Are We Killing Artists To Take Their Golden Eggs?

As new technologies emerge that make it easier to share ideas, gain fans for your work, and influence the marketplace conversation, there is increasing celebration on the web about how these new models of distribution are making it possible for anyone to have a platform. In other words, if you have something to say, there is no one standing guard at the gate (e.g. publishers, music labels, TV Networks, etc.) telling you whether or not you’ll have access to the masses in order to share your idea.

This is remarkable indeed. There should, in fact, be much rejoicing.

Until…one day we wake up and realize that all media is now digital, which means that there is no longer perceived scarcity. This means that artists have to shift their business models to give away (or make available for cheap) their main art, and instead focus on selling scarce peripherals. Authors sell lectures. No longer able to make a living from recording, bands sell tickets to concerts and survive off of merchandise sales. Content creators give away their content in order to gain eyeballs and ears, but the glut of content makes advertising profitable only to those savvy enough to take advantage of it, or to the aggregators of the content (ironcially, the “networks” of the web.)

The problem is…some people are just great at being artists. They aren’t great at business models, distribution or line extensions. They just want to make great, valuable art and sell it at a fair price. What do these people do?

The web-perts say “adapt or die!” From a business standpoint, they’re probably right. From a cultural standpoint, my heart sinks and weeps.

Would we have had The Beatles if they’d been told, “Never mind spending years in the studio crafting your records. Those things are just promotional fodder to sell these snazzy Sgt. Pepper t-shirts and posters. You should focus instead on how you’re going to monetize.”

I don’t know.

What cultural gaps will exist when we make the creation of art financially unprofitable? What happens when the thrill of having eyeballs and ears on your work wears off? (In other recent news, scientists have pinpointed that this “enthusiasm lag” seems to correlate with the monthly arrival of the bills.)

I fear that in the “race to the bottom” we are devaluing art. We’ve shifted the conversation so that the scarce piece of the business model is the plastic or paper rather than the years of sweat and focus that went into crafting the content. When our mindset is that digital books should be cheap because there’s “no paper” involved, or that music should be free because there’s no physical cost of distribution, we are ignoring the inherent value of art to the sustenence of our culture.

Yes, I realize this is a rant and I also realize that I probably sound out-of-touch with much of what’s being said about where the marketplace is speeding. I am excited about these new technologies, and I’m thrilled that more artists have unprecedented ability to connect with potential fans. Truly. Deeply. I am one of those artists.

I am not taking a contrarian position. I believe in where technology is leading us. This is simply a cautionary tale.

My concern here is that we are building models in which artists will get pushed to the side and that – in the end – our culture will wake up with a giant hangover wondering what in the world we did last night. I’m concerned that we’re killing our artists in order to get their art, and in the end we will lose both.

Share your thoughts:

Please keep your comments civil and on topic.


  1. Thos Artist

    Wake up people, art is forever, part of being an artist is the struggle to create, and sometimes that means holding down 2 or 3 jobs so you can create without being influence by the market demand or value place on your work by outside forces. Buck-up, and stop cowarding like a bunch of limp-dicks and weeping pussies — get busy—- be artist create!   

  2. Sarah

    Todd, this is the first post of yours I’ve read(via BrushBuzz). You are absolutey right on with these ideas.
    I know how you feel-  as if you’ve stepped out on a limb to post these ideas. I’ve been alone with similar convicitons for years and have consistently resisted all attempts to get me more active in marketing my art. I don’t belong to any of the social media. I only keep a blog for the joy of writing and thinking about these issues in the hope to find clarity for myself and others.

    Please stay with your gut feelings and keep writing about them. A growing body of artists and creatives is needed to form a countermovement against the devaluing of art and culture and all that you’ve so aptly mentioned in your post. It is an insightful and well thought out post and gives me courage! Thanks.

  3. Lori Woodward

    This is such and interesting discussion. I’m enjoying the comments as well.

    One thing I’ve noticed about my own buying habits… When I get something for free, I listen, download, and forget about it. When I pay a decent sum for something (because I know it’s with the price) you’d better believe that I listen and look, and return to read many times. The pain of paying for something makes me attribute higher value to it.

    If an artist cannot convince someone to pay for their work, maybe it isn’t good enough in the first place. High quality work should never be entirely free. The higher the quality, the more value. Only tidbits should be given away… As a sample.

