Our story begins with Radiohead, as all good stories do.
When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with Radiohead. I would often spend hours on Ebay, scouting CDs of rare recordings and concert posters for shows I wasn’t even old enough to get into. Whenever I received a new CD in the mail, I would gently rip away the weathered manilla packaging before immediately placing the cellophane-wrapped album on a shelf, where I could delight in my shining new find, proudly stamped with a sticker that simply read “Import.”
If I ever wanted to listen to any of the CDs I spent my allowance on acquiring, I would simply go onto BitTorrent and get them for free. I reasoned that it was okay for me to illegally download music that I had paid for in another form, though I knew that this was not a substantial alibi if I ended up getting caught.
A few years later, Radiohead made history for breaking from their record label to release their album, In Rainbows, on their own terms. They made the album available for direct download on their website at a pay-what-you-want price point. Fans could own the album at whatever amount they were comfortable paying, even zero dollars. Though the downloadable album was eventually taken down and the physical album was released at a set price-point, Radiohead had already amassed more money through their online tip jar experiment with In Rainbows than they had made for their entire physical release of their previous album, Hail to the Thief.
Radiohead’s experiment was lauded by countless periodicals for revolutionizing the way artists get paid while some news outlets questioned the monetary benefit of such a move. Fortune magazine listed the In Rainbows release as #59 in an article titled “101 Dumbest Moments in Business”, while others called out the fact that most fans who downloaded the album opted to pay nothing. Radiohead also received criticism from some musicians like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon for setting the expectation that all artists should offer their work for free in a similar fashion, even though many smaller artists might not benefit from such a model.
Despite what anyone said, the In Rainbows experiment was arguably a turning point that welcomed a whole new way to fund art; a system designed to allow anyone to become a patron to an artist at whatever amount they were comfortable paying.
Animation by Dillon Petrillo
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Hundreds of years ago, the relationship between artist and patron was very different. The term patron comes from the latin patronus, meaning father or master, and is a much better descriptor for what patrons of the arts were like leading all the way up to the Renaissance period. Kings, nobles and the extremely wealthy would often pay artists a living wage while they created a majestic work of the patron’s choosing. While artists today are often held in high regard for innovating new ideas and creating masterpieces, they were once treated as skilled laborers who were simply following creative orders from someone with an extravagant vision and a lot more prestige.
If I asked you who was responsible for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, you would probably respond with “Michelangelo, duh!” The name Pope Julius II likely means nothing to you, but it was “The Warrior Pope” himself who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the majestic biblical scenes onto the ceiling. Michelangelo was reluctant to stray from the sculptural works that consumed most of his creative output but Pope Julius’ adamance left the artist with no choice but to oblige the pope’s request. The Warrior Pope was also behind several other projects that would shape Rome into the culturally rich city it is today, such as the famous reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica.
This is not to say that Pope Julius II was the great artist that Michelangelo immortalized himself as, but calls to light an interesting relationship between artist and patron; a relationship that would be reintroduced into modern society hundreds of years later.
By the late Renaissance period–thanks in large part to the public becoming more curious about the world around them–artists like Michelangelo would finally become respected members of society and help to define the modern image of the artist as an independent creative genius, capable of bringing their own ideas to life. Unfortunately, it would still be a few hundred years before they could make a decent living doing it.
Sometime between the Renaissance and In Rainbows, funding art moved away from the old patronage model to a more publicly-supported system. Anyone–not just the extremely wealthy–could find and support art in museums, theatres, galleries, and the like. Artists could create elaborate works of their own choosing and willing buyers would fork over big bucks to have a piece of it.
As art became increasingly institutionalized, it begat several new ways to earn money and a hungry subset of middlemen wedged themselves between the artist and the patron. Publishing companies, agents, publicists, producers, movie studios, record labels and a number of other professions cropped up as a way to maximize and share in the wealth of creators by managing some of the more business-focused parts of the artist’s work.
The only thing that could possibly get in the way of the success of these entrepreneurial middlemen would be a system that could make it easier for artists to build communities of supporters interested in supporting their work.
The World Wide Web was created in 1990 and would forever change our reception of art.
The internet not only made it possible for us to quickly find the answers to our most burning questions–it helped to establish a new way to communicate with one another. We entered chat rooms curated for people interested in the exact same things as us and “ASL” quickly replaced “Hey, how’s it going?” from our vernacular.
In just a few years, the internet would turn the artist into a self-sustaining creative entrepreneur, making it possible for anyone to connect, market, and deliver directly to their users.
On the surface, this is a dream for any artist; but as art becomes more readily available through the use of the internet and more and more people are assuming the role of “artist,” the artist’s worth is sadly diminishing. While Netflix, Youtube, Spotify, and countless other services bring movies, videos, music and every kind of art we can imagine directly to us at a minimal subscription cost (or free,) we’ve begun to devalue much of the art we once paid top dollar for.
Life as a modern-day creator is expensive. Artists don’t simply create new things out of thin air and then slap an arbitrary price tag on them; they need time and resources–like any other professional–in order to continue to sustain a living. So why is it that we champion monetarily successful professionals on other career paths yet criticize the artists when they attempt to earn a living making art? Have we romanticized the idea of “the starving artist” to such a degree that we have culturally forbidden any artist from making it past this point?
Luckily, the future of funding art will put more power in the hands of creators by breaking down the barriers that once separated them from those willing and eager to support their work. Creators will no longer have to have millions of diehard fans and a Pepsi sponsorship under their belt to be successful as an artist; having even 500 people who love a creator’s work will help the modern-day artist earn a comfortable income. The term “make it as an artist” will be removed from our vocabulary entirely, as the polarizing differences between Beyonce and the busker on the corner will begin to diminish.
When Radiohead decided to release In Rainbows at a pay-what-you-want price point, they likely knew that most people would not pay to own the digital download; but enough fans were willing to pay more than the average cost of a 10-track album that the earnings were offset in their favor. Releasing In Rainbows in this fashion also made Radiohead accessible to those who might not have been able to afford the typical cost of a CD, which helped to grow Radiohead’s fanbase even more.
Hundreds of years ago, patrons were in complete control of the artist. In the last 100 years, that power has shifted over to the creator. The future of funding art will lie in the relationship between the two.
Want to be a part of the future of funding art?