A while ago, the Wu-Tang clan announced that they were releasing a one-off, secret album to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Once the album was purchased, the buyer could do whatever they wanted with it, even make it available to the public, but it would be in their hands and their hands alone. At the time, they said: “By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale, as any other contemporary art piece, we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music.” The album ended up selling for $2 million, which is a lot of money to make on an album in this day and age. Particularly since this one was only bought by the one person.
Today we found out that the buyer was profiteering pharmaceutical executive and textbook definition of “punchable face” Martin Shkreli. The thing that should make you mad isn’t that this happened, but rather what it says about a business model where artists have to practically beg their fans for money.
The patronage model has picked up some steam recently as a way to combat the ever growing problem of internet piracy and ad blockers. Let the true fans support artists! If thousands of us chip in a few dollars a month, artists can make a good living without being beholden to big companies! Taking a model used by the elites of time gone by and adapting it to the will of ordinary consumers! Which sounds great until you realize that what happened with the Wu-Tang album is the most logical outcome of that model: Rich people buy the art they want, art is made for rich people to buy. The poor (or even middle class) get whatever’s going to appeal to the widest possible audience for the least amount of money. We can forget that this is how the model used to work given the proliferation of easily accessible museums, but once upon a time most of those masterpieces were locked away to be seen only by the eyes of the moneyed and powerful.
There are, of course, exceptions; artists who managed to insult their patrons while taking their money, patrons who decided to make the art they funded available to the public, and artists who were able to come by money through other means instead of living off their art. My personal favorite example of that last one is Charles Ives, one of the most innovative and prolific American composers who wrote music as a hobby while making an excellent living as an insurance salesman. But the fact is that, despite what RENT might have you think, artists are generally seeking to make money through their art, they don’t just do it because it makes them feel good inside. If the only people willing to help them with that are rich assholes of the Shkreli sort, then they will make (or at least sell) art to those people. And those people will get to decide what’s worth supporting, what’s not, and what the rest of us get to see.
Ad supported art has gotten a bad name recently, but it’s a model that leads to far more access and diversity in what’s offered to the public. High-charting pop albums can support a record label comfortably enough that they can take chances on interesting but less popular musicians. Huge summer tentpole blockbusters rake in money for movie studios who can then throw a few million into arthouse prestige movies. Netflix makes enough money off people who just want to watch the same three movies once every two weeks to make things like Beasts of No Nation. And all of these things are 100% available for anyone to view or listen to. Treating art as a commercial entity may lack romance, but the truth is that is has ALWAYS been a business. It’s just that once upon a time, most of us didn’t get any say in that business. And it’s looking more and more like we might be losing whatever vote we had in favor of people like Shkreli.