Wil Wheaton is Right

Wil Wheaton

When I saw this article, I immediately thought “Wil Wheaton is right”. I expected there would be plenty of people posting comments about how Wil Wheaton was a spoiled Hollywood celebrity, and belittling artists who expect compensation for their work. I wasn’t disappointed. We live in a world in which people who wouldn’t dream of working at their job without being paid to do so (ie doing it for “exposure”) seem comfortable condemning others for being unwilling to give away their own labor.

I’ve never really understood why people get so nasty over this issue. But I suspect it has something to do with the cognitive dissonance created by the act of wantonly downloading artists’ music and writing, not to mention movies and software, (without paying for any of it) conflicting with a deep-seated subconscious acknowledgement that these actions are stealing, and that the act of stealing makes one a thief. In short, people have short fuses about it because to justify their own immoral acts that have to demonize those who they’re stealing from.

What most people don’t understand is the concept of “cause and effect”. We’re all losing out by forcing talented artists, writers, and musicians to look elsewhere for income.

A good metaphor might be in order here. Let’s say you are part of a group of people who work on a farm that grows strawberries, and among your group there are artists, writers, and musicians. The only way people in your group, including the creative types, can make money to pay their rent and buy food is to pick strawberries. While everyone in the group appreciates the art, literature, and music that the creative types create, no one is willing to actually pay them for it. So at the end of the day, the creative types are left with two options. Either they can remain dedicated to their art and create regardless of the economic reality they live in (and starve and live in the streets), or they can pick strawberries and buy food for their families and pay their rent.

See, here’s the thing. If the business owners who own this strawberry farm aren’t willing to pay those artists for creating, and the people in the group who utilize those artists’ work aren’t willing to pay them, who do you think is paying? No one is. That’s the point. You could say that the farm owner expects these artists to create for “exposure”, but the reality is that the people whom the artists’ work is being exposed to are equally unwilling to pay the artists. So, you know what?

That leaves picking strawberries.

It is correct to say that those with the creative impulse are going to create no matter what. Where the logic falls apart is that simple survival will dictate that the months and years of dedication that it takes to build a successful creative career will simply not be possible. Think about it. We’re told that a band of musicians, for example, has to work their way up through the clubs and build a following. On the surface this seems to make sense. But the basic economics of this theory have changed. When musicians cannot make even a basic living by playing those clubs, they’re not going to be able to afford to dedicate their lives to staying on the road and building that following. In short, they’re going to have to figure out another way to feed their families and pay the rent (not that being a musician has ever been the wisest course, economically). At the end of the day, people gotta eat. And if you can’t trade a song for a burger, you’ll have to find some other way to get the money you need to buy that burger. And when you’re hungry enough, you will. Trust me.

In the end, it would be most correct to offer a simple comparison. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you work at a fast food restaurant. Would you be willing to work for free at that restaurant if they offered you the “opportunity” to possibly be hired later on as a part-time paid employee? Would you be willing to work for free for the exposure and a chance to show larger companies that you have an admirable work ethic and are willing to “pay your dues”?

Of course not. That’s absurd. And yet that’s exactly what you’re expecting artists, writers, and musicians to do. You need to understand one thing. While it’s true that the Beyonces and Taylor Swifts of the world make obscene amounts of money, the reality is that their careers are extreme exceptions to the rule, and that on the other side of those lofty careers is a precipitous crevasse at the bottom of which live most artists, who are scrambling just to get by. You should never assume that artists are well paid, because the reality of their lives is that they’ve never been well paid until, and if, they reach the top of their profession (hence “starving artist”).

The big difference is that while they used to be able to eek out a basic subsistence, even that has been taken away from them, both by greedy corporations who are all-too-eager to take advantage of free product which they can use to sell advertising, and a general public who will pay $6 for a cup off coffee but are unwilling to pay $1 for their favorite new song.

In short, who’s left to create great art if all the great artists are busy picking strawberries?

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