Last week, music legend Iggy Pop gave a lecture for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.) called Free Music in a Capitalist Society.
Artists have always been ripped off by corporations, he said; now the public is in on the free ride, too: “The cat is out of the bag and the new electronic devices, which estrange people from their morals, also make it easier to steal music than to pay for it.”
To keep skinny body and maverick soul together, Iggy’s become a DJ, a car-insurance pitchman and a fashion model. If he had to live off royalties, he said, he’d have to “tend bars between sets.” As I listened to his enthusiastic stoner Midwestern drawl, I thought: If Iggy Pop can’t make it, what message does that send to all the baby Iggys out there?
In a society where worth is judged by price, for better or worse, what are you saying to someone when you won’t pay for the thing he’s crafted?
A few days before Iggy’s lecture, Australian novelist Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize, the most prestigious in the literary world, for his Second World War story The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Just in time, it sounds like: Mr. Flanagan told reporters that he was making so little from his writing that he was thinking about packing it in and becoming a miner. (He comes from a small mining town in Tasmania.) The prize money of about $90,000 and the following sales bump will allow him to continue, but most of his colleagues aren’t so lucky: “Writing is a very hard life for so many writers,” he said.
This is borne out not only in the quiet sobbing you hear in corners at poetry readings, but in the numbers. This summer, the Guardian newspaper reported that professional writers’ salaries in Britain are collapsing, falling almost 30 per cent over eight years to a mere $20,000.
Here, the Writers’ Union of Canada estimates that authors make an average of $12,000 a year from their words. That will buy approximately two wheels of a car or a door knob on a house in Toronto or Calgary (a broken knob, if the house is in Vancouver).
I hear your cry-me-a-river sighs. You’re thinking, “Nobody asked writers to write. Don’t they know a nice degree in commerce will serve them better in the long run? Nobody asked Iggy to roll around on stage in broken glass. He could have had a nice job as an actuary, although he would have had to keep his pants on.”
But in truth, we do ask: Every time we go to a library or shop, we want it to be full of new books, and when we search various channels (legal and illegal) for new music and movies, we expect to find them. Someone has to produce this content – this art – and sadly, the shoemakers’ elves are all busy stitching elsewhere. And after it’s been produced, someone has to buy it. Or not buy it, as is more likely the case.
It comes down to a question of value: Do we value artists’ effort? The boring years spent in the studio or rehearsal hall, the torched drafts – Mr. Flanagan burned five early versions of his novel before he got it right – the slow, fungal growth of something that lives in the dark and may never be ready for the light? Sorry, that’s the novelist in me talking. Never mind.
I’m glad Iggy Pop and Mr. Flanagan have brought the issue of artists’ earnings out into the open, because it’s too often avoided as embarrassing or demeaning or irrelevant to the process. In fact, it’s crucial.
As author and cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote in a recent essay about not getting paid for his work, “money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing.”
Or, to give Iggy the last word, which I think he’d like: “When it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge unimportant detail.”