22 December 2008

I'm doing some housecleaning around here. I have a bunch of saved drafts that I never posted. Well, brace yourself. I'm wrapping up my thoughts and posting them all today.

A Draft from 1/21/08:

Art for How Much?

There is something about trading art for money that feels a bit strange.

I've known artists who have given away demos and t-shirts at concerts (at a financial loss) and I've known artists who discount and comp theatre tickets like it's going out of style. I know first hand how difficult it is to set a price on my own artistic output.

Although it may feel "noble" or "ethical" or just good to give away art, it is important not to for two reasons:

    1. Artists have bills to pay, and
    2. Giving your stuff away all the time devalues you as an artist.
The first reason is common sense. Anyone who has ever cashed a check they earned by plying their artistic trade, and paid a bill with that money can attest to how satisfying it is to make your way in this world with your talent.

The second reason bears some fleshing out.

Seth Godin makes this point as an aside in a recent blog entry:
It's important to charge something, because the act of paying fundamentally changes the dynamics of the relationship.
That quote is what got me to thinking about this subject again. It reminded me of a white paper I read a couple years back about how access to free music downloads breeds listener apathy. When a listener is able to rip literally any song ever recorded from the net without a pricetag attached, music as a whole loses value for that listener. It's taken for granted, in the truest sense of the words.

It's the old "why buy the cow when you can get the sex for free" situation.

Free stuff has no value. That's usually why it's free. Giving away art may feel good, but ultimately it does nothing for your audience. In fact, I believe that exchanging artistic output for money is good for the audience. It validates their aesthetic taste and adds value to the experience. It makes the decision to go see a play or a certain musician in concert far more precious and important. It invests the audience more deeply in the experience.

If you look at it as a "greed" issue, you're missing the point (and I'm afraid many people do). The reason we have an monetary system is because I can't pay for my meals directly with the work I do at my day job. A barter system may work in an agricultural society, but trading chickens for iPods is not a workable scenario. Money is a value holding device, a stand-in for the work that went into earning it. When I buy orchestra seats at a John Mayer concert, I'm actually paying a certain number of hours of my labor. I'm investing my productivity into the aesthetic experience of hearing the music I enjoy. Going to a concert is not just a fun activity, it's a reason to get through the work week. It's something to get excited about. It's important.

I suppose I'd be just as excited if I got to see a John Mayer concert for free. But there'd still be value attached: I know how much John Mayer tickets cost. If all he played were free concerts ... well, they'd have to be extremely rare. Or in a remote location. Or something, some hurdle that would require a special effort to gain the experience.

You can't get anywhere in a frictionless universe. Giving away your art takes the friction out of the experience. There are no barriers to push against to gain the experience; it just sort of washes over the audience. I guess you needn't charge money for art. You could make it physically difficult to get to the experience. The only problem is, sending your audience on a scavenger hunt to find you doesn't keep the lights on at home.

(I should add that giving away something as a marketing action is a completely different matter. The idea is the same as those little pink spoons at Baskin Robbins: Let people get a taste to see if they like it, then sell them a double scoop.)

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