Is Free Art Killing The Artist?

Illustration by Tyler Shaw

The value of art is a topic that fuels much debate. Today, one of the most important contributions to that conversation is understanding how and why people’s perception of a particular craft (music, photography, film, traditional art) can either increase or decrease its value. Because art is rarely perceived as a necessity in todays market, it is commoditized as “content” and subsequently devalued. The question then becomes, how can we continue to see art as a viable career path when everyone expects it for free?


No one is going to deny its been pretty rough on musicians lately: The entire industry has been overhauled to fit a new digital paradigm. In both perception and price, albums no longer hold the same staying value they once did. We all love an anthem or an album that is reflective of our current times, but the willingness to support that artist is typically shown in the form of merch or concerts. The actual music doesn’t really make much money.

The mass consumption of music has had quite a few unnerving effects:

1) People expect free music because, well, it has been continually given away for free.

2) If an artist doesn’t put out new music at least once every six-to-twelve months depending on their level of prestige they are considered irrelevant. The dominance of technology has made the world smaller and faster, so what appears to be someone “falling off” could also be attributed to a unrealistic expectation of how music is made, approved, and distributed.

3) The Internet has given a platform to everyone to create and push their music into the world, skill aside.

4) The massive amount of music being generated creates an ocean of noise. I believe the cream always rises, but when every other week there’s a new “famous” artist every week, what matters?

Photography/Digital Art

Is it possible that platforms like Instagram are, although innovative in its ability to share and market, devaluing art and photography in a similar manner to the way mixtapes and the “free music” revolution devalued Music?

  1. The advancements in cell phone cameras has basically placed a DSLR in the hands of everyone who owns one. Subsequently everyone believes they are a photographer.
  2. Those who use Instagram as consumers are left with such an overwhelming amount of visual stimulation that great work becomes common, expected, and impossible to determine its worth.
  3. Stock photography sites like Unsplash are great for early adopters to build their audiences and is obviously beneficial for the company that built it, but by giving away free photos, they reiterate that some of the best photography on the web has no value.

It’s become commonplace to see photographers and digital artists pouring their livelihoods into 1800px x 1800px squares. I’m all for Instagram, but think: You have millions of creators all pushing free visual content daily with various end game scenarios- some are marketers and brand ambassadors, some are freelancers, some are just looking for new opportunities. It’s the same framework music has fallen into. You make something, pretty much give it away for free, and hope to make your money on other streams of revenue. The value isn’t in the work itself.

(The main body of work is simply a marketing tool, and their job becomes setting up channels/opportunities based on that original work to get paid.)

It’s too late to change the way the game is shifting, but it does deserve a conversation about what needs to happen to protect the value of the Arts.

This is by no means a complaint, but the realization that the stability of another creative industry may soon find itself entering into a new shift that doesn’t necessarily make the creators the main benefactors.
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