What Is a Million “Likes” Worth?
Numbers that really matter for artists on the internet
I am Kim Boekbinder, The Impossible Girl — a name I have performed music under for the past 4 years. I make my living as a musician, which is something that many musicians only dream of.
There are musicians far more famous than I who still work day jobs. I know quite a few DIY darlings who work as programmers on the side to make ends meet. Bands we think of as successful stop making music, because while the listeners may be there, the money isn’t. Cat Power declared bankruptcy in 2012 — the year she released an album that topped all the charts. To an outside observer it looked like she’d been on a winning streak for years.
I’ve been surviving as an independent artist for nearly a decade. Writing, recording, and touring my smart pop music without the safety of the traditional industry. This was all made possible by the internet. As I grew as an artist and musician the internet offered new possibilities and took others away. As a musician I was promised unprecedented means of distribution — the inference was legions of adoring fans in exchange for the mere act of existing and being talented. Having never engaged with any sort of traditional music industry (no labels, no managers, no booking agents — ever) I have nothing to compare the internet-savvy DIY approach to. But I have seen friends and comrades be celebrated or trampled by the internet age. I have trumpeted the successes and decried the downfalls. I am, and have always been, completely immersed, engaged, and indeed in love with this world wide web.
As someone whose livelihood is made possible by the internet I spend much of my time thinking about it. What does it mean to be an artist in the digital age? How many likes does it take to “make it”? What does “making it” even mean anymore?
In this series of posts about ‘Artists on the Internet’ I will explore the career successes, foibles, and failures, of artists in the internet age. I will be examining the new ways to create, distribute and fund art and artists. This series will include essays and interviews with artists, writers, musicians, and tech entrepreneurs as we talk about the confusing numbers that the internet throws around: likes, views, clicks, and most elusive of all — cold, hard cash.
There are numbers that matter and numbers that don’t matter.
You can have a million youtube views and still be broke. You can have a million streams on internet radio and still be filing bankruptcy. Or you could have no views and no streams and still have the ability to pay rent and make more art. We get lost these days in talking about likes and clicks and views, which are all very gratifying, but have little to no impact on how we live or create more art.
I think my most recent album is AMAZING though I was disappointed by slow sales when I launched it. Sales have since picked up. But here’s the thing: the quality of my album does not change given how many people buy it. My album will sound the same listened to by one person or a thousand or a million or a billion. So what makes music valuable? How many likes? How many dollars? Or does art have its own inherent value?
My videos will be works of art whether viewed by a few thousand or many times more.
100,000 “likes” doesn’t really get anyone anything. Except a promise that maybe it will turn into money. But turning “likes” into dollars is a rare alchemy.
Let’s just be totally clear here: money makes art possible.
People often shame artists for talking about money, they say “Don’t worry about money. Do it because you love it.” But this is an insulting thing to say to an artist. “Love” isn’t the correct word. Not for me. I do love making my art. But I also need to make it.
I don’t think about the numbers when I am making my music. But there are numbers that matter for me, because without those numbers I cannot make my art bigger, brighter, better. I cannot eat. I cannot pay for my home. I cannot pay for the expensive parts of my art which allow me to share it with the world.
We pay so much attention to numbers that don’t really matter: “viral” videos, subscribers, followers, “Likes”… numbers that may or may not change your actual life.
These are the numbers that matter for me:
- The money in my bank account with which to fund my art.
- The number of people at shows, because that has a physical impact on the quality of the show.
Views, downloads, streams, likes…? They’re nice. But they don’t sustain me.
We’re still physical artists in a physical world.
All the promises of what the internet would do for art and artists forgot to take into account that our physical bodies would not (soon) be digitized, and that to continue living and breathing we would need to pay for the things that kept us alive — just as we always had. While we may be able to distribute our art and connect with our online audiences, we still haven’t solved our value problem.
Musicians use physical instruments to produce the digital files you dance to. Even the musicians who create entirely digital music are usually using samples of sounds produced by physical objects. In the cases where a work has been completely digitally produced on a computer we have to remember that the computer itself is a physical object in a physical world, as is the musician themselves.
And the physical world is expensive.
One frustrated musician from New Zealand wrote to me once to tell me that he had decided to only play live music, mostly busking on the street. He refused to record and release his music because of what he felt was an unfair sense of entitlement that the denizens of the internet had to his work. “People feel ownership over everything they can access with their computers.” he wrote, “I decided long ago to never put anything on the internet.”
Maybe you don’t care about the loss of one street musician, but more and more artists will choose to no longer share their art in a world that places so little value on their work and their lives.
So here is the conundrum: in the wonderful world of access to so much free information we are actually losing information. If we cannot figure out a way to support creators with a living wage we will lose them; lose their work, their voices, their contributions. The information will not be freed from their minds, because they will be doing something else: waiting tables, or working in advertising, or teaching the next crop of young idealists.
The creators who can afford to work for free will be the same creators who have always worked for free: the very young, and the comfortably wealthy. At some point the young will not be young anymore and they will want and need the things that only money can buy: homes, food, health insurance. And while the comfortably wealthy have many valid things to say (and their wealth certainly shouldn’t be held against them) I personally believe that we need more voices than just the young and the rich.
What are the numbers that matter to artists? Surely we all want to know that our work is making an impact, those views and clicks and likes do mean ‘something’ but what that ‘something’ is just isn’t always clear. What does value mean, in art and in payment? Is the promise of exposure enough? The careers of many successful artists have been built on years of free work. “Don’t work for free” is not the answer. Different numbers matter to different people. Some people need more money, some people just want to be seen.
This is a nuanced issue and it will continue to change rapidly. There will be no cookie-cutter answer that works for all of us. But we really do need to continue this conversation. Possibly indefinitely.
We are artists, musicians, writers, and makers on the internet. We are trying to figure out how to support our lives as creators because we have a lot of creating to do. Join us.