The Artist as a Young Startup

May 2012

(Based on a talk at the INPUT Conference)

“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,

“The business of art lies just in this – to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.”

– Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?

I think that artists need to read more startup literature. For argument sake we’ll define art by it’s most popular incarnations as music, film, books, television and theatre. The fine arts are a whole other story.

Art is essentially short hand for entertainment, at least the business side of it is. Painters will always paint and writers will always write but if they want to make careers, it has to sell.

It is interesting to note that it is only bought using disposable income. It’s never a necessity purchase, so in that sense art is useless. But it’s primary use-case is a surrogate companion. When people feel lonely or bored, they turn to distractions.

It’s a curious field, because even the most arbitrary work has the potential to change lives. Not in any measurable way but the emotional influences are unique. A person will never go to Walmart to help get over a breakup, but will often turn to Adele. What art does, that no other industry is capable of, is engaging consumers on an emotional level, on a macro level. Millions of people can read a novel and have the same feeling.

It’s pretty diverse. Art is people, people are different. Regardless of the work, there is always someone who will like it. Similarly someone who will dislike it. Personally, I can’t stand trashy reality television. It depresses me that there are thousands of brilliant artists who will spend their careers in obscurity while Jersey Shore and Geordie Shore dominate airwaves. I remember the days when there was just a sea shore and a girl who sold shells by it.

But that’s part of the industry. It’s like a shotgun. A production company will fire a spread of rounds and hope one hits a market. It’s why there are hundreds of dead sitcom pilots you’ve never heard of but only one or two on the airwaves at a time.

The reason is because most people don’t care. As a culture, most audiences do not care what they are watching so long as it is mildly interesting. They watch for the sake of it, because it’s there rather than because it is engaging.

I think it’s partially because there are a finite amount of channels. The industry doesn’t want artists to succeed, at least not as a whole. Artists must be manufactured at a given rate. The Disney model. Disney will always have a young girl who they give a sitcom. They then give her a music career and the moment she turns 21, drop her for the new girl. It’s a model which works, every cycle captures a new generation of young girls and is why Disney is the reigning superpower in the child market.

It’s a formula, like a social algorithm. There are only so many hours in a day and big labels want you to watch their show or listen to their song.

The market for art is very different also. As a broad rule, it is always marketed to young adults and children because they are the most careless with finances. Children don’t understand the concept of money and young adults don’t realise the impact. Big companies know this, it’s why everything is marketed to them, because they spend money. They have finances without the burden of responsibility. “Adults” tend not to spend frivolously which is why they are irrelevant to the market.

This is also why most of the music created isn’t appealing to adults. Why would a company invest in music to appeal to a demographic that won’t purchase it? If more people went out and bought U2 CD’s then big companies would probably manufacture more U2’s.

The news is a perfect example. As it happens what people want is often garbage, at the lowest common denominator level at least, which is what is easiest to sell to. People don’t want interesting or enlightening, they want shallow and arbitrary. What dress is Angelina wearing? The latest scandal? If they didn’t, there would be no gossip magazines and we would all be reading poetry.

The unseen effect is that garbage rises to the surfaces. Not always, but so frequently it is depressing. Intrinsically everyone is aware of what good art is but not everyone cares. Likewise, most people often don’t know what talent is. A technically precise violinist is no different than a techno bass beat to the average audience member.

Now digital distribution came along and exacerbated all of this. Suddenly, everything is free. Art is no longer as valuable as it once was. Unless it was made in the early centuries or by a brand name artist.

The rules of art are governed by the rules of economics. Now that there are no barriers to entry, there is no regulation. In the past big companies and high barriers maintained a degree of quality.

But companies still need to reach their bottom line so they began producing cheaper content, more frequently. So when people lament the decline of quality in media they are to blame for not purchasing it. It’s why majority of chart music is club music. Because audiences spend money in clubs.

It’s easier to detach any emotional value and treat an artist like a business. Artists are not people per se, they are companies and brands. Like companies, thousands of people owe their livelihoods to the success of an artist.

