On Value versus Profit


This topic is an old one, but just like the elusive “what qualifies as art?”, the discussion surrounding value and profit in creativity continues to polarize. Whether our creations are considered to be products, or something that should be given away and experienced, depends entirely on the stance one has about art itself. Because no two people are the same, posing the question to my peers has, at times, led to passionate confrontations and ended in categorical verdicts on the subject; I myself often struggle to comfortably rest with a conclusion.

These opinions fluttered about me in art school, the pendulum swinging in one direction or another depending on the vantage point; photography majors, for example, seem to have a healthy relationship with the subject, perhaps stemming from the fact that (from what I've been told) the timespan between the creating and the selling tends to be smaller than that of a sculptor, and is different from that of a dancer, whose art is performative first and foremost. Fine art majors agonize over the question of value, as highlighted by a fevered classroom argument I witnessed, about artwork supposedly belonging in galleries as opposed to museums. Film majors, I have found, wrestle with the question on a much more philosophical level: because their art is so collaborative, many have confessed to feeling like they have to stand their ground, lest their opinions be swept away in a hubbub, in the long run.

It was not until I took a music business class, however, that I realized how necessary this conversation had become. Many of my peers hold firmly onto the belief that music is a business, and that while the product in itself is creative, the decisions surrounding it have to be unemotional, at times, in order to ensure success. It’s a competitive field, after all, one that has become increasingly attractive now that social media and online platforms have facilitated discovery and fame. Many others, though, are hesitant, unable or unwilling to pronounce themselves definitively on the issue: musicians are voraciously protective of their art, but at the same time very cognizant of the fact that if they make it, they could make it big. That not-so-secret longing feels like betrayal or, to borrow the infamous expression coined decades ago, like “selling out”.

The discussion of integrity vs. profit isn’t only interesting: it’s crucial.

While many can argue (and have) that the concept is no longer relevant nowadays, this much is true: in a time when the music industry has undergone — and is still undergoing — a massive internal shift, which has made it almost unrecognizable from where it stood in the early 2000s, I think the discussion of integrity vs. profit isn’t only interesting: it’s crucial. 

An article in the New York Times published in March 2016 states that “In Shift to Streaming, Music Business Has Lost Billions” and The Odyssey makes the lugubrious announcement of “The Slow Death Of The Music Industry”. These are only two of the hundreds of articles, in the last few years, which have proclaimed the end of the music business as it stood. But most of them focus on the financial aspect, on the sales and the manner in which streaming has harmed major record labels’ profits. I don’t wholly agree, however. 

Although the answer arguably deserves a more nuanced approach, I believe, in short, that the long tradition of thinking of music in terms of monetary gain, first and foremost, is what is hurting the music business. As an artist, my initial concern is, and has always been, to reach and connect with people from all walks of life, and to have my art experienced, not simply bought and objectified. Evidently, an artist has to make ends meet, and that sometimes means more practical decision-making. But this should never distract from the idea that art should not be corporatized. Rosy-colored, right? Hear me out.

Chris Dellorco from Art Business News sums this idea up perfectly: “The goal of making money from art is to allow an artist to produce more art. The goal of producing art should never be to allow an artist to make more money.” Indeed, music created for anything other than the love of it, fundamentally, is an insult to art itself, and perverts the idea that passion, creativity and authenticity can lead to another type of success: a loyal following, loving fans, and a wonderfully unique career. Financial reward may follow. 

The opposite, however, is what the industry seems to prioritize: a strategy for profit, with the hopes that fans and fame will follow. As such, I believe that exposure will always reap its benefits, even if it’s not instantaneous, an idea the music industry seems to have always struggled with. Word of mouth, gradual buzzes and peer-recommendations are more likely to be well received than painfully transparent, inescapable and aggressive marketing campaigns that stifle music lovers, at least in the long term. Artists like Björk, Sam Elliot, David Bowie and the like didn’t necessarily fit the rigid confines; and perhaps in another lifetime, in different circumstances, no one would have taken a chance on them. And yet, their legacy speaks for itself. As long as creative industries sacrifice quality for short-term results, this dilemma will remain at the forefront. 