    I’m an artist and teacher of art. I have free tutorials and examples of my work on my website, but the actual art and ebooks are gonna cost ya.

    • Lori

      That was ‘worth the price’ not ‘with’

  4. Chb7196

    I find your argument against lower prices for digital music misleading. From what I understand, musicians have traditionally earned little from recording sales and have gotten the majority of their income from concerts. Plus, this is hardly a “new” phenomenon. The Grateful Dead (among other bands) freely allowed recordings at their concerts, leaving little incentive for people to buy their albums. And further back in the days BEFORE recordings (from the beginning of music thousands of years ago until only about 100 years ago), a musician’s income was almost solely performance-based.
    I will somewhat allow your argument for authors, but even authors did not always earn money for their works. In pre-printing press days, I seriously doubt royalties were paid each time a monk scribe copied a text.

    • Todd Henry

      Good points. My argument isn’t about pricing per se, it’s about the cultural mindset that leads to the expectation that digital media should be free or close to it. Musical artists have traditionally earned between $.80-1.50 per album sold, and much of that needed to be recouped out of up-front investment by the label, so you’re right that it wasn’t a major profit center for most artists. Problem is that some new artists today are also sharing concert and publishing/songwriting revenue with labels because there isn’t as much to go around from record sales. This is another way that these new dynamics are forcing change in how artists approach the business. Not bad, not good, just real.
      WIth regard to the Grateful Dead, giving away permission to record and distribute their records was a HUGE boost. For sure. But what if EVERY artist did that, as many are advising? People only have so much time to spend attending concerts, and there is only so much elasticity around concert pricing. If every artist suddenly decided to give away the music and make money on concerts, supply of concerts would overwhelm demand, again driving down the price in order to compete. Alternatively, artists could limit supply by saying there are only 200 seats at a concert and charging $500/ticket, but that probably wouldn’t work for the vast middle-belt of artists.
      These new developments are exciting, for sure. Again, my concern is that we are creating the expectation in the short-term of free/cheap digital media and that it will gut our culture in the long-run. We need new models, and we need to be wary of those selling content at a loss in order to make it up on hardware. It’s good for the aggregator, hardware maker and retailer, bad for the content producer.

      • Sarah

        There are some interesting thought on this issue in David Gauntlett’s recent book, ‘Making is Connecting’. I recommend it.

  5. Anonymous

    Im going to add a different view point here. Maybe Im not seeing it or the connection or perhaps maybe Im saying the same thing as you, Todd.

    In my view, it depends on your circle and how you you live and where you do your work.
    Sculpture artists, wood turners, portraits artists (non-digital), jewelry makers (esp museum makers) etc, dont live in the digital space.

    The digital space is a great place to share and sell, and the digital tools are handy or in some cases the only tool (film-making now) but its not the only space. Go into a museum, stop by a mall, banking center or a town square. Theres art every where thats not created or defined by the digital space.

    For communication, the digital world is just the new telephone and catalog, but its not the only space artists live in. Its just a percentage thats much smaller than we see, especially if we live in front of our computers.

  6. Stacey Cornelius

    Way late to this party, but thanks to Kelly Kingman for tweeting the link.

    And I agree with you. 

    Forcing artists to sell peripherals is sad. 

    Why don’t people value the real work? It seems that important question has been lost in the stampede to score the latest free thing.

    • Lori woodward

      Hi Stacey, people don’t value the real work because we don’t call them to that action. As artists we can show samples, and musicians should only let listeners hear a sample.

      At some point if we all stop giving our valuable work away… Racing to the bottom, we can alter the culture and make a living again. People will only pay as much as you ask them to. Let your appetizer be free, but the main course is going to cost.

      I think some artists are giving their work away because they’ve lost belief in its true value. If we don’t think our art is worth paying for, no one else will. Sure, social media has driven down prices for creative work, but free? No way!

      However, I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be “freebees’ every once in awhile because it’s less expensive than advertising… I do not want to ever give my best away. Too many famous artists have died paupers only to have someone else raise the value of their work after death. If the art has an audience and intrinsic value, it must have a price that relates to its demand.

      I believe the old Supply and Demand principle still applies… If we give all our supply away, there will be little demand, and little demand means no income. Only give enough away to create a demand… Sorry in advance for typos… New iPad.

