Ethan Kaplan, who is the vice-president of technology at Warner Brothers Records, wrote a long and thoughtful post today about the value of art, and how we as a society need to think long and hard about how we value art — including how (or if) we are prepared to pay for it — so that artists can make a living from what they create. Mike Arrington has responded to Ethan’s post over at TechCrunch, and he isn’t having any of what he calls “this new touchy-feely approach to the music tax.”

I thought Ethan did a nice job of looking at the issue and some of the questions it raises, without trying to boil it all down to an easy solution — but Mike zeroed in on one particular part near the end, where Ethan talks about how some artists in certain countries (including Canada) are supported by government programs. Putting two and two together, Mike says this is just Ethan’s way of rationalizing the “music tax” that Warner Music has been busily lobbying for:

“Strip away all the flowery language and what you have is a music industry executive calling for the ‘pro-ignorance’ US society to value music as art no matter whether it’s the ‘worst’ or the ‘best.’ He talks about how great European artists have it with government subsidies. And he’s doing it weeks after his boss called for a music tax.”

I think Mike is being more than a little unfair. It’s true that Ethan mentioned government programs in countries like Canada, but it’s not as though he is suggesting this is the entire answer (and I certainly don’t believe it is). In fact it’s arguable, I think, whether artists “deserve” to make a living at all, in the sense that society should move heaven and earth to ensure that happens. I thought the whole point of being an artist was that you are motivated by the desire to create and (in some cases) share your art, not by the desire to make a living or become rich.

Still, Ethan’s larger point is still well taken — and as he said on Twitter, what he wrote was his own opinion, not that of Warner Brothers. I think regardless of what you think of the music “tax” idea (which I think is ridiculous, and won’t work in any case), it *is* worth thinking about how we value art, and what it means to us as a society, and how we go about making that work in terms of economics. As someone who writes for a living, that’s something I think about quite a lot.

There are no easy answers. As it happens, these are just the kinds of issues we’re going to be talking about at the mesh 2008 conference in May, where Ethan will be one of our keynote speakers.

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Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

10 Responses to “What is art worth — and how do we pay?”
  1. music, from the time of the troubadors, was free. it will be again, as the recording/distribution medium trends to transparency. artists are fine, it is the non artists who need them, not the other way around. money is not the motivator for doing art, it is something in the spirit. distribution companies were allowed to ride on artists as long as they controlled the medium, that time is over. enjoy the music, it will actually be better, the more individualized it becomes,

  2. Art created by artists who can spend more of their time creating and practising than needing to do other things is always going to be, on average, better. There's no way to get around that. If a society exists where artists can't make a living from their art (leaving aside questions of what being wealthy means for one moment) and have to use up their time on hackwork or unrelated guff to make a living then either that society doesn't value art as highly as one that helps artists live off their art, or it has a remarkably high number of gifted trustafarians and other aristocrats.

    Off the top of my head, great artists motivated by making money – and not just a small sinecure of a living either – include Pope, Dickens and Scott. And for Pope especially financial independence meant intellectual independence.

  3. I don't think they're proof of anything, but I think they're evidence that financial incentive isn't necessarily a bad motivation for artists and that it can have side benefits as well as produce good art,. So (not that I'm accusing anyone specifically of this, this started with Kaplan asking very general questions after all) dismissing its existence and taking a Romantic view of the artist as beholden only to his muse – now *there's* a modern notion – might mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If society wants diverse artists that means society should provide as diverse incentives as possible.

    It's all moot anyway since it turns out what Kaplan was really complaining about was NEA funding which is boring old kulturkampf stuff and certainly not as philosophical as it first appeared to be :-(

  4. I'm not so sure — that might be what Mike Arrington thinks, but I
    think Ethan's concerns are much broader than just getting some
    government funding.

  5. Oh I don't think it's anything to do with music tax propaganda like Arrington assumed, but Kaplan's update posts of 'My point is: how can we really debate the value of music or movies or photography, how compensation works, etc when we can’t, since 1989 when the NEA fell apart, figure out how to make art viable as a commercial practice and how to value and support it as a part of the fabric of a functioning society?' and 'How do we value cultural artifacts when there is little to no value of culture itself in the educational systems, public sector and society at large?' seems pretty grounded in older battles as well as parochial (speaking as a Brit, what's this 'we' shit, kemo sabe?). While it's an arguable point, he's not really asking a forward-looking tech/culture intersection question, is he?

    That said I'm still sympathetic to his changed/clarified point – I get the same way when, i.e., people talk about education tech without considering underlying educational principles.

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