Monday, February 11, 2019

Dirty Money And The Starving Artist | Music Think Tank

You’ve all heard about it, it’s part of modern world’s most enduring cliché: a great artist IS a starving artist…

In recent history

Coming right from the Romanticism of the late 18th to early 19th century, this has been the subject of many paintings, literature and even operas. From Kafka to Dylan Thomas or Van Gogh to Monet, there’s no shortage of tragic figures who died poor and unknown while their art became a juicy investment for wealthy collectors much later.

The science

There is even scientific evidence that the myth is now so ingrained in our collective mind that it is hardwired in many artist’s brain chemistry. According to a study published in the Creativity Research Journal, led by Dr. Roberto Goya-Maldonado, head of the systems neuroscience and imaging in psychiatry lab at the University Medical Center in Göttingen, Germany, artists tasked to select money compensation showed significantly reduced activation in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain’s reward system, compared to non-artists. The researchers also found that artists showed a greater response in another dopamine-related part of the brain when rejecting money. It would seem that for the artists in that study, money cannot be anything else than dirty.

The music world

Nowhere more than in the music world is such a myth more welcome in how it helps artists willfully swallow the blue pill of helplessness. After a decade of piracy, modern streaming platforms (supposed saviors of the industry) have more than contributed to the pervasive idea that music should be a free commodity and that artists don’t really need to be compensated as much as their shareholders. And indeed, it can be seen in the way even unsigned artists are embracing the new paradigm, where all they can hope for from sharing their music is the good old “exposure bucks”, all the while having to resort to fundraisers to make ends meet and be able to keep creating.

To be fair, this is also a reaction against an industry which is more interested in immediate ROI, manufacturing hits in factories, helped by ubiquitous AI analyzing the supposed public taste with big data statistics matching the least common denominator, dumbing down everything into the most digestible soup for the masses and killing in its infancy any chance of original content. 

Swallowing the blue pill

So, it’s no wonder that artists have been happily swallowing that blue pill and abide by the cultural stereotype that is imposed on them by the corporate agenda. Indeed, they feel that this is how it should be and that’s how we now see the proliferation of fundraising platforms, a modern take on the wealthy patronage, in lieu of proper compensation. This is a rather hypocritical situation which leads to some “lucky” ones making a lot of money all the while perpetuating the idea that art should be free and that putting a price tag to it is dirty business. The rest of course is left in the dust.

But romanticizing the idea of impoverished artists struggling to create art at the expense of financial security reinforces the notion that artists should create “for art’s sake” alone, with no expectation of compensation, and normalizes the idea that an inability to support one’s self is an inherent part of life as an artist, making them a class apart, basically less than any other human beings, and that it’s therefore perfectly normal for them to beg!

When so much disinformation is pushed by commercial entities in their fight against copyright (see the murky campaign to kill Europe’s Article 13), there is a real danger that what is already an enduring cliché, apparently shaping the brain of today’s artists, will become tomorrow’s norm, which will abort many a young ambition in pursuing a career in the arts. This is how civilizations die.

Let’s not make it so! As artists, we need to value our work, be proud enough to put a fair price to it, as fans and art lovers, we need to respect the artists we love and support their work for what it’s really worth. It’s a matter of respect.


Ghostly Beard is a multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/producer from Montreal, Canada, part of the unsigned community, who is often writing about issues in the music industry and denouncing various pitfalls that indie artists encounter in their music journey on his blog.


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