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Here’s What ‘Free’ Art Actually Costs

Doing the math on likes and shares

Should art be free? As more and more people use the internet to champion their creative work and amass “tribes” of fans, the expectation of free that internet culture perpetuates risks hurting the creator. It always feels good to be recognized, appreciated, and adored for your creativity and to have hundreds, thousands, millions of people sharing your work and liking it. But, even when a creator does manage to accumulate attention, it doesn’t necessarily equate to earnings.

Compliments do not pay rent. Attention does not keep the electricity company from wanting payment. And likes—unless they’re sponsored—do not put food on the table. As a writer and designer, I have collected 70,000 followers across my social channels. People would assume I’m flushed with cash, but the equation doesn’t often go in that direction. I make a comfortable living, but that’s a result of working hard for my clients and has little to do with my social media following. Just because you have followers does not mean you’re making money—and if you want to make money, you have to sell something to your followers. I sell online workshops, and I want to sell a product line, but I couldn’t live entirely off my writing at this point, and I am fortunate to have other consistent sources of income.

It’s a sad moment in time that art is as accessible as ever, yet the people who are benefiting from the accessibility of art are hardly ever the creators. They scrape together multiple sources of income, brainstorm side hustles, and cobble together rent, all while feeling pressured to keep giving away their art for free through any means necessary.

As consumers, we expect nearly everything not only to be accessible instantly, but also to be free in some way. We can get the news through livestream. We can read every article in every magazine or newspaper online without paying—despite many companies trying in vain to institute pay walls, which can be easily bypassed by the internet savvy. The writers of those articles often do not see a return on their views, even if one of their posts is read by millions. Podcasts are free, save for annoying advertisements that we listen to or skip through—those same ads providing only a living wage if the podcast is incredibly popular and listened to by millions.

For minimal monthly costs, nearly every television show and movie is available for our entertainment purposes. For another minimal monthly cost, every song can be streamed instantly. My brother, a musician, gets paid very little through Spotify or Apple Music. Our expectation of free art is both breeding a bloated amount of art, while also providing no clear path for how these creators can continue to make money and keep creating the things we want to consume. The free marketplace perpetuated by the internet has made it nearly impossible for the artists we love and cherish to make a living doing the things that thousands and millions of people are consuming.

As a creator, once I managed to amass thousands of people on social media who were interested in my work, it’s been difficult to turn away from that and to accept that, even with piqued interest, I need to have multiple sources of income from various creative skills. Even if I appear to be popular and successful online, that hasn’t always meant that my bank account is increasing along with my social influence. And, of course, it can seem incredibly whiny to even talk about the financial ramifications of being an artist, but when art is in such high demand (especially on the internet) yet financial compensation is not met with demand, that’s something to be considered. Because, unless you’ve got a healthy trust fund or a benefactor—of which I have neither—I have to make money, and the more people who love my art, the more it feels difficult to turn my back on my passion and, instead, focus on my other revenue streams. I must constantly straddle the practical need to be the breadwinner of my house and the passionate need to bring art into the world.

Perhaps the most maddening aspect of it all is that someone, somewhere is getting rich off the expectation that all art should be free. If you’re using Instagram to showcase your irreverent comics and you have thousands of followers, you’re most likely not making any money, but Instagram sure is.

If you’re a comedian and you’re providing your best material in the form of 140-character quips, then you’re not making any money, but Twitter is. If you have a Facebook page where you promote your work and have thousands of followers, your posts don’t bring you much income—unless you have some sort of online revenue stream—but Facebook loves that everyone expects your work for free. The longer people stay on Facebook looking at your art for free, the longer Facebook can serve millions of people advertisements that put zero dollars into your pocket. Apple loves that podcasts are expected to be free, because if you’re always on iTunes, they can get you to buy music or apps and retain a large percentage of that sale.

Free does not benefit the creator, even if the readily available attention and adoration of social media wants you to believe that it does. Free benefits the corporations. Free writing, free audio, free video, free TV empowers the advertisers, but it never empowers the ones who spent their time making the things that big companies benefit from by doing nothing but making an ad spend or creating the vessel for consumption. It’s genius—if you’re the corporation or social network. It’s maddening—if you’re the creator.

But, what can you do if you want to build a career off your art? To not use social media to garner a following seems silly, yet the only real way to garner a following is to continuously share your work, free of charge, without expectation of being paid. When I talked to publishers about writing a book, they all wanted me to have a social presence. In order for me to someday secure a moderate book advance, I need to have a social presence that I spend hundreds of free, nonbillable hours maintaining—all with the hope that maybe one day those hours will be an investment in a future sum of money. It’s no longer that you must be good and talented, but you also must be popular, willing, and able to spend precious time doing and sharing work for free, all in the name of artistic passion. (And so many of us will take that challenge, because life without passion is not life at all.)

Perhaps with all this accessibility and all this fervent, insatiable desire for art, we will collectively find a way to get the artists we love paid and paid well. For now, those creators will keep giving their art away for free without expectation, until, hopefully, one day that passion translates into rent money. Until that day, they can take the money out of the big businesses and stuff it into their own pockets. What a good day that will be.

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