It’s something most audiences don’t take into account. When they see Justin Bieber, all they see is Justin Bieber, not the mechanics behind him. They don’t see the makeup artist, the publicist, the venues who rely on him to bring in audiences or the mum and pop CD stores who need sales.

For example a typical breakdown is something like 15% for agent and management, 15% for publicist and marketing, 30%-50% cost of production which for a touring artist is hiring venues or a writer manufacturing books, 10% administrivia so immediately an artist only makes around 20% of what their brand makes since that’s the cost of doing business and their income is proportional to their level of fame. That is as good as zero job security since there are at any point millions of hopefuls looking to replace you.

It’s not uncommon to see popular artists earning a fraction of their reported earnings because they don’t take into account this whole background process. It’s why the public is sometimes shocked to discover an artist is broke but is a very common situation. The true earnings are usually very different and the numbers don’t even come close. That’s the institutional art world.

A mistake many artists make early in their career is they overvalue their creations to the detriment of an income. It’s a business and you need money to grow it. An artist is basically a whore. You sell yourself and subjugate yourself and your creations to the vindication of others for money. That’s actually a good thing, too many hold the incorrect notion that money corrupts good art but in fact they are indifferent to one another. The moment that realisation hits you stop caring too much about your work and often you’ll earn more as a result.

When I was a kid growing up, I loved U2 – the band. One song, with or without you was my favourite song. It’s the only song I’ve ever paid for in my life. I’ve got a large library of music I listen to but I’ve never paid for music. The only music I’ve paid for are concert tickets and independent artists.

Television and radio taught consumers that art should be free because the distribution of it was monopolised. But now it isn’t and the same expectation has shifted to online content. It is very difficult to get someone online to pay you for something. Piracy is just a new reality. It’s a sign the industry is in decline, which is kind of expected since no one is paying for anything.

So what does that mean for new artists? Believe it or not, it’s actually a good thing. The group effected the most by a decline is usually the upper echelon, rarely the new incumbents. You’ll start seeing many of the larger production companies morph into each other. When lots of companies morph into a big company, it’s a bad sign. Like a group huddled under an umbrella to avoid the rain.

Since then, the lines have become even more blurred. Digital distribution opened the floodgate. Especially with ready-made markets in the form of crowd funding. Everyone is now an independent artist the same way everyone is now a label. There are no barriers and the cost of production has fallen dramatically.

An unknown artist can effectively go from concept to large scale production with the same budget a brand name artist spends on hair gel. This is exciting. Because it means art now relies on technology. Most of what made art expensive and complex have now been abstracted away which means they follow the same rules as tech startups.

So a big question then is, if everyone can do it, how will people make money doing it?

I think it’s probably coming full circle and going back to the way it always was. James Joyce or the like didn’t really become exceptionally wealthy or popular in their day. We all kind of shifted our perspective on what a “successful” artist was. The idea of a superstar or rockstar artist is a fairly recent idea brought about by the corporatisation of art and a change from a creation driven approach to a process driven approach. The difference between creating art and creating a brand. If you look at the way art is manufactured, it looks similar to a more traditional company like a car company like Ford.

On the artists side it’s not enough to simply create anymore. They have to know complicated business stuff like marketing, sales and branding. You can’t just create and wait for royalties to flow as per the model used for the last century. Artists are now tech startups. There will always be a market for innovative or original art, however niche it may be.

So production companies now play the role of venture capitalists. Their job has changed from nurturing an artist, to taking an already proven artist to market. Even the metrics have changed, to make a living is no longer about gaining a large contextless following but rather 1000 true fans.

What’s very exciting is older artists can now afford to record and distribute retroactively. When I was in Melbourne I met a man who is widely regarded as one of the greatest theatre performers ever. He writes and performs plays which are legendary in theatre but no recording exists. It was first staged when I was 3 years old and hasn’t been performed in over a decade. After countless emails and harassing him for ages, we convinced him to re-stage it for a one time recording to be released digitally, which will last forever. The cost of the recording was less than the ticket sales for the theatre. Within a few hours of being released it got 30,000 downloads and one day my children will be able to see it. Isn’t that amazing?