency. Since she had been all too willing to share with her ‘comrades’ the amount she’d brought in and where it was all going that she couldn’t spare a couple of hundred dollars per tour to pay musicians, it was easy enough for people like Steve Albini, who’s been playing the self-funding game since Palmer was in pigtails, to point out how fat and wasteful her budget was. It was at this point that the larger cultural conversation opened up about crowd-sourcing, kick-starting, and the new meaning of artistic independence, and the more charitable wrote the whole thing off as, at worst, a manifestation of her bad bookkeeping skills. But questions that needed to be asked were finally being asked, and what’s become abundantly clear is that the new creative economy has brought with it the very old model of exploitation and advantage.
That Palmer’s hugely profitable Kickstarter campaign was ever held up by anyone but the terminally oblivious Palmer herself as any kind of new-media success story ignores some of the very privileged realities of the situation: that Palmer was already a well-known performer with a large cult following; that she had been in a charting band and been signed to a major label; and, of paramount importance but not discussed for murky reasons, that she is married to a best-selling, widely beloved multi-millionaire author, through whom she has access to a gargantuan social network. None of these things are available to the average user of Kickstarter or similar crowd-funding sites. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an established artist using them, but to push Amanda Palmer forward as an example of a New Way is to ignore that she had specific and distinct advantages that allowed such a level of success — one that is irreproducible for the majority of the world’s artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and so on.
It’s become, in fact, increasingly commonplace for people already at the top of their game to champion the anti-corporate, D.I.Y. path once they’ve already taken it to the top of the mountain. The men behind the webcomic Penny Arcade recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to free their site of advertising (a goal already fraught with problems); they drew heat from the first announcement for, among other things, offering to ‘allow’ donors who pledged thousands of dollars to work for them as an intern — in other words, for free. Penny Arcade has frequently criticized crowd-funded video games for offering such exploitative ‘premiums’, and the success of their own campaign is contingent entirely on the fact that they are already a huge, successful, highly profitable company. Their example is meaningless to anyone lacking their substantial resources.
Patton Oswalt gave a keynote speech at a recent comedy festival in which he heaped scorn on those who, like himself, had come up in the ‘old days’ of building a reputation, having an agent get you better and better gigs, paying your dues, working the club circuit, getting a TV job, and all that old routine — which he mind-bogglingly defined as “being given” a career. The future is now, he raved, and you folks who aren’t already successful from doing the exact things that he did had better learn to D it Y-self or be left behind by the malleable and infinitely creative new media wave he was apparently surfing to Cool Harbor. (He also had harsh words for his corporate paymasters, who he urged to become “gatekeepers” of some nebulous something other than his royalty checks.) But it’s difficult to see how this is anything but Oswalt attempting to borrow the glory of other, more innovative comedians. What, exactly, did he do to earn his place as a New Economy Icon? Play comedy clubs like everyone else? Get a cushy regular slot on an utterly M.O.R. sitcom? Do punch-up for mega-huge movie studios? Appear on HBO, Showtime, and Comedy Central? Land a guest-starring role on one of the most popular shows on cable? If Oswalt has been going it alone, living out there on the edge of the system and creating his own opportunities, he sure hasn’t shared the results with the rest of us.
If it seems like I’m down on any attempt to create art outside the boundaries of defined corporate culture, that is the furthest thing from the truth. What I am against is what I’ve been against since the days when SST’s Greg Ginn shouted “corporate rock sucks” while shorting every band on his label out of the money he owed them: becoming independent of the corporate system while profiting off of the same exploitation that built it in the first place. A bad boss is a bad boss whether he’s a power-suited MBA or a guitar-wielding artiste, and doing your employees dirt is wrong whether or not the person doing it has exquisite taste in movies. The conditions of exploitation haven’t changed; the channels of profit are still pointed upward; and the way to do right is the same as it’s ever been. Most importantly, it has a very specific and successful champion.
It’s curious to consider why Louis CK’s particular model of stepping outside the normal top-down, 90/10 model of doing business in the entertainment world isn’t given more attention. Indeed, even though it’s been spectacularly successful, people seem to be falling all over themselves to paint him as unique, as engaging in a model that can work for him and only for him, and could never be replicated by anyone else. This is difficult to understand, especially given that this allegedly unrepeatable model isn’t at all complicated. CK sells only two things: tickets to his concerts and recordings of his concerts. He does this all through his own website, using simple e-commerce software. He still has a manager and a booking agent, in his own employ. He does not offer extravagant premiums, prize packages or gewgaws for different levels of support, preferring instead to keep the price low for everyone who wants to participate. He sells nothing more than he has ever sold: his stand-up comedy, and the opportunity to see it. But he no longer finds it necessary to involve television networks, ticket sales monopolies, or other rentier-class intermediaries in the process.
It doesn’t seem to involve any special complexity, nor is there any element to the approach that couldn’t be made by anyone in any industry with a similar degree of support and the willingness to make the change. And there’s the rub. What’s Louie doing that the Amanda Palmers, the Patton Oswalts, the Penny Arcades of this world aren’t willing to do? After all, he’s making plenty of money, by his own admission. But here’s what else he’s doing by his own admission: he’s forgoing DRM (and the concomitant legal costs) to create a greater degree of kinship between the creator and the consumer. He’s cutting out unnecessary middlemen at every level, but ensuring that the people who do work on his projects get paid — even before he does. The proceeds of his Live at the Beacon Theater project were just a bit less than Palmer raised for her most recent project at $1.2 million, but his first move was to pay off the production costs (including labor), a total of a quarter million dollars. An additional quarter million went to bonuses for those same employees and workers; rather than trying to cajole people into toiling on his artistic vision for free, he actually paid them nearly twice what he’d promised them to begin with. He gave nearly $300,000 of the remainder to charity, netting him a payday of well over two hundred grand — all of which came from a model in which everyone paid the same low price for the end product.
Now, it’s not as if CK invented this approach; he’s following in the footsteps of hundreds of smaller, more independent artists, and of Radiohead, who made one of the biggest leaps of the Internet era when they took a similar approach with the In Rainbows album. Nor is he the only one to follow it: everyone from comic book publishers to software companies have been experimenting with direct digital delivery and new models of commerce, as have other performers like Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari. But he’s probably the biggest example of how it can be done successfully, efficiently, and ethically, without cutting the people who help make your art happen out of their share of the profits. Amanda Palmer and people like her are free to plead poverty and ignorance all they want, but when two such distinct and cost-transparent models of artistic production are placed side by side, it’s pretty clear that the lady doth protest too much.