Being an artist, on the whole, sucks.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s exciting too. Turning to face the wide open plains of your imagination, you boldly stroll towards the horizon of your own creative tundra, pausing only to whet the thirst of your curiosity along the way. Through praxis, you discover a new way to look at the world: your way. It’s beautiful. It’s unique. It’s you.
You emerge, and eagerly share it with the world. And the world doesn’t give a shit.
And not only do they not give a shit, when they do, you don’t get paid for it.
OK, it’s not like this for everyone. But sadly, that’s the story for many artists, whether musician, writer, designer, or VR painter. And the discrepancy is odd. We all agree that art has terrific value - paying for Netflix is no burden - except when we don’t. But we do skew towards rewarding major practitioners over small ones.
Forget Kanye and his Yeezy Adidas $600-for-a-pair of-sweatpants fashion line. Forget Damien Hirst and his allegedly-ironic-but-maybe-it’s-just-plain-old-end-stage-capitalism £1M diamond-encrusted skull. Forget Dan Brown and his “the famous man looked at the red cup” prose-of-doom that shifted 200 million copies at €9.99 a time in airports the world over. These are all the 1%.
If the internet era has taught us anything, it’s to ignore the 1% as much as is feasible. There needs to be a new way for creators to get their credit where it’s due. The problem is that maybe the world doesn’t want to do that any more.
Learn to accept your reward
Just like every other industry, the arts celebrates the achievements of the few and pours money and attention onto them, whilst leaving the rest to wonder what separates them from the riches.
The 99% almost always produces something people want. The frustrating part is that, somewhere along the way, the reward for their work fizzles out and never quite reaches the artist; yet the consumer’s life is enriched a little bit by the existence of that art.
It’s one of the sad unifying experiences for any creator in any niche.
Hang your head, because we all helped create this nefarious disconnect - ever downloaded music that you’ve not paid for? Ever found an image online you liked and used it as your Facebook header? Ever googled for a hooky PDF of a trashy poolside thriller? Yeah, me too.
And these are just the obvious and lightweight examples of our behaviour widening the gap between creator and payment: have you ever paused to wonder who gets paid for the songs you stream for free off Youtube, and how much they get? (SPOILER: it’s about, erm, $0.0000616 per stream)
What about the pictures you linger over and bookmark on Pinterest? What about the hot-take blog posts you read to while away your time on the toilet?
But don’t feel bad. It’s not anyone’s fault that the creators rarely get rewarded: it’s the system, man.
And that system is about to change.
What is the system and how is it broken?
The system has been, for a long time, broadly along these lines: people make nice things, a few of these people become successful, this success breeds more success; repeat to fade. Meanwhile, the rest scratch around for the scraps of success.
This “success,” note, is not by any means just about money. It could be a thousand different varieties of reward; but mainly, it’s about public recognition. (OK, and money.)
Recognition is the bottom line for creators: it can be something as simple as attribution, because public recognition is the cultural currency that eventually becomes actual currency. And recognition changes in monetary value as the participants grow in stature.
Finding your work being used online without reward is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack, inside a universe made of haystacks. On acid.
Here’s an example of the accompanying thought process, in full:
- If you're running a small blog sharing cool designs, just use my pictures for free and recognise me by explaining who made it.
- If you’re a major fashion brand and are using my drawings (or something very much like them) on your handbags, recognise me with a big ol’ slice of that money you’re making off the back of them.
And here’s where the system breaks down. There are plenty of opportunities for creating value and reward between the two extremes outlined above. It’s just that the internet is wild, huge and fractured, and finding your work being used without reward online is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack, inside a universe made of haystacks. On acid.
So the chances are that despite your work being automatically copyrighted to you upon conception, it’s being used in all sorts of ways - some of the innocent and some not - and few give you any type of recognition, let alone money.
And here’s where the blockchain gallops into the picture, cresting the horizon of creativity, and promising, as it does to every industry, revolution.
The important thing to remember about the blockchain is that no-one really knows how it all works. Some people really know one or two parts of it really well, and how it fits into the rest. So feel free to bluff as much as you like from hereon.
But the miracle of blockchain tech - and especially varieties like Ethereum - is that not only can your work and attribution to you be recorded on a distributed public ledger, but also small "smart contracts" can be inserted into this public record.
It means that creatives can make a piece of artwork, confirm it is theirs, then set parameters for who can use it, how, and how much they get paid.
Companies like the Berlin-based Ascribe offer a brilliant way to make sure your work has a digital name plate beneath attached to it at all times. It means that wherever your work is used, it’s clear that it belongs to you.
You can specify how your work is used and in what context: maybe it’s gratis for a charity to use your poetry in their training materials, but if Pepsi wanted to put your poem on a soda can (bear with me here, we can live in hope), they’d need to cough up serious moolah.
And you can answer a tricky problem that has haunted artists since the digital age began: limited editions. Creating a limited run of 100 signed lithographic prints was - and still is - an idea that leverages value onto copies of art.
