Updated: Jul 15, 2019
This morning I read Slaves of the Internet Unite! It’s not the first essay of this sort I’ve read and I have no hope that it will be the last. In fact, I’m about to write a post very much like it…Because that op-ed piece is so (bafflingly) true.
Writers and artists need more respect…and money. When you go to a restaurant you don’t expect them to give you free food…and bitch about them when they don’t. Nor do you expect or require stores to give you any merchandise that you like and want. Yet writers, musicians, and artists are routinely both expected and required to work hard and give away what they produce. (And I might add that creative work takes much more time and energy than mass produced consumer goods which people buy every day without a second thought.)
I suppose what I’m wondering at this point is whether writing things like this — which a lot of writers and artists I know have — makes any difference at all in people’s attitudes, because I don’t see anything changing despite the fact that things like this have been posted almost daily for years now. The situation is the accepted status quo by non-artists. I’m wondering what it would take, what artists really have to do, to change the status quo. I’m still hearing from musician friends that clubs want them to play for free or try to scam them various ways. The number of people who want to use artists and photographers work for free is almost infinite, and visual artists are constantly battling an avalanche of infringement (people using their work and not paying for it). Then there’s the writers, not only authors of books, but writers of all kinds who are continually asked to put their skills to use, to donate time (and time is, indeed, money) to create “content” for websites, blogs, magazines, every conceivable writing project you can think of and all for free. “Editors” who want to “hire” writers to work on their projects for nothing. In the digital age the work writers do for free is copied, distributed, and linked to, read by possibly millions — a vastly larger readership than in the pre-internet era — and yet the authors don’t get anything from it except “exposure”. In some cases such exposure does turn out to be valuable, but in most cases, it’s just lots of people getting lots of valuable work for free and the artist getting absolutely no gain, either tangible or intangible, from it.
The thing that stymies me — and stymies most writers and artists — is how to change the situation. Simply saying over and over that one must be paid for one’s work and that royalities must be paid and licensing must be done is not enough. Saying over and over that one is not going to put in hours of work for free day after day — because a writer could easily fill every day of their lives writing things that people want and ask for, but don’t want to pay for — is not enough. Because most people who want to make use of an artist, photographer, musician, or writer’s considerable skills still don’t want to pay for it. Yes, the economy is bad and everyone and their dog is working on some project that they desperately want creative people to contribute to because such contributions will make the project good, but they can’t afford to pay for the work they’re asking for…and they don’t stop to think that the creative person they’re asking can’t afford to work for free. In some cases the people asking someone to work for free are in a better financial position than the artist or writer. That’s even more unacceptable. (The attitude seems to be that if you aren’t actually a homeless person sleeping in a cardboard box and eating out of a dumpster, that you’re doing fine and can afford to work for free.)
I can see a way forward for writers and other artistic people to help each other and contribute to each other’s projects because we can trade our talents. I write something for you, you do some bit (according to your talent) for me. Or the project is a mutual collaboration and everyone who participates gets a share of the profit. But even so, many creative projects have no profits to share or the share of profits turns out to be a fraction of a cent for every day each person has worked on it…because consumers fundamentally don’t want to pay for creative work.
This is really bizarre when you stop and think about what creative work is and compare it to the types of things we all readily pay for. Creative work is very difficult; not everyone can do it; it is extremely time consuming; it is rare…and so it should be very highly valued. Packaged goods and mass-produced goods are ubiquitous…Junk food, furniture, kitchenware, and myriad miscellaneous things that are stacked on shelves in stores of all kinds. None of those items which are made and sold in quantity are unique; uniformity is a goal of manufacturing. Almost everything you buy in a store (particularly if it’s a chain store of any kind) is made…and it’s made in large numbers. Someone, working for a large corporation and being paid a salary they can live off of, designed that plastic bin you put your recyclables in. A factory then produced millions of them, stores stock them, and you buy them as well as thousands of other things you don’t really think about.
But one person creates something that comes from their own mind and their own individual talent, something that is utterly and completely unique, one-of-a-kind, and the vast majority of people who say, “oh, that’s wonderful, I love it!” do not think they should have to pay for it. They think that something that may have taken a year of someone’s life (or at the very least weeks or months of work) should be given to them and everyone else for free because it would be somehow wrong to pay a creative person anything, much less pay them a living wage.
This is perverse. It’s malicious. It’s turning ordinary people into soul-sucking parasites living off the work of the creative members of society. Every word you read is created by a person, every image you see, every video you see, every piece of music you hear…imagine what the world would be like if there were no images of any kind anywhere. Then imagine what the world (and more specifically the internet) would be if there were no images, no videos, and no text either! Then wipe out all music except what is generated by the natural world (bird song, frogs, cicadas, rain etc.) Okay, maybe that’s going too far because obviously some creative people are getting paid to design things, create images and movies, and write blurbs and short articles by a handful of large corporations and businesses who can afford to pay a few people to do that type of work.
But that still excludes most of the people doing most of the creative work that you are exposed to all day every day. Why? Because computers and the internet — the whole digital world — is populated by creative people who are working their butts off and not being paid for it, who are just scraping by on whatever crumbs you, the consumer, deign to throw at them, or who are working some soul-killing job which pays the rent and puts food on the table (more or less) but also eats up most of their time so they have less time to do creative work…a type of work that takes more time to produce something than other types of work, because it is all a type of “one-of-a-kind, handmade” stuff, the product of the brain and imagination of a specific person (or group of people in the case of a band).
We are, as a society, killing our artistic creative people, bit by bit, byte by byte. Artists need more than “Likes”, “Follows”, or supportive comments on social networks. They need the same thing everyone needs: to be respected and paid for their work.