Happy paywalls with Bob Ross
All artists use just one method to make a living: the paywall. Each artist will employ it in their own way, depending on the sort of work they make and the way they wish to interact with their audience, but they all use it—even those who don’t know what I’m even referring to!
The most recognized example of this model is the news media site that publishes the beginning of an article on the World Wide Web, but, if you want to read the full text, you must pay. This “partial share + toll booth” technique looks a little different for visual artists than it does for reporters and writers, but the means for getting paid is basically the same. Artists might not show half of a painting and ask for money before they show the rest, but they do display certain formats of their work to entice their audience, while withholding others in order to ask for payment.
An obvious case of this is with originals. An artist will exhibit originals at a public venue, somewhere that allows anyone to come look at them for free, but, if someone wants to enjoy the art in their own home day after day, they have to pay for the privilege. They have to buy the work. The original in a public setting is one format of the art; the original in a private home is another.
I discuss the paywall more fully—sharing more detailed examples and talking about the “tease” version of it versus the “lover” one—in my book You Share Good, which can be read and purchased here, but I’m bringing it up today because I recently came across a fascinating example of it in another artist’s career.
I was enjoying the current issue of Professional Artist magazine, relishing my byline in that issue as it is my first ever article in a magazine, when I came across Peter Smolens’ piece “Bob Ross: America’s most underrated painter”.
From it, I was surprised to learn that the host of the popular Joy of Painting show never got paid for doing the television programs for PBS. According to Annette Kowalski, Ross’ friend and the co-founder of Bob Ross Inc,“Bob felt that if there was no charge for any aspect of our programs, more stations would be inclined to air them.” He even donated his art to local PBS stations, where they were special gifts for generous donors and where they cemented Ross’ reputation as not only big-haired but also bighearted.
Of course, this bit of marketing wizardry only makes financial sense when you follow the money. Even if Ross didn’t make a single penny directly from the show airing on TV, he made plenty from sales of VHS recordings of The Joy of Painting as well as from sales of related merchandise like instructional books and a line of art supplies.
In other words, the majority of his creativity—and the part he was most known for—was outside his paywall when it was aired on a PBS station. You could enjoy the essential Ross experience for free; it was only if you wanted to support the “happy trees” teacher or learn from his shows on your own schedule that you had to hand over some money.
What’s especially interesting to me about this example of the paywall model is that Ross didn’t know what all would end up inside his paywall when he launched his show. Originally, he started the television program with the idea that it would draw students to his local painting classes, but his business plan evolved as he went, and it evolved with the times too. VHS players were finally becoming more affordable as his show started, and someone on the Bob Ross Inc team must have noted the money-making potential of recordings and made them a part of the plan too.
All of which is to say that artists must adjust their businesses to work with technology. Today the technology that most impacts artists is the Internet, with its ability to make copying an image both instantaneous and free. Since that’s the case, does it still make sense to keep control of all distribution of your work? Is there a good reason to demand that people ask for permission every time they want to share your art on a social media site? Because that is what copyright requires.
If you want your business model to evolve with the times like Ross’ did, I recommend reevaluating your “permissions wall” as well as your paywall by looking into replacing your copyright with Creative Commons licenses. This video is an accessble and beautiful introduction to them.