Nobody Knows How to Fund This: A Brief History of the Arts

The “Veronica Mars” Kickstarter project has just closed, but the conversations about how it might impact film financing have only just begun.  The idea of bottom-up financing for major projects – with profits going to the rights-owning studio, rather than to the individuals who have invested in the project – is disconcerting, to say the least (it also runs afoul of SEC regulations as written, although the crowdfunding bonanza has them rethinking some of their definitions); arts and entertainment funding and creation has traditionally run along two separate tracks, the top-down and the DIY, but Rob Thomas (creator of “Veronica Mars,” not singer of Matchbox 20) has turned that all on its head, intersecting the two.


Of course, that’s a simplistic formulation.  Successful DIY-isms almost always get co-opted by the top-down financing system – look at Justin Bieber, or the entire punk movement.  And crowdfunding might well lead to an increase in diverse or interesting things getting made; “Veronica Mars” might be a studio-owned property but it’s one of the best around, a television series with a nearly flawless first season that, beyond the tautness of its narrative structure, also made incisive, subversive, and often witty interrogations of race, class, and gender.  It’s just the sort of thing that, all too often, gets pushed aside by the big-money players in favor of another Michael Bay schlockfest, and the fact that a “Veronica Mars” movie will now be produced and distributed is, on its own, an undeniably good thing for creative culture.


And the truth is, crowdfunding is not the first time that major studios have profited off the backs of others.  Ta-Nehisi Coates recently weighed in on a kerfuffle over paying writers for their work; he wrote for free at the outset of his career and found it beneficial, even as others find it a ripoff.  As a writer, it is a tremendously difficult thing to be paid for one’s words, and as publications have shifted to digital formats and blogs have proliferated, words have been steadily devalued (there are so many of them on the Internet, after all).  But it’s not a new feature of the publishing landscape, either: for decades many major, profitable publications have utilized unpaid interns, whose free labor becomes the price of entry to a small and highly competitive field.  Such efforts have also had the effect of maintaining a certain hegemony amongst who might join the culture-makers, as only the wealthy can afford to work (or write) full-time without pay.


It’s certainly something I have grappled with.  I’ve written both for pay and for “exposure”, although the latter much more rarely – with this blog being a (very) significant exception.  The freedom to write and explore whatever is on my mind, to develop my ideas unconstrained, seems worth it, although recently I took a look at another blog to see if I might glean some tips for monetization: Brain Pickings, which I’ve linked to here before.  Although Brain Pickings claims a vaster readership than I can (and a New York Times profile), it’s ad-free and subsists mainly on donations – or so I thought, based on the “donate” button at the bottom of each post, which links to PayPal.  I was surprised, then, to visit PayPal and discover that such “donate” buttons are available only to IRS-registered nonprofits – which are, after all, the only organizations legally allowed to take “donations.”  The author of Brain Pickings has openly admitted that her blog is run through an LLC, a for-profit corporate form which is not eligible for donation but only investment; and suddenly we are back at the crux of the problem with Kickstarter, not only for its “Veronica Mars” project but for all of the for-profit ventures which have been backed through the crowdfunding site.


The truth is, there is no bulletproof funding model for the arts.  Magazines and print journalism have imploded already; music has imploded; television is on the verge.  The days of top-down control, born of the patronage system of ages past, are fading away, which leads to both positive results – a “Veronica Mars” movie! The “Brain Pickings” blogger being able to make a living at her blog! – as well as some less-than-positive ones (“Veronica Mars” fans have essentially paid in for the exclusive financial benefit of Warner Brothers!  The “Brain Pickings” blogger makes a living in some fairly sketchy ways!).  Democratization of artistic production has lowered the barriers of entry but raised the barriers to actually earning a living: the market is flooded, and the signal-to-noise ratio is lower by the day.


The question underlying all of these situations – Kickstarters, “Veronica Mars,” blogs, unpaid magazine interns – centers around the value of cultural products.  The wisdom of the market is hard to discern, as the market itself seems schizophrenic and prognosticators are proven wrong on a daily basis, but there are lessons from different times and places that might apply.  British theater, for example, has thrived – even as theater elsewhere has declined – because of strong public funding.  PBS and NPR blend public funding and private donations into vibrant brands which ask interesting questions and support creative livelihoods.  Private foundations have supported innovative work, but the grantseeking process, public or private, is longer, more intensive, and generally more burdensome than putting up a Kickstarter; it’s also a channel available only to nonprofits or individual artists.


The for-profit model can have a certain transgressive allure in the arts, or in any creative field – but too often forgotten is that businesses are regulated just as nonprofits are, and they cannot benefit from “volunteers” or “donations” as nonprofits can.  (There is a theater company in San Francisco with an edgy brand, which has consciously rejected the nonprofit world of grants and donations to be for-profit – but which doesn’t pay most of its production team, or even try to pass them off as “interns.”  This is illegal.)  But for-profit creative funding is crumbling.  Crowdfunding seems the most viable solution, but as a tool for those who already hold money or power, it’s controversial and has an uncertain regulatory future.  The pay-what-you-can model, used very successfully by the likes of Radiohead and Louis C.K., has potential for those with a fanbase willing to pay, but has been less promising for creative producers still finding an audience.  Paywalls and digital subscriptions are helping to rescue a select few magazines and newspapers, even as still more have shuttered due to financial concerns; people will shell out for the Gray Lady, but not for The Rocky Mountain News.  The brief era of semi-stable business models – when technology had progressed just enough to allow mass distribution, but not mass participation – is coming to a close.


There is no single solution.  Arts, entertainment, and media workers are at the vanguard of the new “flexible” labor force, wherein “flexible” most nearly means “frequently unemployed or working on contract with no steady income or benefits.”  When the unbenefitted workers were those in food service and retail it was easy enough for society to look away; perhaps the real convulsion coming from this breakdown of funding will be un- or under-employed cultural elites demanding a more equitable system not only of paying magazine employees or financing movies, but of the political economy at large.  And the ramifications to creative fields from such a shift shouldn’t be underestimated – after all, JK Rowling wrote “Harry Potter” while on the dole, and whatever your opinion of the literary merits of the series its role as an economic engine cannot be denied, supporting everyone from booksellers to film producers and accruing billions towards Rowling’s own personal wealth; she pays more to the Crown in monthly taxes than was invested in her over multiple years of writing.  If competition alone were sufficient to produce great art, then “Top Design” would have been a much better show.


Great cultural products come from many places, but in our romantic stories of geniuses and starving artists it’s all too easy to forget that the most common source is those who can afford it.

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