Capitalism is routinely castigated as an enemy of the arts, with much of the finger-pointing bent toward monsters of profit and efficiency — drooling only for money, caring nothing for beauty, and so on. Other critiques take aim at more systemic features, fearing that the type of industrialization that markets sometimes tend toward will inevitably detach artists from healthy social contexts, sucking dry any potential for flourishing as a result.
Yet while free economies certainly introduce a unique series of challenges for artists and consumers alike, and despite the wide array of bottom-dollar record-company execs and merchandising-obsessed Hollywood crackpots that demonstrate such obstacles, recent increases in economic empowerment have also led to plenty of artistic empowerment in turn.
Empowered to Create
The more obvious and overarching examples of this have to do with the simple ways in which widespread prosperity has freed up our time, energy, and resources. As collaboration and innovation accelerate, folks are continuing to discover new ways of doing more with less. As result, the tools and time needed to participate in a variety of artistic ventures, from hand-painting to stage acting to music production, are closer to common fingers than ever before.
Of course, market forces aren’t perfect. As channels of culture, they mostly funnel what they funnel, and that includes squalid appeals to the lowest common denominator. But neither are such forces limited to the hands of the tasteless and trite. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the powerful and privileged, many artists are now finding themselves increasingly equipped to bypass the big shots altogether, taking their art and their audiences with them, from the purchase of their paintbrushes to the publication of their portrait.
As a young boy, I dreamed of one day becoming a filmmaker. After working only two summers at minimum wage, I was able to save up enough cash to put that dream to the test, purchasing a-state of-the-art video camera and my very own digital editing equipment. Thanks to the innovations of others, and the basic freedoms that unleashed it all in the first place, at the age of 16, I was able to secure the tools needed to begin my work — tools that, only a decade prior, were confined to the hands of Hollywood bigwigs.
Even here, however, critics of capitalism find room for dismissal. Such seeming “opportunity,” they’ll argue, is merely a mirage, bound to slip away given the tug and tear of systemic market forces. Any such “empowerment,” we are told, will eventually descend into a miniature Crisis of History, wherein the artistic and the authentic are inevitably consumed by the hungry, money-making machines of industrialization, with our innocent bards doomed to twerk vulgarly at the bidding of The Man.
Connecting Art with Audience
I recently wrote about how bottom-up trading tools like Craigslist help reacquaint our imaginations with the basic beauty of exchange. In a related piece for The Atlantic, Micah Mattix explores a similar idea from the standpoint of an artist. Focusing specifically on poetry, Mattix highlights how artists are starting to leverage such tools toward locating and connecting with new audiences. Rather than retreating from commerce, these artists are diving into it, utilizing the power of market exchange to turn distant and unlikely friends into partners in creativity.
In addition, artists are also getting entrepreneurial in how they fund such efforts. And if there’s one tool that demonstrates this most clearly, it’s Kickstarter, the world’s largest crowdsourcing platform for creative projects. Though it can certainly be used as a mere spin-off of the traditional donation bucket, it can also be leveraged toward preparing the way for trade, promising equity to the investor, art to the patron, etc. Used in this way, as is most often the case among musicians, artists are able to sidestep record labels for both funding and distribution.
Bypassing the Big Shots
Enter The Suburbs, Minneapolis new-wave group of ”Love Is the Law” fame. After a 27-year hiatus, the group began a Kickstarter campaign to avoid the typical record-label track. Contributors were given no fewer than 16 trading options: $1 would get you a pat on the back; $10 would get you a digital download of the album, once produced; $15 would get you a hard copy; and $10,000 would get you a personal show in a venue of your choosing.
In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, front-man Chan Poling explained their approach:
I thought of going to Interscope [Records] and back to the big guys at Universal as we were on before. And I thought: What do they actually do? They provide money. We used to call them, in the old days, banks. Because they would provide you an advance and you’d record your album with it, you’d do your videos with it.
But back in the ’80s, the “Love is the Law” video cost $350,000, or at least they told us it did. And that way, you never recoup your royalties. You’re just always in the hole. So I thought well, what if we just raised the money ourselves, made our own videos — which we can make a lot cheaper now — produce and distribute the record ourselves, hire our own public relations company and our own distributors and our own radio promotion people? It’s gonna cost about $100,000. So we put the [Kickstarter] number at $65,000 and we’re almost there today.
The end result: 1,051 backers and a total sum of $73,199.
Stories like this abound, from inventors to thespians, from foodies to photographers. Plenty flounder or fail to follow through — as with any start-up — but looking at music alone, this year alone has already produced its share of quality art, from Five Iron Frenzy to Audrey Assad to Toad the Wet Sprocket to Matt Gilman.
I was recently returning on a bus from the Minnesota State Fair, where The Suburbs happened to be performing. Along the way, I struck up a conversation with a man who had come to the fair for the primary purpose of attending the concert. I asked whether he had joined the Kickstarter campaign, and he shook his head with noticeable regret. “Had I known about it at the time,” he said, “my wife would have been furious. I definitely would have purchased one of those expensive packages.”
There you have it: an ardent, appreciative fan of local new-wave rock, eager to support an artist directly and generously. Thanks to a simple tool, he is now empowered to do so, avoiding the fat-cat middlemen at Interscope and the wanna-be commissars of the NEA who have up until now clamored to do it on his behalf. And the artist started it all.
Embracing the Power of Trade
Kickstarter is but one example, and like any tool driven by populist patronage, it has plenty of potential for producing outright garbage. But for those who would label the market itself as the enemy, it provides a marvelous demonstration of how the deleterious effects of distant-and-detached industrialization are checked no better than by the market itself.
Artists are only beginning to realize the ways in which those big-art capitalists of yore — the “banks,” as Poling calls them — are becoming less and less necessary in the 21st century. As those roles continue to shrink, artists should continue to embrace the power of trade and pursue new ways of creating and sharing the beauty they’ve been called to cultivate.
Video killed the radio star, and now, quite poetically, capitalism may be killing the capitalists.