The Cost of Art and the Calculus of Value

I tend not to use the word “artist” to describe myself.  Not that I think it doesn’t apply, but sometimes I feel its a title I haven’t earned yet.   But despite my hesitation, artist is an accurate term for what I am.

There’s been some noise out there lately about what it costs to be an artist, and whether artists “deserve” to make or keep the money they make, or if the expenses they incur are “worth it”.

Case in point, the recent explosion of controversy regarding Jack Conte of Pomplamoose laying out what they made and what they spent on their recent tour.  Reading the article, it’s pretty straightforward stuff.  They paid their backing band and support staff fairly, slept in hotels and ate relatively decently. The tone of the article is informative.  Despite reporting a net loss on the tour, Conte doesn’t come off as bitter or upset, and he’s not shaking the hat to cover his losses.  He’s mostly just saying, “Hey, touring isn’t exactly a huge windfall, even when you’re doing objectively well.”

There’s been backlash, of course, saying that they shouldn’t have slept in hotels, shouldn’t have paid the backing band a salary, etc.  I wonder if these are the very same people who complained that Amanda Palmer wasn’t paying volunteers she invited to join them onstage.  Certainly, the same websites took these contradictory opinions.  Of course, it seems that many of those people think that musicians and other artists shouldn’t care about money.  It should be purely out of love and devotion to art as an abstract concept; rent and food be damned.

I don’t know much about the music industry, especially the more independent stuff.  Hell, I never even heard of Pomplamoose before this.  But I do know the cost-to-value calculations that have to be made as an artist.  Back when I did theatre, I ate a LOT of costs, and never expected much more than hopefully making back what I spent, usually with actors who were equally there for the love.  Make money?  I don’t need to do that!

That attitude eventually let me to declaring bankruptcy.  So I don’t do that sort of thing any more.

Fortunately, I don’t have too many up-front expenses as a traditionally-published writer.  I’m not paying for editing, cover art, printing, etc. The prime thing I spend money on is going to conferences, so that’s travel expenses.

I don’t have to bring boxes of books to sell whenever I go anywhere, so one advantage I have is I don’t have to directly monetize any encounters I have with people there.  But the flipside of that is I don’t have a direct number to look at and say, “Yes, going to this conference sold X units, so I made Y dollars, minus the amount that I spent to go, equals this much profit.”

There isn’t clear algebra of value.  Instead, I have to derive the value– going to this conference probably netted me some new readers, and those readers might be the kind to tell other people to read me, etc.   Until I have a better sense of what my sales will be*, it’s a lot of guesswork.  So right now, conference choices are based on my ability to minimize expenses, or alternatively, secondary value considerations that make going worth the expense.  Case in point, my next conference, Boskone, is in Boston, where my sister and her family live. So going to that one is win/win.

But I’m pretty fortunate, in that I have the luxury to think about the value of such things in more abstract ways.  A lot of artists, especially musicians, have to accept that they’ll sleep in the van and subsist on tortilla chips in order to balance the books.  And given those considerations, it really is incredible that they push through, that their love for their work is enough to keep them going.

Because when I’m going down into the word mines, I need a decent bed to sleep in at the end of the night.  See you down there.

*- Kind of hard to gauge until the book actually, you know, comes out.