Freedom of Expression

The name “Amanda Palmer” likely means little to most of you (apart from those of you named Amanda Palmer who are nonetheless not the Amanda I want to talk about.) She’s a alternative rock folk indie artist, but more people are likely familiar with her hugely popular TED Talk called The Art of Asking. I used to show it to my students just as something to generate discussion, because while Amanda is undoubtedly something of a… free spirit, she’s an effective speaker with a very thought-provoking topic. Simply put, what if artists just asked for payment, instead of demanding it?

She also has tattooed eyebrows, which are always very distracting

Amanda reflects on her experience in her early days as an artist, when she would literally be begging for money on the sidewalk. As her career has grown, though, she’s adapted this in different ways—asking if any fans would be able to house her and her band when they go to a new city, sending out a tweet asking if someone can loan her a crate, passing around a hat at gigs and simply asking for donations. And for the most part, it’s worked out well for her.

Quite frankly, it’s the sort of thing that works until it doesn’t (she does have a moment of doubt where she realizes she could get murdered constantly visiting internet strangers for lodging), and definitely not something that a celebrity artist like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, could rely upon. Not only would there be physical danger involved, but their venues would be overly packed. And it wouldn’t be much good for hundreds of unknown musicians, who would be taken advantage of with their work being downloaded and played for free.

But the reason why people listened to Amanda Palmer is that, well, that’s kind of happening already.

Everyone knows about music piracy. Any song, any game, any movie is available online almost minutes after release, if you know where to look.  The most vigilant policing of websites and search engines can only make such downloads difficult to find—and impossible to stamp out. The music industry–and the film industry, and the gaming industry–are all struggling to find ways to combat this trend, and there’s no permanent solution (though I suppose there’s not a permanent solution for any sort of crime, really).

Jonathon Coulton may be somewhat more well known—he’s similarly something of an indie performer, though more of a comic parody sort.  Coulton–who left a job in software, actually, to be a songwriter–did a promotion when he was starting out as an artist where he wrote a song every week and posted it on his website for free–and while his website now has the songs up for purchase, a large chunk are still out available for free. It might seem impossible that a person can make a living off things they release for free, but through donations and singing gigs and memorabilia, Coulton too has managed to make a decent living from his freely donated work.

Also, obviously any distribution company would object strongly to this approach.  But this is kind of the point–what exactly is the cost involved with artwork anymore? It makes sense to charge money for a record if you needs materials and equipment to make it. It makes sense for DVD’s to cost money since it costs money to make them. If I need to spend money to buy paper and ink to make the book, and then more money to pick it up and mail it, it makes sense that I should charge for that, along with a bit extra to make up for my lost time.

But if not–if there’s no paper, no ink, no delivery–and if the whole thing can be just given away at no cost, how does charging money make sense? I could send a digital copy of my book to everyone in existence and it wouldn’t cost me a cent apart from bandwidth and electricity. So why shouldn’t I? It’s not like the book will be doing anything useful just sitting around in my hard drive.

I mean, I’m not doing that. I spent a lot of time writing and refining the story, and I’d like to get some of that back. There’s also studies that show that people value things that you charge money for more highly (which incidently, I’ve wondered if that has application to the public school system). And of course, I invested a lot of time into putting that file together–just as part of the cost of a drug is the cost of developing it, and part of the cost of a doctor’s visit is repaying the educational expense of a doctor in the first place, part of the price of a book is repaying the amount of time the author’s spent on it. A certain amount of artistry is compulsion–writing because you almost have to, but after a certain point of revision it does become more about making a finished product than personal enjoyment.

It’s worth noting that Amanda Palmer, for all her words, has not posted her music online for free either, and that quite a few starving musicians were rather ticked off when she sent out a broad call asking musicians to volunteer for her Kickstarter-funded music tour without any promise of payment. It’s a move consistent with her position, as technically Kickstarter is a form of begging, but naturally people were ticked off. Non-successful artists are all too familiar with people expecting them to perform for free or for “exposure.” It rarely amounts to anything more than exploitation.

But after all, that is why I’ve been posting all the chapters of The Nephilim Protocol up. Why not? I have the chapters, no one’s buying the book much anymore; certainly no one will buy it if they don’t know it exists, so I may as well put it up for free.

Posting stuff for free works better than you might think. The Martian, which recently was turned into a major motion picture, was initially a series of web posts made online for free—and you can still find the full text online.  It’s a Wonderful Life became a holiday classic in part because the rights ran out and TV stations realized they could run it for free during Christmas for as many times as they wanted.

Also an interesting question: can you make a movie seem great or popular just by having it featured everywhere? How many people watch It’s a Wonderful Life just because they have memories of having watched it with their family?

