David Byrne, Madonna, Amanda Palmer (AP/Boris Grdanoski/Jordan Strauss/flickr/Mandy Hall)

The creative class is not screwed: Here's how the Internet helps artists make a living

Digital doomsayers have it wrong: There is a way to find an audience, make money and make a living online


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Cory Doctorow
November 24, 2014 2:30AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Information Doesn't Want To Be Free: Laws For The Internet Age"

Converting audience appreciation into something you can use to pay for your kids’ braces is the crucial task for any artist. There are shelves full of MBA-program case studies and countless online seminars from various successes and would-be successes enumerating theories about how to do it. Nearly everyone who tries their techniques will fail—that’s just the way of it—but there are several approaches that still make sense in the Internet era. The following overview is a guide to how the basic strategies of creative business have worked in the past, and how they’ve been successfully adapted to today’s Internet-era reality.

1. YOU CAN SELL A PHYSICAL COPY OF YOUR ART

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You (or a publisher, a label, or a studio) can still make a DVD, a CD, a book, a USB stick, a print, a sculpture, or some other tangible embodiment of your creation. You can charge money to own these things, or to rent them. It’s not always easy to keep physical stuff from being taken without payment—a cat burglar may be waiting to steal your painting out of your studio right now!—but it’s infinitely easier than keeping people from making digital copies and distributing them without your permission. You’re probably familiar with this business model. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

2. YOU CAN SELL ADS

Before the net, getting an advertiser was hard, but the high barrier to entry kept the prices charged to advertisers high. So a newspaper, if successful, could make a lot of money from the space it gave over to ads. Today, newspapers—and other traditional media—make a lot less that way. But that’s not because the process of finding advertisements to run against your content has gotten harder.

The Internet has made it easier than ever to get money for displaying ads around your stuff. But easiness isn’t all there is to it. Now that there are lots of places for advertisers to go, all of which are competing for the same ads, the price an advertiser needs to pay has gone down. This has been offset somewhat by the rise in companies looking to advertise—it’s gotten easier to do that, too!—but as any newspaper publisher will tell you, the increase in demand hasn’t kept up with the increase in supply.

The fundamental problem that “traditional media” is having is that its business was structured around expensive, resource-intensive undertakings and paying large dividends to investors. Newspapers bought purpose-built buildings in central New York and Tokyo; radio networks took over enormous towers next door to them; record labels built multimillion-dollar studios and employed titanic numbers of administrators, talent scouts, managers, and so forth.

The net makes it possible to do things more cheaply. For one thing, the actual production costs for media have fallen drastically. It’s not easy to do professional typesetting, but if you know how to do it, you can make it happen with the computer under your arm, and you can pocket the difference between the cost of a computer you already own and the cost of a huge typesetting shop full of specialized equipment that cost a million dollars twenty years ago. The hyperexpensive shots that George Lucas stuck into "Star Wars" in 1977 can be rendered cheerfully and without complaint by a used PC that your local high school is throwing away. That doesn’t mean you, personally, know how to make it produce something as cool or lucrative as Lucas did, of course—but if you can, you have a lot more options than Lucas did back then for making money from it, because the cost is so low.

So if analog dollars have turned into digital dimes (as the critics of ad-supported media have it), there is the fact that it’s possible to run a business that gets the same amount of advertising as its forebears at a fraction of the price. You can still profit from a much smaller income, as long as you have
much smaller expenses, too.

3. YOU CAN SELL SWAG

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There’s no question that the market for certain embodiments of art has declined. For example, I’ve got no interest in ever acquiring a CD again—a CD isn’t an asset, it’s a liability. When I get a CD, I have to rip the disc, make sure the song titles and other metadata were correctly transferred, and then figure out how to get rid of the CD itself in a way that is both legal and environmentally responsible. (If you give it away after ripping it, it’s probably not legal; if you throw it away after ripping it, it’s definitely not environmentally responsible.) This is one reason that “piracy” statistics from the music industry are so misleading: they imply that every downloaded song is a lost sale, and that every lost sale is a lost sale of the whole album, not just the single. But if piracy vanished tomorrow, people like me wouldn’t start buying CDs again. We don’t want those liabilities in our lives. The best you could hope for is that a small fraction of today’s downloaders would become iTunes or Amazon MP3 customers, which is a lot less commercially exciting than turning them into buyers of $17.99 CDs. There’re those analog dollars/digital dimes again.

