Review: Starving the Artist by William Aicher

Building on some of the ideas in this post, Starving the Artist makes the persuasive case against stealing an artist’s work.  Aicher, the author of the self-published novel, The Trouble with Being God, is also the director of marketing at Musicnotes.com, so the book covers the gamut of copyright theft.  Much of the book methodically lays out the amount of time and effort that goes into creating any work of art – so you can’t just boil it down to the materials involved, but the hours it took and other sacrifices to make any work of art.  There is inherent value in any work of art – regardless if it’s good or not – because of the amount of work that went into creating it.  Stealing this work not only denies an artist compensation, but drives down the value of all art by creating a sense of entitlement.

Even in a small niche, such as sheet music, the damage done is very real. Take, for example, this quote from songwriter Georgia Stitt, who has created a Facebook group focused on protecting the intellectual property of composers called “Give Up Your Trade… or I’ll (have to) Give Up Mine.”

“Fellow composers and lyricists (and those who support us)—

I got really riled up about something today and wanted to grab your attention for a moment. You probably know about these websites where people trade our sheet music for free. I’ve kind of always known they existed but never chose to do anything about it. But now, especially since I had a new recording released a few weeks ago, I’m getting slammed with notifications (from Google alerts, from fans, and this morning from my manager) that there’s actually a lot of trading going on. I felt the ramifications of this when, recently, I got rejected by a publisher because he told me he was concerned this particular sheet music wouldn’t sell when people can so readily find it online.”

This damaging concept that intellectual property should be free is a direct symptom of today’s culture of entitlement, where more and more people feel things should be theirs to have, simply because they exist—and if they are not allowed to have it, the ones who do have it should be punished for being “better off” than those who do not.

Aicher spends a fair amount of time listing all the work that goes into making a work of art and just what your stealing by stealing someone’s work – you’re not just stealing someone’s product, you’re stealing a part of someone’s life.  In this way, Starving the Artist is not so much a book for the creators, but the stealers: a manifesto telling people – be aware of what you’re doing before you steal something.  Artists themselves may not need to be told:

Another large cost, though much more difficult to quantify, is what I refer to as the price of ego. Since the creative process is an internal one, whether done on an individual or collaborative level, most creation involves the creator instilling some essence of himself into the final product. The decisions made by a creator are oftentimes highly influenced by the creator’s own experiences and emotions or by an empathetic understanding of the experiences of others. Therefore, to create, in most instances, involves a loss of some part of the creator’s identity, as something once personal is no longer personal, but public.

That said, there is an element of recognition for artists when reading Aicher’s book: Hey, yeah, this does take a lot of work. Overall, it makes a valiant case about the value of self-expression.  And if enough thieves read it, the book could make a dent in this important ethical issue.  Unfortunately, thieves aren’t going to stop thieving, and there isn’t really an antidote expressed in the “Where Do We Go From Here?” section.  Though the book makes the case that artists need to be paid for their work, it has something of the feeling of a drop in the ocean.  Certainly, this is an important ethical discussion, but not necessarily one that’s going to make a dent in all of the copyrighted material that is being accessed.

The Future of Copyright

As I wrote about in the Piracy post – copyright infringement is only part of the story.  Right now with an ereader and an iPod there is enough free material available online that is perfectly legal that you’d never have to buy another book or CD again.  So copyright infringement is only part of the issue.

To my mind, the new era of free content is as it should be – even if, initially, it makes it harder for artists to make money.  People should have access to all the information they want and this shouldn’t be predicated on a person being able to afford it.  The accessibility of information should, over time, improve society because access to information can lead to new discoveries and inventions.  This is progress, even if it’s putting a major dent in artists’ bottom line.

Where I think Aicher doesn’t go far enough is looking into the future to see how the freemium world will play out.  We are in a limbo period, a crossroads.  But our civilization will evolve and improve.  Imagine a world, for example, where artists are paid for their in the manner that sports stars are now paid.  We may one day be aghast at a society where one athlete can make 20 million dollars a year, while teachers, scientists, and artists – the engine to actually improve society – make comparatively little.  In a fairer-structured society, there would be more money for artists.

But this still wouldn’t make up for a system where everything was free – or, at the very least, dirt cheap.  Suppose, then, we lived in a resource-based economy – a world without money. The concept of “value” would be much different.  This is doubtlessly a utopian view of a possible future, but the point being that the freemium system we’re now entering is being measured against a 20th century framework.   That is one of things missing from Aicher’s book.  Certainly, in 2010, artists have a tough time making ends meet, and it is unethical to steal an artist’s work.  And obviously my utopian view of artists getting paid on par with athletes may not play out for 1000 years.  But I get the sense that the coming system is as it should be: art and information should be free and readily accessible.  People just have to get their heads together to correctly value the importance of creativity.

Which comes back to the initial point of the book: people should respect the amount of work it takes to create something and to compensate it fairly. On that front, the book makes a compelling case.  It doesn’t make as compelling a case, however, about the value of free information vs. the value of one work of art.  Though free drives down the value of all art by creating overabundance, it also increases the value of society overall.

Ultimately, there may need to be a new system of compensation given the instant accessibility of so much work.  The trouble is that piracy and free content are not going away, so in order for creative people to be sufficiently compensated may take a total reworking of how we value and reward creative professions.   Hopefully, society can take on a new set of priorities so that money is going where it should. That hope is all we’ve got right now.  In the meantime, read Aicher’s book to see just why art needs to be valued.

More info and debate about this topic at www.williamaicher.com.

  • Thanks for the review. Very much appreciated. Yes, it is just a drop in the ocean – but I figured it was better for me to create a drop than to do nothing at all.

    I really appreciate all the thought that you put into the debate here on your own as well. My main purpose was to get people to think about the subject, then have their own debate based on what I put out there. It definitely sounds like it got the gears moving in your head again. Was great to hear your thoughts on the issue included in this review. We’re not going to get anywhere unless this conversation continues to happen.

  • John Doe

    ” People should have access to all the information they want and this shouldn’t be predicated on a person being able to afford it.”

    Well I want your bank account numbers and your credit card numbers. I want to know who you’ve ever slept with and why. I want to read all of your emails and all of your letters too. I want to listen in to all your phone conversations. I want to read all your medical records and your mom’s too.
    Also, I want to know all of the pentagon’s plans and I want to know what is said in all the closed-door board meetings of major corporations.

    Do you get my point?

    You say people should have access to all the information they want (for free too) – pardon me, but are you insane?

    Your personal information is your private property. Under the fifth amendment, not even a supreme court judge can compel you to provide it.

    This is a right that has to be fought for and defended, not chipped away by wrong-headed folks like you.

    People can and do have the right to share their information or not as they wish, including for a fee. Legal control of your own effort. That’s what copyright is. We should all be defending it and helping to support its integrity, not trying to undermine basic rights.

    • Henry Baum

      I get your point, but I’m not really talking about releasing the nuclear codes. I’m talking about access to fiction and non-fiction. Free will hurt these artists because they won’t be able to write new works without support, but accessibility for readers is also important.