Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Amanda Palmer vs. Stephanie Nilles: How SHOULD Artists Get Paid?

Running a Kickstarter project has inspired me to think intensely about age-old questions surrounding the intersection of art and money: what does it mean to be a creative person exchanging often intangible experiences for material wealth? Is art a good, a service, or something that transcends these simple descriptors? Do thoughts of financing an artistic career cheapen the end results, or elevate them? And, at the most basic level...

How SHOULD artists get paid?

I recently watched a TED talk given by Amanda Palmer (of Kickstarter fundraising fame), which was interesting in and of itself. And then I came across an "open letter" by Stephanie Nilles on The Vinyl District that acted as a rebuttal, and I knew this was a topic I wanted to dig into more deeply.

Amanda managed to raise a huge amount of money on Kickstarter. Over the course of her career, she's gotten good at asking for funding. And, more importantly, she's gotten good at nurturing the kinds of personal relationships that make those types of tricky asks more likely to succeed.

Stephanie thought that was great and all, but she couldn't help but wonder why artists have to be "forced" into asking for money, why they should see the money they get from sharing their art as a "gift." Art is valuable. Dedicating yourself to art is hard. And often it seems like you're putting in a hell of a lot of work for returns that barely pay your way. People in other professions get steady paychecks; why can't there be more support for something as important as the audio, literary, and visual creations that inspire us and fill our souls?

Although I think Amanda's experience is unique, and she tends to make raising funds look a bit easier than it really is, I'm going to have to side with her on this one. The reason you don't get a salary as a musician is that you're not working a job - you're starting a business. And, just like any entrepreneur knows, you're investing a lot of time, effort, and brain power up front, and taking on a lot of risk in return. Committing to a creative path is no different than building any other type of brand.

The downside is that plenty of artists (just like their entrepreneur brethren) struggle in obscurity for years. Failure is common, and requires the creator to reassess everything about the business/creative endeavor. The upside is a potentially outsized ROI, along with unique life experiences that you wouldn't get in any other profession.

When it comes to getting paid, where many artists fail is not in their ambition, their dedication, or their skills. They're often some of the hardest working, smartest people you'll come across. The failure is in not realizing that having passion and talent doesn't mean that you "deserve" to get rewarded. Every day you commit to your craft, you need to realize that you're running a business, and act accordingly. Build relationships with your audience. See what resonates with them, and use the feedback to deliver even better products and services the next time around. Embrace marketing and sales. Never stop improving the way that you "tell the story about your story."

I'm not trying to devalue artistic integrity; you don't want to completely sacrifice your vision in return for a paycheck. But, on the other hand, don't complain when you ignore the principles of business and your earnings come up short. If you're more than happy to welcome the fame and fortune that awaits the artist who creates his or her own luck, you have to be willing to put up with the struggle - and use the startup mentality and business smarts it takes to get there.

Image by AndyArmstrong on Flickr.

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