Free culture, undercutting, and the environments they create.

Since I last blogged about Amanda Palmer I’ve been seeing a number of facebook friends post her recent TED talk (titled, the Art of Asking).  Quite a few have been inspired to offer their music for free.  I’ve already said all I want about the free culture movement in a recent post (though Aaron Anderson linked to a different take on the issue of demand as it pertains to giving in the comments section in that post) so won’t rehash that here.

One of the private Facebook groups I’m in is the Biz of Belly Dance which is incredibly active.  In one of the most recent threads about music licensing a dancer made this comment regarding needing a license in a dance studio: “A license to PLAY music?? Please! Artists should be thanking you for the free advertising!”  Which just reminded me of this recent image meme that I posted to my Facebook fanpage:

Photographer Looking For People to Do Their Job Without Pay (Atlanta)
Photographer Looking For People to Do Their Job Without Pay (Atlanta)

And this older meme which made the rounds some months back:

The next time you are asked to play for free...
The next time you are asked to play for free…

I wish I could say these kinds of comments are rare, but they aren’t.  Of course, my wife said something to the effect of, “does she get her belly dance costumes for free?  Does she dance for free?”  Which brings up the undercutting issue that is a perennial topic of debate amongst belly dancers.  Musicians have unions and PROs (Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP and BMI) which, ideally, should protect their livelihood.  Sure, there’s AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) and AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists) which many professional dancers are members of but nothing with the same specificity and level of organization as the Musicians’ Union and PROs from what I understand.

Hence the discussion about undercutting–basically when a dancer (or any worker in any field) offers their service for a price under what might be considered a fair price, thus depressing the going rate for everyone.  Of course, with the proliferation of belly dancers, this seems to be a growing problem (not unlike the problem of a surplus of musicians or people willing to play music for nothing or next to nothing).  And as the image memes illustrate, the symptoms are that everyone is starting to expect services for next to nothing.  So yeah, there’s some irony here.

Kenton Allen on the outrage over Facebook's announcement of Instagram photo usage.
Kenton Allen on the outrage over Facebook’s announcement of Instagram photo usage.

Step in Amanda Palmer and the crowd-funding movement as the new model.

Is there anything intrinsically wrong with it?  No–anyone can ask for money and anyone who can get it should probably get it.  Problem is for the rest of the folks who might want to rely on a reliably steady income standard.  Yeah, I know that in the end our services are only worth what people are willing to pay for them.   That was the whole point of Tim Worstall’s criticism of David Lowery after all.

Here's what you pay for when you hire a musician or band.
Here’s what you pay for when you hire a musician or band.

But it also goes back to what environment is getting created.  Once there’s a critical mass of people publicly offering their creative activity for next to nothing folks are going to expect that product or service for next to nothing.  In fact, we’re pretty much already there.  And unless you already have a big enough fanbase, those who may be willing to give, may or may not be enough — whether or not it’s 1000 true fans.

To all who moan about the price of musicians.
To all who moan about the price of musicians.

No, this isn’t Amanda Palmer’s fault, or Emily White’s fault, or the dancer claiming free promo for artists fault.  One, two, or a handful of people can’t lower the monetary value of music.  Individually they just don’t have that power, but collectively with the myriad of folks who are inspired by or resonate with these viewpoints–that’s where that power to devalue the arts comes and it’s something that’s going to affect both the “high” and the “low” arts.  This is the reason I asked “Why bother making music anyway?

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