Don’t ask if artists deserve to be paid.

I frequently encounter comments on this blog and around the web reiterating the thematic question as to whether or not “artists should be paid as much as they are.” The inquiry is typically posed by contrasting the arts to other professions we likely consider more critical, like emergency medicine or teaching or epidemiology.  This attitude is a bit of a shift in for artists, who are historically used to the idea that not even friends and family will take them seriously until they make a living; but regardless of the chimerical mood in the peanut gallery, everyone should rest assured that in general artists still don’t make very much money.  Be happy or unhappy about that as you will.

Often, when I encounter this question asking what “artists deserve to get paid,” it is in regard to wealthy, creative and/or performing artists.   And this is something of a variation on the recurring theme “Why should pro sports stars get paid millions to play a game, when people like nurses struggle to pay their bills?”  This rhetorical and apparently rational question is based on the fallacy that financial value is somehow tied to social value, which it simply will never be in a free-market economy. (Please resist the urge to stump for communism here.)  NFL players are paid millions because football is worth billions, and this has nothing to do with the relative “importance” of the game.

But we should clarify something about semantics right away:  in general, artists are not “paid” in the sense that most people are paid based on a contract with an employer.  Most artists are entrepreneurs, and if the product(s) their business produces sells million of units, they’re going to earn revenue in the millions of dollars. We are not “paying” them a million-dollar salary, and yet comments I read often ask literally, “Should we pay them so much.”  One might think the artists they’re talking about are on the public payroll, and we’re checking a line item in the federal budget.  “Dammit!  We’re paying Kid Rock how much???”  So, the semantics are either carelessly or purposely misleading when employing the words we and pay.

In fact, the question being asked isn’t even comparable to the ongoing debate over the salaries and bonuses that are paid to c-class executives in major companies.  While the government should not impose a maximum compensation package that a business may pay its leadership, we have seen examples of a corporate culture that can aggravate wealth consolidation and even reward failure.  When executives make four-hundred times the salary of a company’s average worker and may also receive an multi-million-dollar golden parachute, even for screwing up a corporation, these occurrences certainly beg the question as to whether or not these people should be paid so much?  And while the thesis inquiry about artists’ pay seems to echo this line of inquiry about top executives, the two subjects have nothing to do with one another.

As stated, most artists function as small businesses and produce works on spec with a wide range of investment from pure sweat to millions of dollars.  They earn revenues through sales of their works ranging from supplemental income, to full-time professional salaries, to cha-ching for a fortunate few.  It doesn’t matter if an independent business sells widgets or cheese boards or record albums; it is simply preposterous to ask whether or not the seller “deserves” the revenue from the units she is able to sell. But of course, that’s not really what the people who pose this question are asking, is it?  What they’re really asking is why they should pay for works produced by artists at all, and they are rationalizing a desire to not pay with a smokescreen of faux-humanist gibberish about creative work being less socially important than work in medicine or education.  But aside from the fact that the teacher and the doctor probably can’t perform a song anyone wants on his iPod, the real folly in this entire line of reasoning is that the doctor, the teacher, the plumber, and the fool asking the question are all economically co-dependent on that artist we’re arbitrarily presuming to remove from the ecosystem.

I know I’ve used the ecosystem analogy before, but it seems to me that it is economic suicide to eradicate a vital business engine just as it can be ecological suicide to eradicate a vital species.  We don’t necessarily know the exact cost of losing a particular beetle to deforestation, but we do know all species are interdependent and, therefore, view diversity as salubrious and extinction as hazardous.  How is an economy any different?  You would likely never be able to follow a path from a new creative venture in Singapore affecting trading that afternoon in Hong Kong, triggering a flurry of international trades, leading to a windfall in Seattle that seeds a company that offers you your next job.  But we do know that this matrix of chaos is what we call the economy, and we, therefore, accept the general principle that a rising tide raises all boats and vice versa.  Thus, most things with intrinsic economic value (i.e. things people want or need) that can be part of the grand game of trade are universally beneficial.  Put it another way, one benefits economically from the financial success of rock bands one hates. So, it is self-destructive to argue in favor of diminishing any legal, fair, and prosperous trade, especially if that trade is as economically diverse as the arts.  Diversity equals stability.

Some have argued that there is no economic harm in under-paying or not paying for entertainment media that is consumed.  Without so much as a wink, lobbyist Matt Schruers in July of 2013 wrote an article on behalf of the CCIA (Computer & Communications Industry Association) that rather astonishingly stated that “money not spent on pirated content is, in many cases, still spent.”  Hard to argue with that, but the implication that no harm is done as long as the money goes into the economy somehow is a shell game. Let’s make an evening of it…

You can save about twelve bucks by pirating three movies instead of renting them.  And with that twelve dollars, you can order a pizza to eat while watching one of your pirated films.  So, like Schruers said, that money still goes into the economy, right?  Yes, but at this point, you should probably skip the movies and the pizza and go back to economics class because what you’ve actually done is consume about $24 worth of goods and put $12 into the economy. Multiply that activity by millions of consumers and watch what happens, not just to one industry, but quite possibly to your job.  Because further exacerbating the folly of this false logic, you’ve just fed one sector of the economy that is considerably less robust than the sector you chose to starve. The core motion picture industry employs nearly two million Americans making over $100 billion in wages, and that contributes substantially to support jobs all over the country in completely unrelated industries. Like pizzerias.  Still, in some minds, that kind of wealth in the movie business translates into “they’re so rich, they don’t need my four dollar rental fee,” and this is the perfect attitude to adopt if you hope to go from being the guy ordering that pizza to one day applying for the job of delivering it.  It is far better for your overall economic health to rent one movie, buy one pizza, and tip the delivery guy for a grand total of about $18 and thus feed three tiers of the economy in a single night’s use of your disposable income.  It’s the same thing prudent investors do when they spread their bets.  Diversity equals stability.

It is a conundrum.  The technology that makes paying for creative works functionally optional fosters the notion that it is morally optional and, therefore, rationally objectionable. This leads to earnest discussion as to whether or not producers even “deserve” revenue for the things we consume; and once again, we see an example in which the technology that is supposed to connect us all actually blinds some of us to the ways in which we really are connected.

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