In direct defiance of my stated rules (which can be found here), this post isn’t particularly timely. Everything I’m going to talk about happened awhile ago – some of it quite a few years ago. It’s still on my mind, though; I thought of it just a few moments ago while working on some housecleaning chores, and I had some new insights that I thought merited an essay. After all, these are my rules, and I know them like a pro, so I can break them like an artist.
I’ve been thinking lately – I’m not entirely sure why – about the phenomenon of crowdfunding, especially as it relates to writing. I’ve contributed to several crowdfunded writing projects that have “made it,” and I’ve pledged to several others that have not. I have no doubt I’ll do it again; these crowdfunding projects are often the only way I get to read cool stuff that I want to read.
At the same time, I always leave these sorts of projects feeling a little sad, whether the project gets made or not, and it’s taken me until just recently to figure out why. The short answer is this: I hate that people have to monetize their art, and that the money decides what art gets made, rather than the artist or the art itself.
The first crowdfunding writing project I ever bought into was almost ten years ago. An author whose work I admire pitched the third book in a trilogy to her usual publisher, and the publisher didn’t want it (which is, of course, their right). They said the first two really hadn’t sold enough to justify publishing the third (which is cruddy, but again, it’s their publishing company). Because the series had a dedicated cult following, she decided to crowdfund the third book, before crowdfunding was even a thing. I signed up for a PayPal account just so I could contribute to it. I haven’t kept up with it the way I wanted to (life gets in the way of all sorts of good intentions), but I don’t know that the project was ever completed (edited to add: It was, I just didn’t get a notice, for whatever reason). I don’t consider the money to have been poorly spent; after all, I did get to show support for a cool thing I wanted to read by an author whose work I enjoy, and I figure if I can’t afford to lose the money, I can’t afford to crowdfund. I’d still like to read the book someday, and I still like this author, even though (to my knowledge) the project hasn’t been completed (edited to add: It was completed, and it was amazing and I cried).
The most recent crowdfunding project I signed up for that didn’t happen was from a different author (oddly enough, that one was for a third book in a series as well). That one didn’t meet its Kickstarter goal, and I was never charged. The author wrote a really nice note to all of us who signed up that said, in effect, “Thank you so much for supporting me and the story I wanted to tell. I’m sad it didn’t work out – I wanted to tell this story as much as you wanted to read it – but I just can’t justify the time right now, since that means taking time away from projects that are actually earning money.” As much as I understood his point of view, the whole thing left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Not for this author, but for the culture in which he and I and all of us live. This guy has a really neat talent – he can tell an awesome story – but he has to pick and choose which ones to tell based on financial reasons, not artistic ones.
That sucks. That sucks a lot.
This is a cultural issue that is as old as civilization, although it has taken many forms over the centuries. Because art serves no “practical” purpose, artists have been forced to make sacrifices for their art. It is nearly impossible to make a living solely through art; most artists work “day jobs” of one sort or another to keep the lights on and food in the fridge, and that’s the part that sucks the most. At times, artists have solicited patrons who support them financially, but then those patrons have often tried to take control of the art. At other times, artists have tried to support themselves through selling their work, but this just means that only popular artists can afford to remain artists (and that artists must always consider the reaction of the audience when creating).
In 2015, we have a somewhat hybridized system, especially as relates to writing: traditional publishing is both a patronage system and a popularity contest, in which popular authors can negotiate for huge advances based on a history of strong sales, but new authors have to be beyond amazing to even begin to be considered. At the same time, self-publishing, print-on-demand, crowdfunding, and modern-day direct patronage systems like Patreon are giving artists more flexibility to attract niche audiences to their work. Despite all of this, it still boils down to money, one way or the other. As much as an artist might love his or her art, at the end of the day, the bills still have to be paid.
I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish our culture would guarantee some sort of minimum standard of living for all people, so that people who have a talent for art can make their art secure in the knowledge that neither they nor their loved ones will starve because of it. I wish artists could make the art they want to make, free of any financial constraints (no, I’m not suggesting all artists should be independently wealthy; I’m simply challenging the notion that something as important as basic survival should be left to the vagaries of the open market, and that art for art’s sake is just as important, if not more important, than the whole nine-to-five thing).
Books are important. Paintings are important. Music is important. Even art some people don’t personally care for is important to somebody. I’ve got stuff in my library that may not exist anywhere else anymore, and that matters to me.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I know the one we have isn’t working. I want to read those books that “didn’t get funded,” I want to listen to those songs that will never be written because the songwriter has to have a “day job.” I want the premise of the movie “Coyote Ugly” to be completely unbelievable because of course the art comes first. I just wish I knew how to get us there.