But there are plenty of high-margin physical goods that don’t simply reproduce an artwork, but rather represent some affinity for it. T-shirts, posters, and every manner of tchotchke and gimcrack and gewgaw can be sold to fans who want a chance to express their identity by publicly displaying their taste in media. Some artists have also turned largely obsolete formats like CDs into swag by packaging them in elaborate, beautiful enclosures. For example, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" album was released in a limited edition that included a CD, a DVD, and a miniature diorama train set with light-activated sound effects. (I have one and treasure it.)

What’s more, this is the era of on-demand swag. Increasingly, T-shirts and other items can be made in very small batches, even one at a time, which allows creators to try out a lot of designs without committing a lot of capital, or ending up with an attic full of unsold merch.

4. YOU CAN SELL COMMISSIONS

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Creators who are well loved for their work often attract commissions from companies and individuals. Rich people are infamous for commissioning fashion designers to produce one-of-a-kind outfits for important events; restaurateurs commission murals; advertising agencies commission commercial jingles; stock-art agencies commission pictures. I’ve written several commissioned science-fiction stories. Some were for textbooks that needed short fiction to accompany a technical passage; a few were for high-tech companies that were doing future-product planning and wanted fiction to spark their engineering discussion; one commission was sold off directly in exchange for an ad that accompanied the story on publication.

One way to think about commissioned work is that it represents the price of adjusting your creative priorities. For example, many free/open-source software creators work on programs and features just because they like the idea of them. But, having made a name for themselves as expert, high-quality software developers, these people attract commercial commissions from companies that have a need for a specific feature or program. So the programmer takes a break from working on her own priorities and turns her attention to someone else’s, and pockets a commission in exchange.

There have always been creative agencies that specialize in this sort of commission, but increasingly artists can avail themselves of services like deviantART and other portfolio sites as a free or cheap way to hang out a shingle for potential clients.

5. YOU CAN SELL TICKETS

If you create things that can be performed, there is an ancient and honorable way of making money from them: you can perform them in a room with a door that closes. You station someone imposing at that door, and instruct that person to ask anyone who wants to come in to buy a ticket. If they don’t buy a ticket, they don’t get past the door.

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2013 was history’s top-grossing year for live music performance. This is a good time to be a live performer, not least because of all the ways the Internet supplies for getting the word out about shows. Now, not everyone is cut out to perform—I do a lot of touring and speaking, and it’s hard work. I miss my family, I don’t get enough sleep, and it’s hard to keep up with my writing. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Back when records and radio were invented, many musicians hated them. “I’m a live performer,” they said. “I do something as old and as holy as the first story told in front of the first fire. How dare you tell me that I am to be a mere clerk, doomed to sit in a back room while you technicians make my work available to my public?” That kind of mind-set leaves you driving taxis and flipping burgers.

Eighty years later, the spiritual descendants of the musicians who succeeded as recording artists have a different complaint. “I don’t perform. I’m not a trained monkey. I am a white-collar worker. I labor indoors. When my work is done, I slide it under the door and some bourgeois man of commerce takes it out to the world. What right have you to tell me that in order to earn a living, I must become an itinerant jongleur who capers for others’ amusement?”

In both cases, the refuseniks misunderstood how technologically determined their income was. Art is art, whether you make it with a computer-based mixing board or by banging two rocks together. But industry is all about technology. There was once a thriving lamplighting industry—people were paid to walk the streets with long, flaming poles that were used to light the wicks on public streetlamps at dusk. Those jobs were obliterated by the electric light. The tragedy of the lamplighters who failed to find another trade is real, and should never be dismissed, but that doesn’t make electric lights immoral. When it comes to business, technology giveth and technology taketh away.

