By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Another way of thinking about the cost of free

Here’s more grist for the comment war that broke out over my Nieman Journalism Lab piece on photographer Gage Skidmore’s practice of giving away his pictures of Republican politicians, and thus theoretically harming paid photojournalists.

The New York Times reports on singer Amanda Palmer’s invitation to local musicians to join her on stage during her latest tour. The compensation: “joy and beer.” The Times blog post, by Daniel Wakin, continues:

Some musicians are enraged, flooding her Web site with angry comments saying that she should pay her backup band. At least one musicians union, Local 76-493 in Seattle, has been sending out Twitter messages denouncing the move and calling for people to post the comments.

Clearly there are some differences between the two situations, but what Palmer is doing raises a few of the same issues.

On the one hand, at a time when free is becoming an expectation in some parts of the economy, aren’t people like Skidmore and Palmer undermining folks who are trying to make a living as photographers, musicians, whatever?

On the other hand, why shouldn’t a creator have the right to give away his work if that’s what he wants to do? Why shouldn’t one musician be able ask others if they’d like to join her on stage without being denounced as a rapacious exploiter?

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  1. Mike Benedict

    One imagines legions of financiers complaining that Warren Buffet is screwing their heirs by giving away his billions to charity.

  2. Sounds vaguely like the Huffington Post model.

    My first reaction is – why would I pay money to see someone with a bunch of amateur instrumentalists?

    But we have right here in Boston a world-class musical group that is a pillar of the artistic community that works for nothing but joy (and the occasional per diem for parking) – the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The BSO and the Pops players and conductors are well-compensated (the instrumentalists are union workers). But the chorus is completely volunteer. One might argue they pay for the privilege of singing – they have to take off work for a couple of ”mandatory” rehearsals for Holiday Pops in the fall. They have to pay for parking for rehearsals. They have to take off 3 weekdays of work if they’re singing a performance at Tanglewood, for which they are housed and fed, but not otherwise compensated. It’s been going on for years.

  3. The real issue is that nothing is for free. Someone always gets paid. Right now the people making the most money off of free content are the technology companies: Google, Apple, Amazon, etc… Even Amanda Palmer is not giving away all of her music and concert tickets. She’s making money. Great book to read is: “Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back” by Robert Levine.

    Here is a post I recently wrote about it:

    • James Harvey

      > The real issue is that nothing is for free.

      The flip side of this is also true: it’s not just content that isn’t for free, eyes and ears aren’t free, either. Creative people like being paid for their work, sure, but there are many highly talented people who just want to have as many people as possible read their words/see their pictures/hear their music. This blog is a case in point.

      • L.K. Collins

        This blog is part of Dan Kennedy’s resume.

        He’s not doing it just because he loves it. He is in a world of “publish or perish” and this blog is a fine way to keep the resume tuned.

        • Dan Kennedy

          @James: In this case, I would have to agree with @L.K. I’m in the classroom 30 weeks a year. We are expected to keep busy in our field. Two points: (1) nothing an academic does related to his or her field is really for free, since it’s part of what we’re paid to do; and (2) free can lead to money. This blog led directly to a paid weekly column I wrote for the Guardian from 2007 to ’11.

          Still, free can be a difficult idea for people to wrap their minds around. Last winter I was speaking to the local chapter of the National Writers Union, and I happened to mention that I sometimes wrote for free for the Huffington Post. I thought I was going to need a police escort to get out of there.

      • James Harvey

        (In response to L.K. and Dan)

        Perhaps I should have been more clear in my previous comment: creative people want eyes and ears not just for vanity or some kind of passion, but also because it furthers their careers. Greg Skidmore is building his resume, to say the least.

  4. The other part of the outrage about Amanda Palmer’s request is that she reportedly raised $1.2 million through Kickstarter for this production. While it is her money now, and there are rumors that she spent it all recording the new album – wow! – what is making people really angry is that she seems to be crying poor when she had – or has – all that money and can easily afford to pay session musicians in certain cities, based on the ticket sales.

    • L.K. Collins

      I wonder if Mozart had to show his union card?

  5. I can’t recall exactly where I read it…quite possibly right here on Dan’s blog…but there was a good reminder of how the “leveling of the playing field” of the internet is nowhere near as democratizing in the arts as a lot of people like to assume it is. For example, it is true that pretty much anyone can scrape together the money for a computer and internet connection, and distribute their creative works (music, podcasts, art, writing, etc) on the web for free, in the hopes that eventually they’ll get enough attention to be popular enough that they can monetize it.

    The problem is that you have to be enourmously popular to monetize a creative product enough to actually make a living off it. To the point where it’s quite likely that the old model actually was a better deal for struggling creative types; you’d make a desperate pitch to a gateway organization of some kind, and maybe they’d sign you, maybe not…and if they did, it was usually to a stinker of a contract that barely made you any money.

    Sad as it sounds, that path actually meant more creative types earned SOME money off their work, because so few make any money by “self publishing” these day…and the few that do have frequently already risen to fame on the “back” of the old system.

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