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Who put the "poor starving" in artist?

I can still remember when American Idol first hit the tube, with a spectacular aerial shot allowing millions of viewers to see the awesome sight of thousands of singers lining the streets of Los Angeles. Many people were amazed and excited by the numbers and I was determined to take my shot at the golden pot. When Idol arrived in Minnesota, I humbly stood before Simon Cowell (one of fifty candidates selected out of nearly 15,000 who auditioned at this location) and sang my heart out. To encourage something a little different on the TV airwaves I sang an operatic aria. The result? Simon said, “Stick to opera.”

It was a performance experience I will never forget; one that made me ponder the true role of an artist. The grandeur of the scene brought feelings of excitement and bewilderment, but then melancholy. All these singers were vying for the chance to be heard, hoping to make it big and earn the financial rewards that would allow them to make their talent known because our society and its leaders had failed to create the opportunities for a working class of “artists”. Artists need to be fed, nourished and taken care of in a unique way because of the nature of their work. On reflection, the American Idol scene confirmed for me the sad story of the artist starving in his garret room (now resorting to soup line auditions in the hope of feeding his artistic soul).

An artistic director once told me that artists are “soul workers,” in the same way that the rest of the workforce is considered blue or white collar. If that is the case, artists should rightly share some of the benefits enjoyed by charity workers. If only independent artists could have 501(c)3 nonprofit status and raise funds from the National Endowment for the Arts or other entities in the same manner as other production companies.

Yes, artists can have fiscal agents, but they are often controlled by the nonprofit’s artistic objectives, with 10 to15 percent taken from funds raised in order to cover “administrative costs”. These artists have little choice but to continue auditioning, praying that they get hired. At times, the price of employment can mean becoming a slave to a crass artistic vision or the demeaning objectives of a production company. What then should artists do?

There is no necessary correlation between the expansion of big business and the poor, starving artist syndrome. I am a believer in free enterprise, but freedom also brings a responsibility that goes beyond profit seeking. We have lost a sense of responsibility to the working class artist. I can still hear the words of a guest speaker during a college business/entrepreneurship class: “Keep labor costs low,” he advised us. When is low too low? When does low mean loss of respect of the human being? No matter what the industry, there is a responsibility an employer has to its employee, and vice versa. There is, too, a great responsibility that producers and artists have to society.

The ideas, actions, and images produced by the artistic working class can have a profound effect on the human and the consequences can be grave. In 1996, the American Psychiatric Association reported that adolescents will have viewed sixteen thousand simulated murders and nearly two hundred thousand acts of violence by the time they are 18 years old. It is scary to think of the imprint all these images leave on our neural circuitry and in the mind itself, and yet many artists are forced into this social pathology because of the need to earn a living. Statistics like these show the need for positive art.

With all this in mind, I decided to test my theories of how society treats its artists by calling two venues, (one of which I had performed in previously). I was stunned to find an unfair practice that is sweeping America. Very often artists will be engaged to perform at an event believing that “it’s great market exposure” but forgetting that the artist is giving their product (performance) to thousands and thousands of people for free. At this particular venue, artists are allowed to sell CDs but they have no work-for-hire contract for the actual performance. It was disheartening to find that the venue took in corporate sponsorship deals of $10K or more while the artists worked for free.

Knowing about this grave injustice, I contacted the venue and asked them to give me more information about corporate sponsorship. I was told that artists are not allowed to have their own sponsorship tables to subsidize their performance, and if they did have a corporate sponsor, the sponsor would have to “buy” the spot from the venue. Let’s talk business! The artist only makes money from the CD sales and is not engaged by contract, BUT he or she plays an advertising and sales role by solidifying sponsorship for the venue -- without any percentage back to the artist? Sounds to me like a losing proposition for the artist. Did the venue forget that the artist is providing a service to their customers? Would we ask a private doctor at a dinner party to diagnose guests on the spot for free? Would we ask a sales executive to come to work on a Monday morning to work for free? Why should this be for the artist?

My second call went to another venue where the terms were even worse. I was disgusted to find that not only were the artists not paid, they had to pay for their performance spot (the venue citing this as “rental space”). I further pressed the polite lady on the phone, comparing the terms for a performer to those of the venue’s store kiosk.

The kiosk pays rent to sell a tangible product and the customer has a choice to walk into the store to buy the product. Take a kiosk that sells lotion; the kiosk may offer a sample to a customer but it does not give them the whole bottle of lotion. On the other hand, a performer gives the full product/performance. I humorously suggested that next time the venue should have performers sing 8-second samples of Jingle Bells. The kind woman listened patiently and admitted she had received hundreds of calls from artists pointing out this serious discrepancy, but like many, she felt her hands were tied.

Many artists and advocates have had enough and are choosing to challenge the system. Some are strongly backing US legislation that will encourage fair compensation for artistic services. The House Artist Deduction Bill, for example, would allow artists to take a fair market value deduction for works given to and retained by nonprofit institutions. At present the US tax system accords unequal treatment to creators and collectors of tangible works such as paintings or manuscripts. Collectors who donate such works to museums, libraries, educational or other institutions may take a tax deduction for their fair market value, but creators may deduct only their "basis" value -- essentially, the cost of materials such as paint and canvas. It is my belief that, should this bill pass, we are one step closer to talking about how intangible products, such as the service of musical performance in the nonprofit sector, should bring a fair financial return to those artists who are consistently giving of their time, efforts, and work.

It is my sincere hope that the greater society will learn to value the artistic working class through love and compassion. A wise philanthropist helped me to see that the opposite of love is usury, and artists are all too familiar with the latter. As soon as we objectify a working artist in this way we have lost sight of what work is and who the human being is. So the next time you or a friend fires a joke to an artist about starving in a garret, consider instead in joining a solution in word and action by advocating for the artist on a legislative and societal level.

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