Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Free culture

2009 . 09 . 29

Recently, I saw RiP: A Remix Manifesto. Though the documentary was fascinating on many levels, I was most struck by something that the critic and author Cory Doctorow said:

“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.”

RiP: A Remix Manifesto

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.

- Changing ideas about copyright
- The un-myth of originality
- Steal this.

CATEGORIES: - English - Featuring artists - Practice - Reviews - Uncopyright -

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-- Cory Huff -- 2009 . 09 . 29 --

Very forward thinking of you Gwenn. I wonder how your business does since you’re not a protectionist. Do you see a correlation between increased sales & profits from your way of doing business?

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 09 . 29 --

It’s hard to say.  But the important thing is that I’m doing well financially by selling my originals and that I feel sane about my attitude towards copyright.  I might make more money if I sold cards and posters, but I wouldn’t feel good about it.  And that sense of doing the right thing—of contributing to the culture that feeds me and my work—is very important to me.  It’s well worth whatever revenue I’ve lost!

Do you see the business model of theater changing?  I feel like theater has always understood the value of live art, so the reproduction and distribution technology doesn’t impact it in the same way.  Is that true?

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-- Cory Huff -- 2009 . 09 . 29 --

Oh, boy. The theater question. The plain truth is that it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a theater actor. Most actors supplement their income with film & commercial work because in markets like Portland, you will get paid $500 - $800 per week if you are Equity and have a lead role in a big theater (PCS or ART). Even in big markets (Seattle, Chicago) you usually won’t see more than $1000 per week, and most actors only work 20 - 40 weeks per year (the lucky ones).

The theater business model, with a few exceptions, is dead. Distribution is the main issue. There’s almost no distribution beyond the people sitting in the audience.

I’m extremely interested in exploring the movement of theater beyond the people sitting in the theater - but most theater companies are resistant to change.

I could talk about this forever.

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 09 . 30 --

I can’t even imagine how that would work.  It must be because I see theater as the live art par excellence!  How do you see theater moving beyond people sitting in front of actors playing?

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-- Cory Huff -- 2009 . 09 . 30 --

There would always be actors playing, but it’s the form of where it would happen that would change. Just like some musicians are doing house concerts, you could do house plays (Neil Labute did this to great effect). In addition, streaming over the Internet is a good alternative for certain shows.

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-- Rachel -- 2013 . 03 . 01 --

I agree with you about the personal feeling of wanting my originals to be the thing that is sold, and feeling very uncomfortable about the idea of reproductions as money makers.

But what about digital artists? Since all their work is essentially “reproduction”?

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 03 . 02 --

For all artists without originals to sell (including digital artists and writers), this is a potential business model.  What do you think?

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-- Rachel -- 2013 . 03 . 03 --

Very interesting, come to think of it I have seen many comic artists do exactly that.

I had not thought of writers as falling into that category but agree with you that they do. I would like to see examples of that working. It seems that writing is one of the things plagiarized most often. How would they maintain (and perhaps more importantly, grow) a fan base if something got stolen by a large corporation and became more popular than their original work?

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 03 . 10 --

Cory Doctorow himself is a good example.  Paulo Coelho also releases digital versions of his books for free (without the permission of his publisher), and Jeff Jarvis writes about Coelho’s tactics in What Would Google Do? from 2009.

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