Money Sells

Why pay for art when it’s free?

I’m Kim Boekbinder — The Impossible Girl, musician, writer, and crowd-funding warrior. Most of my income comes from crowd-funding and selling my music online.

Being so immersed in making it as an artist on the internet I think a lot about why people pay money for things they can get for free.

Why pay for art at all?

Because we can.

In this time of flux in which the internet has decoupled ephemeral consumables from the physical world (music, movies, TV, books…) we have become used to not paying for things, or not paying as much. Many times payment is a choice. You can find almost anything for free via torrent or youtube, or near-free on Spotify, Hulu or Netflix. Making the choice to pay, whether through morals or laziness, is still a choice. But the cost of creation is not a choice. Doing things costs money. As more artists are honest about what it takes to make their art we learn that we, the crowd, are what makes more art possible. This thing we call crowdfunding is not new. What we call crowdfunding is honoring the power of the crowd, it is a more honest way for crowd and artist to engage without a middle agent blocking access and demanding payment.

Many people still think of crowd-funding as charity. But crowdfunding art isn’t about charity. It is about the crowd having agency. You and me, music lovers, art enthusiasts, avid readers of fiction and non-fiction, we can directly support the artists, writers, and even scientists we believe in. That isn’t charity, that’s world changing. Art, science, and technology have traditionally been funded by large institutions, churches, corporations, publishers, labels, rich patrons…etc. The internet has given us all the opportunity to be engaged in the creation of new art and new knowledge without the need to be corporations, advertisers, religions, or governments.

Every choice we make, every action we take, every thing we pay for actively builds the world around us.

Getting this is why people pay for art. It’s why I pay for art. It’s why pay-what-you-want scales can work so well.

The price of a thing is part of its emotional value to us. When we buy things cheaply we coo happily about the low price, the savvy deal. When we buy a big extravagant thing we imbue the object with an extra value — beyond the sum of its parts, solely because we paid more. In blind taste tests people will say the more expensive bottle of wine is far superior than the cheaper bottle of wine — though the contents of the bottles are identical wines. Perhaps we are being hoodwinked, or perhaps the preciousness of our dollars makes us pay more attention to the things in front of us.

And there are times when the money is the entire point, when the wealth evident in the object is worth exponentially more than the thing itself, luxury items are a perfect example. When someone pays $30,000 for a handbag they are not paying for the bag, they are paying for the price tag.

Because we have a choice to pay for digital goods it is the act of paying, and the amount we choose to pay in a pay-what-you-want scale that makes it so powerful. Because in this case — where the product IS free — the value is entirely the price tag. When we choose what amount to pay we are actively valuing the art and our own time. When we back a crowdfunding project we are using our money to do more than buy an object, we are using our money to create something new in the world.

Each of us has a different relationship to money, rich, poor, comfortable, or not. Money is time, the time it takes to earn it. When you pay for my music, you pay for it with your time, a little bit of your life. And since my art is my time, our exchange is one of life for life.

When we talk about art and the internet we talk about money. It’s natural for us to be interested in money because we spend most of our time accruing money in order to survive. But when we talk about art in terms of financial success we are getting it wrong.

Money is the high score, but art isn’t a game that can be scored with money. Not really. Finance? Banking? Those can be scored with money. We write articles about artists raising millions of dollars. But that’s not really the point.

We talk about money instead of art because money sells.

The promise of talking about big crowdfunding projects is that since so-and-so made a million dollars on Kickstarter so can you. But it doesn’t work that way, and raising more money doesn’t guarantee artistic success. Often times that multi-million dollar Kickstarter project is just shipping more units, not actually creating bigger art/tech/knowledge.

The danger we face with our obsession over financially successful art is the same crisis we face with scientific advances, that only projects with immediate financial value will be funded. Which is not the way that human knowledge and culture really advances. Some scientific research will change the world but will not have a financial impact for generations — if ever. Art is the same. The artist who changes the world may never sell a single thing, but since life is expensive that artist is still bound by their financial limitations.

It’s always been difficult to fund art, this isn’t new, the internet didn’t break anything. In fact, the internet has given us new ways to fund things we believe in. It’s not just up to artists to become better business people — for some that just won’t ever happen. It’s time for us — fans, supporters, listeners, readers, lovers of art, culture, knowledge — to step up.

A few years ago I backed an experimental short film project for $5. That’s not much money but it’s what I could afford at the time. The film looked cool, but short films are never going to make money. Why would that artist even bother? Why would anyone pay anything for an experimental film they’d be able to watch online for free? But back it I did, and when that film came out about a year later and was amazing and went viral I was one of the proud few who’d made it all happen. That film was Solipsist by Andrew Thomas Huang who went on to make a music video for Björk (NO BIG DEAL) and all of that happened in part because of my $5.

I spent $5 on coffee today, and as far as my life is concerned that $5 I spent on coffee is gone. But the $5 I gave to Andrew Huang will keep having value to me.

The internet has given us a way to pay attention to the art, knowledge, culture, and science that may not be sexy enough for the media because it isn’t making any money. Next time you back an ultra successful project, or pre-order a neat tech thing, take a look at other projects, things that look great but have no neat rewards or famous face attached to the project. Toss them a few dollars. Take a chance on funding something new, something truly independent.

When you are offered a pay-what-you-want scale try entering a value true to your life: if you make minimum wage you can’t afford much, but paying whatever you can is still valuable. If you make $100 an hour try paying $100 for an album, a movie, a book. Many things don’t have fixed prices anymore, but that doesn’t mean we should just pay less. Because you aren’t just paying for a thing, you are giving the creator financial backing to create more. Paying for existing art is an investment in future art.

There will still be people who don’t get this, who think that artists should just make sellable art or learn how to run a business, people who believe in a magical meritocracy where money and value are perfectly balanced and measured out by an invisible guiding hand to those who deserve it. Those people can glide by giving nothing to promote or support art, they will continue to live in a world filled with art, surviving on the cultural welfare of those of us who do support art.

There will always be people who think crowd-funding is charity, who see project creators as beggars looking for handouts. You might be one of them. And mostly I feel bad that you won’t be at the party, because it’s a great party. I speak not only as an artist, I speak as a supporter of arts. I’ve backed more Kickstarter projects than I have launched for myself. And every time I see a project fund, and then a new piece of art come into the world, I feel proud and happy to be part of it.

Your money is your time. Your money is your choice. Your money is a tool you use to make the world around you.

What world do you want to live in?