6. YOU CAN ASK FOR DONATIONS

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This may be the oldest business model there is for entertainers and artists: asking people around you to voluntarily give you money so you can go on making more of the stuff they already see and hear. Again, the Internet acts as a force multiplier here—you can ask more people, in more places, and accept their donations in more ways.

The Humble Indie Bundle is a wildly successful “pay-what-you-like” distributor of video games. Several times a year, the Humble Bundle people announce a new “bundle”—five to seven video games, all sold together. The games are shipped without any digital locks, and will play on Macs, PCs, and GNU/Linux computers. Customers are invited to name a fair price for the bundle, and are shown how much other customers are giving on average. To spur their competitive natures, buyers are given stats broken down by operating system: “You’re on a Windows PC, and Windows users are giving an average of $40. Mac users are giving an average of $43, and Linux users are giving $48.” Customers are also allowed to go back later and donate more money, if they feel like they underpaid. And even though people can pay anything, from zero dollars to thousands, the bundles typically make in excess of a million dollars each. Each customer specifies how much of their payment should go to a few charities nominated by the Humble project, and the rest of the money is divided up among the games’ producers—a hundred thousand to three hundred thousand dollars each. Users also have the option to add a “tip” to Humble itself, to pay for the administration of future bundles, and that brings in enough to keep the lights on.

With my help, Humble has now branched out into e-books and comics, and further refined its sales pitch. Recent bundles have included an embeddable “widget” that each creator can put on his or her web page, as well as unique author-specific links. That way, Humble knows which artist’s work got you interested in the bundle, and it’s able to use that intelligence to prick at your competitive nature: “You’re a fan of Author X. You and your fellow fans are giving an average of $54, which is well below the fans of the next-most popular author, Y, who are giving an average of $67.” They’ll soon do the same thing with automatically detected cities: “You’re coming in from San Francisco. San Franciscans are ranked eighty-seventh in global payers; below Oslo, ranked eighty-sixth, where the average payment is $58.”

Humble isn’t the only innovative collector of donations. Kickstarter uses “crowdfunding” to raise money for creators—people solicit funds to complete a project, and make a pitch (text and video) explaining why donors should trust them to use the money wisely. Then they specify premiums and gifts to be given to exceptional donors—give ten dollars and I’ll send you a postcard with a custom sketch; a hundred dollars gets you a custom portrait; ten thousand dollars gets you an original comic book starring you and your friends. Kickstarter has also been used as an effective means of collecting preorders before a production run: Give me fifteen dollars, and I’ll send you a book. Once I have enough fifteen-dollar commitments in hand, I can have the books printed and ship them out.

Finally, you can always just stick a payment button on your website. Creators have varying luck with this strategy, but maybe you’ve got the right combination of audience, material, and pitch. One caveat: PayPal, the most popular payment processor online, has a well-deserved reputation as a high-handed, obstreperous bureaucracy that arbitrarily freezes its customers’ accounts, often without recourse. Hardly a week goes by without some high-profile company, individual, or charity going public with their tale of PayPal woe. I haven’t experienced this myself (yet), but I make a point of moving my funds from PayPal to a real bank account as quickly as possible, never leaving more than a few dollars in my PayPal account at any given time.

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None of this precludes chasing the established patronage systems—arts-council and NEA grants, institutional money, private funding—but as patronage has gone mass and global, the chances of you finding someone or some group of people willing to fund your vision have radically expanded.

Excerpted from "Information Doesn't Want To Be Free: Laws For The Internet Age" by Cory Doctorow. Published by McSweeney's Books. Copyright © 2014 by Cory Doctorow. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is the author of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town" and other novels, including "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." His latest short story collection is "Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present." He is the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net).

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