Of course there’s a lot of other works posted for free that don’t become successful. I’ve mentioned Fictionpress before, and of course Deviantart is full of as many artists as Youtube is full of amateur filmmakers. Trying to advertise for your potential album on Soundcloud is practically a meme at this point. A big part of the problem today is actually how flooded the market is with material—while it’s easier for a writer to get published (no one wanted to publish The Martian before it was released on Amazon), it’s also a lot harder to get noticed. (a big reason why reviews are so crucial—hint, hint), since any moron can get their stuff out there.

Neil Gaiman (Amanda Palmer’s husband, actually, and one of the more influential authors living) himself discussed this in 2013 at the London Book Fair, where he speculated that this is just where the market is going, and that professional writers who make their living off their books may be a thing of the past—something that may be bad financially for writers and the literature market, but is a good thing for literature itself.  “I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world. And I think that’s a lot wiser than waiting for 1993 to come back around again.”

There’s good reason to think he might be right about the death of entertainment as an industry. Steven Spielberg predicted a while back that major blockbuster films are simply no longer commercially viable, thanks to home theater systems and lessened turnout to movie theaters.  The pandemic may be the final blow. And Triple-A games are turning less and less of a profit, to the point where many successful franchises are being converted into depressingly-lucrative pay-to-win games. Konami even dropped Kojima, one of the celebrity gamemakers of the modern era, and the entire Silent Hill franchise, just so they could focus on slot machines. For the moment, streaming television is the way to go, but that may not last.

I also used to have my students read an article, I think it was called “The Culture of Mediocrity,” which discussed the growth of avatar-clothing businesses in the MMO Second Life and how they likely heralded an entire economy of amateur artists who created things as a side job. The article implied that this work would not be very good, as the artists would be amateurs and have neither time nor financial incentive to polish their skills to a professional level. It lamented that we were doubtless headed to an age of sub-par art and design.

This is Second Life, for those that wanted to know.

It’s not just harsh, it misses the point. Yes, professional filmmaking / music / game design has a great deal of polish, and amateur work does not. But professionally produced art also tends to fit into a template. The Marvel Superhero movies and the Star Wars movies are all wonderfully and professionally made, but they also have an overwhelming sense of same-ness. Amateur artists may not have the same level of refinement, but their level of experimentation allows for a much greater diversity of expression. And designing in a virtual environment allows and enables whole new levels of experimentation.

Yet another point Neil Gaiman makes in his talk looks back at home recording of music, which was held to “be killing music.” In fact, he says, music is stronger than ever—not the music industry, which is indeed floundering, but the art of music—the innovation, the breadth of experiences offered. People are making music in totally new forms now, as the examples of Amanda Palmer and Jonathon Coulton attest. People are trying new forms of film not seen since the early “amateur” days of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Indie video games are inventing totally new ways of playing, and forging ahead in the financially risky field of virtual reality video games.

Not “polished”, but VERY innovative

(Innovation in art drives innovation in reality, too, so this is something we should be thankful for.)

Who knows. I couldn’t even begin to predict how this will impact literature—books don’t involve a lot of production value, anyway, and there will probably always be celebrities in one field or another.  And perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing for authors to need a second job—sometimes a side interest or second job can give real grounding and direction to an author’s work by giving people a small glimpse into the many parts of the world we live in. James Herriot, for instance, wrote about the people he interacted with in Yorkshire England, yet the whole anthology of stories is grounded and guided by the technical vetrinary work he’s doing there, even if it’s not the point of the stories.

It certainly feels, though, that we’re on the cusp of the artistic industry changing in new and profound ways–that we’re likely already halfway through such a change, and about to get totally new sorts of films and games we could never have conceived of before. And that’s something to be excited about.

3 thoughts on “Freedom of Expression

  1. I currently make about 25 dollars a month on my fanfiction. It’s not exactly a career but I would never have believed myself to be capable of making money on my writing fifteen years ago. It’s especially notable because I’m literally just writing the kind of fanfic I want to read. I’m not covering material that’s tailored to gaining a large audience.

    Not claiming my work is innovative, but it is interesting.

    One other interesting story that’s perhaps only tangentially related: Creatives in NYC seeking cheap housing used to convert unused high-rise office spaces into artistic dwellings-and-studios. They got away with it because the spaces were considered low-value, and had been kept bare so as to avoid lowering the property value. (decorations generally do)

    But then the artists got evicted and suddenly it was realized, “oh hey, art has value, actually,” and these decorated, innovative living spaces are now among the highest-rent spaces in NYC. Ironic.


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