My friends, we need to talk about money. I know it’s uncomfortable, but part of the reason why it’s uncomfortable is that everyone has been taught that talking about money is Not Nice, which is how people who have lots of money get to keep it without being challenged and why those who do not struggle with any kind of class mobility and often flounder if they come into an unexpectedly large amount of money. Talking about money is perfectly nice. A conspiracy of silence is not.
So let’s talk. During the Obama Administration, there was a real flowering of the arts in the United States, and a lot of that art came in the form of content that we got for free, and enjoyed. Podcasts. Webcomics. Blogs. A huge variety of art projects big and small were made possible because the economy was starting to recover, because there was a social commitment to the arts, because even though people have unreasonable expectations about getting things for free as though actual humans aren’t involved in their production, there were modes of funding available.
That is changing, more quickly than you know. Some of the routes people were using to monetise were already faltering, but a new, arts- and worker-hostile administration means that there is even less money available. Grants and support, whether direct or given to organisations artists work with and for, are drying up. Subscription revenue is dropping. Advertisers are nervous. Private donors are recalculating their budgets in awareness that their cost of living is changing, and that $5 here, $5 there to people they like is actually adding up to maybe more than they can afford every month.
There’s this myth that people will go on creating art no matter what, and that’s not how it works. Artists need money to survive, to eat, to have a place to live, to do things that help them do their work. Without a universal basic income, artists need to be able to obtain that money somewhere. They also intrinsically deserve compensation for their work because it is work, it involves skill and training, and it places considerable demands on them. When artists don’t have money coming in, ‘selling more art’ likely isn’t going to fix that problem, especially if their art isn’t fetching a lot to begin with.
So when you lose out on funding and need to dig up your own, often the result is to go find a day job. There’s nothing wrong with being an artist who has a day job, and lots of people are able to balance competing demands on their attention, but not always. If your work is labour intensive and you have to work 40 hours a week — assuming you can get a job — you are not going to be able to produce as much, even as people are pressuring you to make more, often as resistance or a response to what is happening. Work that is not art can become all consuming very quickly, and extremely stressful, and it may take months or years to figure out how to adjust to your new life — and many of your fans will have drifted away by then.
Which is why we need to talk about money. All of us are struggling right now, and some of us are struggling more than others. I do not think you should be deprived of art if you cannot afford to pay for it. But I do think that if you have some money, you should be giving it to artists you like, whether that’s on Patreon or through direct donations or any number of other routes. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money. If you decide, for example, that you want to budget $25 for art every month, you can spread it out how you see fit. And a network of people who are like you who do the same thing can turn that $25 into something much more sustainable.
A lot of people in the arts, me included, tend to feel a little anxious about asking for money, especially for something that we have been giving away for free. It feels a little bit like a bait and switch, or crass, or uncomfortable. But the fact of the matter is that as I write this, right now, I am not doing paid work. As I developed the ideas for this post and did research, I was not doing paid work. As I did the maintenance that made it possible to publish this, I was not doing paid work. It may take you five to seven minutes to read this, but it cost me a lot more to write it. When I paid Oh Bees! for their hosting services, I was recognising that Nicholas provides a service that has monetary value for me, and I would never expect him to host me for free just out of the goodness of his heart.
I don’t say this because I want you to feel guilty or like a bad person for enjoying things that you read for free, and being aware that if you had to pay for everything you read, you would likely be reading less. That demand for free content has fed a lot of problems in journalism, and I have talked about those problems, but the fact remains that this is a collective problem, not one that is about you personally individually and specifically, my dear reader.
Together, we have to agree that we should support artists to the best of our abilities. Together, we have to decide how to allocate that funding, recognising that unless we’re very wealthy, it’s not possible to kick a little tip into every single artist’s jar. But maybe it’s possible to do some. To rotate them periodically. Together, we need to decide that the arts are valuable and worth preserving, even in the face of extreme hardship.
So take an honest look at your budget. Figure out how much is reasonable for you to spend on things like subscriptions to publications you like, Patreon and similar services, or straight monthly donations. Be realistic and have a plan in place for when your income fluctuates. And then go put some money on the line, because it’s easy to say that ‘oh, someone else will pay for this,’ but the things you love may be more endangered than you think because their creators aren’t getting enough support.
Image: Paper money, Kevin Dooley, Flickr