Paying artists

by Jini Stolk

My heart breaks every time I hear a talented artist say they’re not going to pay themselves in order to get their show on stage. I know: that means I spend a lot of time broken hearted, but I think it’s a problem we should be talking about more often.

Without question, the world of the artist is changing. The cultural industries in particular (book and magazine publishing, sound recording, TV and film production) are in the midst of a transformation whose end point no one seems able to predict. It makes my efforts on the Association of Canadian Publishers’ Copyright Committee many years ago seem laughable. Personally, I do not know how musicians can continue creating music in our world of free downloads, nor how writers will be paid for their work.

Even the Toronto Public Library – either bowing to the inevitable, or embracing today’s distribution models – offers free downloads of ebooks, audio books, magazines, videos and music. My friends love the ease and accessibility: I worry about whether/how much the artists are being paid.

Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail worries about it too: “If the artists starve, we’ll all go hungry.” Could it be true that Pharrell Williams has made just $25,000 in royalties from Happy’s 43 million downloads? Or that a Toronto songwriter whose song had 260,000 downloads and made it to No. 3 on the Billboard chart hasn’t gotten a penny in royalties? Although Pharrell looked like he was doing pretty well when I saw him at the Oscars, I doubt most Canadian songwriters are prospering quite as much.

Darren O’Donnell started a schitt-storm on Facebook and Q, arguing (what might be true to a certain extent) that being an artist involves more email answering these days than creative breakthroughs. Of course other professions (arts management being one I can think of) offer creative opportunities, deep satisfactions, and the possibility of having an impact on the world– but we’re not, for all that, creating lasting expressions of the highest achievements of the human soul.

It’s unfair that we now expect all artists to be entrepreneurs (there’s an entire journal devoted to Entrepreneurship and the Arts). There are many compelling artists whose work we don’t want to lose but who just don’t have those skills.

Of course, the arts is not the only non-profit sector which rewards its most talented and committed workers with lousy compensation, we’re reminded by Nonprofit with Balls’ Vu Le, who says that “We’ve developed some no good, very bad habits.”

But as the Arts Advocate’s New Year poll of readers revealed, a large number of cultural workers believe that paying artists adequate fees, and  amending the Copyright Act to better protect creators are crucial issues going forward.

This brilliant essay by William Deresiewicz describes the evolution of humankind’s concept of “the artist” from hard-working artisan to solitary genius to credentialed professional to the emergence of the artist/entrepreneur. I read it with huge appreciation for the truth of his insights – until the last sentence, which made me cry.

 

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