“Before the radio and the record came along, the only way that people made money from making music was by standing in a hall and being charismatic. The fact is: technology giveth, and technology taketh away. What was a business model in 1909 may be the business model in 2009. What was the business model in 1939 may not be the business model in 2007. That’s how it goes.”
Music labels used to be able to promote musicians with little talent and still make money off of the sales of heavily produced records. But, as the Napster controversy at the beginning of the millennium proved, that’s no longer the case. Music in reproduction just doesn’t sell like it used to.
Though the art world and the music industry don’t work the same way, visual artists have plenty to learn from bands like Metallica, on the one hand, and those like Radiohead, on the other. In 2000, Metallica sued Napster because the file sharing service had allowed millions of people to listen to the band’s music without paying for it. In attacking Napster and all that it stood for, Metallica lost the respect of fans worldwide. Seven years later, Radiohead released an album through its website as a pay-what-you-will digital download. Customers could give as much or as little money as they wanted for the music: they could even pay nothing. The band still made a boatload of money off of the album and, in the process, made the free culture revolution legal without making it any less revolutionary!
Like it or not, art in reproduction is now free, so making a living as an artist becomes a question of making “live art” (art seen in person) that much more worthwhile. Everyone’s new business model is going to look a little different, but it’s definitely going to have to keep pace with reproduction and distribution technology instead of trying to stonewall it.
I believe in free culture. By this I mean that I don’t think I should have to pay for seeing art or listening to it or reading it. While it makes sense to me to accept payment when someone wants to take home one of my originals, I won’t charge someone to view my work or to own a simple reproduction of it. Doing so would make my originals less valuable and cut off a useful promotional tool, neither of which I think is a good idea.
But free culture is about more than who is making money off of what. It’s about artists not pretending that they’re creating in a vacuum and reveling in the fact that culture builds on culture. It’s about not trying to own art to the point where no one dares consume it for fear of copyright infringement.