Asking for a Friend: Commissions for Creatives

Dear Olive,

If someone writes a book or records a record, why are secondhand vendors allowed to re-sell the wonderful object without paying the creator a commission? This isn’t fair, no matter how long it’s been done!

“Fair” is a funny term to use to talk about artist compensation. A person knows, when heading into a career in the arts, that they’re most likely destined for years of exhausting, underpaid survival jobs and always skimping on luxuries like avocados and name-brand soap. What’s fair about that? What’s fair when the creative process — which, as you may know, requires negative space just as much as pen-to-paper contact — is dismissed as dawdling, while answering emails counts as “productive”? What, really, does “fair” mean when luck has as much to do with success as talent?

Life, alas, is not fair. Your parents likely told you this in fits of frustration when you complained about your classmate’s new bicycle or having to brush your teeth twice in the same day, but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. We don’t deserve our chances, much less our successes, or at least no more than anybody else. We don’t deserve our iPhones or our brunches or our health insurance that covers our pneumonia. We don’t deserve the pneumonia, either; that’s not the point. What I mean is that none of this is fair, really: while some people suffer in a sulfur mines, others pour bubbly water at their fancy lunches out, which they don’t think twice about paying extra for. We don’t get what we deserve; we get what we get.

Hard work might get you a little further, or it might get you nowhere. We struggle and nobody notices, or we go viral and Ellen Degeneres sends us to Tahiti. If merit pulled the strings of fate, quite a lot of things would be different, and maybe artists would be compensated every time the records of their craft and creativity made their way from one pair of hands to another. Or maybe not; if we had to pay for every incidental inspiration that crossed our paths, if we were trained from birth that everything has a price even more dogmatically than we already are, it’s anybody’s guess whether we’d be interested in art at all.

That’s not to say that the problem you describe is not a problem. Artist compensation — its inconsistency, unreliability, and sometimes distinct lack — is a problem. Not because it’s fundamentally fair to pay for product — I personally decline to refer to anything but groceries as “product” — but because artists are essential members of a thriving society, and without compensation, we can’t pay rent, buy pencils, set broken bones, call our families, floss, or even subsist on peanut butter sandwiches. We live in a society that expects these things, even pretty much requires them. To participate, artists must be paid, period.

The problem, and the solution, are systemic; would we even face such questions if creativity were valued for its own sake instead of for what it could earn? What if mathematicians were required to take art classes the way artists are required to pass geometry? What if learning was just about learning and not about what we’d be expected to do with it later?

I think more people would make art. Certainly more people would get to. I think more people would read and listen to and look at art, too, because the barriers to entry would be lower, and because they’d know what they were looking at. (In this imagined utopia, arts education would be quite a bit more robust, too; art is just as good for the soul as chemistry.)

But, okay. Your question is a good one, at least in the world we do live in, where artists often are undervalued but usually still have to pay rent. There are answers fed by pragmatism — it’d be near-impossible to track — and by law — copyrights, usage licenses and intellectual property say who gets paid at every stage. There are self-interested answers, too: discouraging re-distribution of books and records means fewer readers, fewer future fans, and fewer eyeballs per sale. Commercially, that’s unfavorable. Creatively, it’s disappointing. And then of course there’s the personal: I do love a two-dollar book bin.

But my favorite answer has less to do with lack and loss and more to do with what’s impossible to value. Not the pennies that an artist doesn’t gain when a stranger in Milwaukee picks up a secondhand record, but the invisible added density that gathers around an object as it passes from hand to hand. There’s a little magic that clings like static to a book someone has read before — not to mention stickers and margin notes, creases where stray words inspired bent corners, coffee stains. These ephemera are features, not bugs. They are the accumulated evidence of life on earth, a reminder that we’re not alone and we’re not always right — the same reminders we are offered by art itself. They persist in remaining uncurated, a stalwart defense of spontaneity in the midst of too much order. Think what we’d lose if everything came shrink-wrapped instead.

You’re right; nothing about any of this is fair. But unfairness means that luck and inspiration have just as much room to strike as misfortune. So, even as I put two-dollar avocados back in their bin and learn, finally, how to make dry beans into stew, I’m grateful that some fragments of our creative lives cannot be reduced to a price tag.

Love,
Olive

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