This leads to the more elusive notion of ‘value’, which once again pits the intellectual connotation with the material: music will almost always reflect the time, care and intention that was put into it, and that in itself makes it valuable, however intangibly. Endeavoring to determine its value by how much profit it can make is where the line between art and commerce start to blur, dangerously so. 

For example: and artist performs at a free open mic event, where all the attendees have such a wonderful time that the performance is remembered for years to come. Would this have been more valuable had this very same show been performed at a private, exclusive venue where attendees payed costly tickets which profited all those involved, the artist included? The value of the music itself (the enjoyment, the beauty witnessed, the inspiration it may have fostered) cannot, and should not be tethered to the rules of capitalism: a song will be loved or disliked, whether it was listened to from a $20 CD, or whether it was heard for free. 

In other words, money does not make music more valuable, because music, like education, like books, etc., enriches a culture and connects people, and this cannot be quantified. To say that a song is worthless if it doesn’t sell is insulting to the idea of art itself. As above-mentioned, this is a stance which depends on the outlook of those involved: in many countries, notably in France, the issue of cultural exception has been at the center of a tireless debate. David Ellwood of the Oxford University Press writes: “The French government insisted that cultural products … , should be left out of the negotiations due to their special status as timeless acts of artistic creation. … they should be considered beyond and outside the hard rules of  market-driven commerce, so overwhelmingly favourable to the scale and priorities of America’s creative industries.”

He later quotes former French president François Mitterand: “Creations of the spirit are not just commodities; the elements of culture are not pure business. Defending the pluralism of works of art and the freedom of the public to choose is a duty.”

Music should not be inaccessible, should not be a privilege, nor should it be reserved only for the elites who can afford it. It has been around much longer than the constricting businesses which were built around it.

This has always been seen as a controversial and revolutionary position, and yet it should not be. Music should not be inaccessible, should not be a privilege, nor should it be reserved only for the elites who can afford it. It has been around much longer than the constricting businesses which were built around it, and that very fact shows where priorities should lie. Dizzying amounts of money are spent disproportionately and often to manufacture music that may not even be successful, and yet artists who have unique visions are often denied the very chance to be heard. As the profit-geared industry suffers, it is unwilling to tread the unconventional, spontaneous path, which goes against the very essence of art; and yet this is what, ironically, is its downfall. Streaming services and similarly unconventional ventures, have shown that making music more accessible does not tarnish its appreciation, nor its value, in the philosophical sense of the word. I could not agree more. Jeffrey Slowne notes, in Complex Magazine: “The indie route, more often than not, leads to a special experience in which people of different backgrounds and expertise can come together under one common purpose—to create music that is unique, powerful, and reaches an audience that is equally diverse.”

Again, this should have been the aim all along. I happen to agree: the music industry is in trouble, but it would be a mistake to assume that the issue is only financial, when it is ethical as well as ideological. Amanda Petrusich’s searing article for The New Yorker concludes with the following: “The days of omniscient, authoritative proclamations of quality seem to be largely behind us. No matter what it is you’re into, it’s terrifyingly easy to find others to validate and echo your desires. These days, “good taste” seems like a silly and old-fashioned idea. … So who needs an organization like the Recording Academy to issue decrees from on high?”

Don’t get me wrong: we need to make a living, evidently, and with that in mind, some of our decisions must be unemotional. But this is not about treading that line; this is about the fact that the mindset with which this issue is approached, rather than the actual decisions, is what is harmful on a grander scale. 

It is possible to strike a balance wherein artists profit from their art while maintaining control over their creativity, but if the scales had to tip one way or another, I would always favor creativity, however idealistic and quixotic it may sound. Tom Barnes’ words in Mic are succinct, but unequivocal: “Ultimately, the music industry has never been about anything other than the money, but its songs don't have to be.”