  7. Kelly Kingman

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, Todd. I think it’s very timely and poingnant.

    We don’t need permission any more, but we do sorely need constructive criticism and editing. Our audiences are busy putting up gates of quality, clarity and merit to stem the tide of input. I think we’re going to see that those “gatekeepers” actually could be valuable collaborators, in the way that great editors are the unsung heroes of our great writers. I agree it’s better to have a choice.

    As far as the idea that some people are just good at creating and not the rest, that never changes, and it has rarely, if ever, been enough. I believe there are less starving artists now than ever, directly due to the fact that they can connect directly with their patrons. 

    Picasso’s work may sell for big sums now, but I doubt he had as much control over that as an artist does now. Also, the pipeline for the artists that “made it” was a lot narrower in his day. There was a system you went through, circles you ran in. It’s not too different in the upper echelons today, and who we should really be pitying are the people who aren’t naturally social and are told over and over to connect connect connect.

    To me, a large part of being an artist means committing fully to your vision, and sometimes you have to have a day job (see: Hugh MacLeod). There are easier ways to feed your family, but in the end making the work the way you want to make it is it’s own reward, or it’s own obsession.

    I’d argue that now more than ever, all of us are experiencing what artists always have: the leap of faith it takes to make things and share them and see what happens.

    • Todd Henry

      Kelly, I couldn’t agree with you more. There is no such thing as the “good old days”, and my concerns stem mostly from the fact that marketplace dynamics are making it increasingly difficult to engage those critical functions like editing, producing and such. We are seeing it in journalism and I think we will increasingly see it in other media as well. It seems to me that perhaps the generalists will survive, and the specialists will struggle. Partnerships and collectives will become more important – necessary, even.

  8. John

    Although it makes life very difficult, I do not believe that artists who have succumbed to day jobs for their living have reverted to mere “hobby” level.  The call to art is not (only) time based and many artists have had to work in another domain for a living (T.S. Eliot comes to mind).

    Maybe this is the precursor to a world where everyone lives their life
    as a work of art, intentional proportions, brave colours, virtuoso
    passages and painstaking detail.  For all humans are, essentially, called to art, it is just that we learn that being an artist is only for  special people (the “talented”). 

    I think you could see this situation as part of a much bigger opportunity, transforming the world.

    It might not take off, with people choosing video games, facebook and shopping as better uses of their free time…. but maybe creative community activities will take hold and bring about the much needed antidote … !

    Positive thinking (and actions) are necessary here.


    John (

    • Sarah

      John, you’ve pinpointed some themes that I’ve been turning over for awhile now. Thank you, you’ve said it well. I feel that discussions about art marketing are missing this emerging aspect, the democratisation of art and the emergence of a more socially engaged and community connected art. teh whole context of artmaking is changing.
      In my own search for meaning as an artist, I try to ask ‘beautiful questions’ about these issues on my blog. You can visit at artcalling on wordpress. This isn’t a plug for my blog, just a sincere desire to join the conversation and invite you as well. Sarah

  9. Marc Baron

    So sad and true. How is an artis to pay rent, buy food, pay for training?….or pay for the equipment and supplies, or hire others needed to make the content…if there’s n income? How does one garner investors? We’re killing the population and concept of professionals. Is the future merely about people working full time somehwre while making content as a hobby? 100’s of years ago wealthy patrons and royalty underwrote the arts. Today it’s all business with models that earn little to no money.

  10. Dixie Redmond

    As an artist, I find this very thought-provoking.  I spend a lot more time on connecting online than I do in making art.  When I made my PDF book, I thought long and hard about the pricing. 

    I was thinking the other day that maybe there will be no more “rare books” in the future.  But then again, maybe there will be.  Maybe a book itself, in a limited run, is still a kind of limited edition artwork.  

    • Todd Henry

      This is the real challenge. The balance between making art and marketing the art has shifted quite a bit. You have to bake the marketing into the product, which was always the case to some extent, but now has become essential.



  1. What Would Happen To Wine If Everyone Wanted Free Grape Juice | Butts In the Seats - [...] tip to Adam Thurman for distributing the link to an interesting piece about devaluing artistic content by Todd Henry.…

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I'm Todd Henry.

I'm Todd Henry.

I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas. More

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