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All That Is Fair: The Wages of Sin is Death, the Wages of Art…Not Much Better


Art.  What is art?  It refers to an artifact or a performance that is made by a person or by persons.  As Christians, we say we value people, yet we often neglect to consider the person behind the art.  We tend to focus on the face value of the artistic offering.  Consuming art in this way is near-sighted, and we ought to reconsider our relationship with art and artists.  Let me explain…
It takes tremendous effort, focus, confidence, and of course talent to be made well.  In music circles, I’ve seen and experienced the type of effort it takes to give a top-notch performance, produce a pristine record, or write an indelibly good song.  You toil and sweat for so many hours only to fail ninety-nine times out of a hundred.  The work is immense.  But the finished product, when it is good, brings so much joy to the artist and to those who hear it.
Many of the folks in these music circles whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, actually do art as their living.  And I mean this broadly to include anyone who is a working musician, producer, artist, songwriter, engineer, etc… and who does not have a regular paycheck coming in from somewhere else.  They are amazing people.  Not only are they supremely talented (most of the time!), but they are also very brave to do what they do.  They create things that are often quite personal and then fling them out into the world without knowing how they might be received.  What a disconcerting feeling!  It’s a difficult occupation to say the least. 
So how valuable is their work?  This is a tricky question.  Within the popular music genres and some sub-genres, an upheaval in the valuation of their product has taken place.  Former sources of revenue have already gone away or are on the way out.  Traditional radio is losing listeners faster than newspapers are losing readers.  Physical CD sales have plummeted so low that large retail record stores have gone out of business.  Digital music downloads have also declined significantly.  What is left is revenue from live performances and revenue from digital music streaming.  This is a conundrum because not everyone in the industry is a touring musician or technician and the royalties collected from streaming services, like Pandora and Spotify, are such tiny sums of money that it’s insulting. The resulting effect on our society is that we have developed an expectation that recorded music ought to be free.  We will still pay to see concerts, which is good, but all of the effort and time that goes into producing a top-notch album is now worth very little or nothing.  There are so many different factors that have made the perfect storm for this to happen.  They are technological, societal, economic, etc… They run the gamut.  But what is clear is that this scenario has made it all the more difficult for artists to make a living.
What can be done about it?  There probably isn’t anything that can be done to stop or slow down the changes in technology that have led us to this point. And we probably wouldn’t want to do that.  The internet, digital recording software, mp3 players, etc. can all be very helpful.  Looking back a few hundred years, the invention of the printing press was the reason the Reformation exploded.  Without it, Martin Luther probably would have been burned at the stake as a heretic, and no one would remember him.  So clearly, technological advances can be wonderful tools.  Back to the present…  We can’t change the progress made in music production and distribution over the last 20 years, nor can we divert its effect on the marketplace.  But we can make an effort to change our perspectives. 
Here’s what I mean.  The way that we listen to music is just one of a thousand different aspects of our consumer culture.  We expect that it’s free, we use it to do what we want, then we discard it and move on to the next thing.  This is not an especially helpful way to do things, particularly as it concerns art.  Good art is meant to inspire and enlighten us.  And when we receive it, a relationship is built.  Art is personal.  It is offered by persons out of a deep love they have for the subject or the medium.  So when we exegete and criticize works of art, we ought to remember that we are dealing with human beings.  And this requires something from us… humility. 
This small change that we can make probably won’t affect the low rates artists are paid.  But it might help create an environment where artists are more directly and fully supported by those who resonate with their art.  Again the internet has become a helpful tool in this area.  There are sites like Patreon and Kickstarter where fans can pay the artist directly for a project or a performance.  There are also companies like Noisetrade where artists offer their music at a “name your own price” point.  You can download the music or books that are offered for free, or you can choose to pay more in order to “tip” the artist.  These are small things but they help!
I am not saying that all art is worth something.  Some of it is very bad!  But, all art does have something to say and its perspective is intimately tied to its maker.  A shift in perspective from simply consuming art to actually receiving it and responding to it will help us and it will help artists.  It will enable us to become better listeners and hopefully more well rounded humans, and it will encourage the artists we love to continue doing what they do.  After all if they don’t, then who will?  So the next time you stream a song by your favorite band, try to remember that you’re being invited into a conversation.  See what it has to say.  Ask yourself if it resonates with you.  And if it does, decide how you can better support them in their work!  Because they are boldly offering themselves packaged in a medium that we can receive.  At its best, this offering is incarnational.  It’s like when the Father had a message that would save the human race, he wrote himself into the story, put on skin and bones, and offered himself even unto death on a cross.  Because he loved us — his subject and his medium!