This hasn’t work well for digital art, which can be endlessly copied and shared - but this blockchain tech allows your photos to become limited editions, and identification of unlicensed use can be proven and enforced.
No one can use your work without your say-so. How could that possibly be a bad thing?
This is a powerful tool: suddenly, musicians can set a few parameters, and their songs can be used wherever they choose - in TV ads, movies, YouTube videos, fashion shows, cafes, etc - and they can be paid (maybe in an Art Cryptocurrency) immediately, in proportion to the use of it.
Or maybe you can set the possibility for your images to be printed and exhibited anywhere, wherever, and when the sale is made, because the transaction will be connected to the smart contract and the blockchain, you get paid immediately, at a price you choose, with a cut for the gallery you decide.
This version of the future is highly attractive and feels morally correct: your creative rights are not only assured, they’re enforceable and rewarded. No one can use your work without your say-so. How could that possibly be a bad thing?
The counterargument to a new, everything-attributed-everywhere system exists within the Meme Of Summer 2017: the Distracted Boyfriend.
The Distracted Boyfriend, like all true memes, began life as a creative artefact, and then has been remixed over and over - like photocopies of photocopies - until it has become a cultural artefact, with a whole new meaning.
This particular stock photograph was created and titled with the agonising obviousness of all stock photos (“Disloyal Man Walking With His Girlfriend And Looking Amazed at Another Seductive Girl”) by photographer Antonio Guillem.
Post-mememageddon, Antonio feels sore: possibly because everyone is sniggering at his creation, but certainly because his image is now one of the most recognisable in the world - and he’s not getting a penny from it.
Antionio is vaguely threatening to get the money he’s owed - by, I dunno, suing the internet? - for the unpaid use of his unintentionally hilarious photo.
Smart contracts within a blockchain system could have a free-to-use “Meme Clause” to prevent the Death Of Memes.
And this is where an open, enforceable attribution system could be used by mean-spirited or money-obsessed types to put the brakes on cultural creativity.
Dank memes bring levity to dark times, after all, and if an enforced need to pay - even just a one-off crypto-currency micro-transaction - meant that our dearest, dankest memes were extinguished before birth, then we’d all lose a tiny bit of joy.
Of course, smart contracts within any blockchain system could easily have a free-to-use “Meme Clause” to prevent the Death Of Memes.
But maybe bringing order to chaos might destroy the charm of the meme, or at least cause a de-dankification process from which our favourite gifs could never recover. A balance between memetic freedom and enforceable attribution could turn out to be the art-blockchain’s acid test.
Open everything, restrict nothing
In 2017, technology means that everything can be copied, often free from reprisal. Some people argue that, for the benefit of creativity, this should be the default setting.
Chinese IP laws are thought to be famously ignorable. Actually, Chinese IP laws are tightening fast but it’s not a massive stretch to assume that copyright, IP and patent laws are regularly flaunted. Have you ever had a cheap product shipped from China that looks just like the “real” version, and is very possibly made in similar factories, using similar, patented, machines?
Talent imitates, genius steals. In that case, China is the genius who now leads the world in creativity. In the industrial heartland of Shenzen, the flaunting of IP has, some argue, accelerated creativity for the benefit of humankind.
This process is also driven memetically. Chinese hacker, maker and open-source enthusiast David Li argues that the freedom to remix something someone else has made is more valuable than the restrictions that copyright brings.
This process - known in a positive and negative sense as Shanzai - is actually not a million miles from the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
Let’s imagine a US-based company designs a cutting-edge drone, and builds it in China.
Shanzai practitioners would quickly explore how the drone was built and look for ways not to copy it, but to evolve it: make it cheaper, faster to build, lighter, or more tailored to niche markets.
They could even use the tools, components and workforce on their doorstep to quickly beat the “real” product to market. The result is a drone that is, for many people, “better” in a number of different ways.
In the best case scenario, the beneficiary here is the many (the purchasers, who get a newer, “better” product), not the few (the original creators, who perhaps don’t even get credit, let alone money).
It’s not fair. But the majority, as we have seen repeatedly in a series of wild recent political events, has a habit of getting its way.
Me, me, me
Defending memes as an argument for radically changing how artists make a living is possibly one of the first signs of madness. But a world where a sliver of doubt is cast over the ability to take something, tweak it, and share it - for fun, or for the sake of selfless innovation, or just for the sheer hell of it - might not be one we want to live in.
And yet… shouldn’t creators be rewarded for their work, every time, without exception? Here’s that conflict again: humans love to create things, and the same humans like to get those things for as close to nothing as to make no difference.
So technology now means that the ability to remix, re-create, re-shape, re-think and re-form is not only a fun thing to do, but possibly the future of creativity itself. Maybe the act of creativity and what it means in terms of reward has quietly changed.
But we’re at a pivotal point where we might be able have our cake and eat it. "Remix creators" get to take everything apart and quickly make something new, the original creators get credit of some sort, and the human race as a whole gets a little bit richer in a different way each time.
It sounds like a good compromise for the benefit of everyone, and not just that gilded 1%. Oh, and we get to keep our sweet, sweet memes.