Art Matters, So It Shouldn’t Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

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Art Matters, So It Shouldn't Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

As Fitbit Goes Public, It Will Have To Outrun Competition : All Tech Considered : NPR

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“We believe that as health care costs continue to rise and as employers continue to seek ways to keep their employees active, engaged, and productive, more employers will implement or enhance their corporate wellness programs.”

via As Fitbit Goes Public, It Will Have To Outrun Competition : All Tech Considered : NPR.

Am I the only one who thinks that employee-sponsored wearables and wellness programs are a bad idea? It smacks of Big Brother surveillance, only this time BB is also paying you a salary. The dream of the twenty-first century worker is to have the flexibility and creative freedom to pursue fulfilling work that they can balance with their personal responsibilities and interests. The remote, distributed workplace is part of that dream for a lot of jobseekers and employees, and with good reason. Working from home, especially if it comes with the ability to choose your own schedule, is a tremendous perk, and one still elusive to most full-time employees.

But what if one of the other benefits is a wearable that also tracks your sleep, physical activity, heart rate, and a number of other biometric data that, previously, only your doctor was privy to? There are already employers who dangle that carrot to their employees, ostensibly as an incentive to maintain their fitness and health in an otherwise competitive, stressful industry. Is it really as benign as it seems?

Once upon a time, I worked for an employer who offered a free wellness program. It included giveaways like pedometers and water bottles, and at the end of a certain period, if your activity sheet (which the company distributed) recorded at least one activity a day, your name was added to a drawing for a couple of high-value prizes. I think one of them was actually a laptop, which in 2007 was definitely a big deal.

Execution, though, was inconsistent at best, and humiliating and painful at worse. Case in point: they brought in a couple of volunteer paramedics to the office to take blood samples from each of us and also measure our BMI. The paramedic attempted to draw blood from my arms at least a half-dozen times. He had such horrible technique that by the time he was done, I had a 7-inch discolored bruise on my upper arm that lasted weeks. I fared better than others, though. One of my co-workers actually had blood drawn from her fist – that’s how bad that paramedic was. I still cringe thinking about the pain she must’ve felt.

The worst part, though, was when he measured my BMI (Body Mass Index). He used both a tape measure and calipers, and for some odd reason he came up with a BMI of 31. Thirty. One.

Note that I am 5’3″ and, at the time, weighed about 125 lbs. While that’s actually a few pounds more than my ideal weight (I have a relatively small frame and don’t hold extra weight well), I don’t know how anyone could argue that I was obese. All my doctors reassured me that I was well within a healthy range. But 31 is right there under the “Obesity” category of the BMI scale.

The number was duly noted and was included in my health assessment, and god knows how my employer used it. Several of us complained to HR about our experiences with the paramedic, and even the HR manager gasped when she saw the massive bruise on my arm. I doubt anything came out of it — I suspect our health files ended up in some dusty warehouse somewhere, kind of like that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Still, I’ve been suspicious of wellness programs ever since, and more so when technology raises the stakes by introducing even more intrusive means of tracking intimate employee data. It’s enough that my employer gets my intellect, my physical energy, a big chunk of mindshare for the majority of my waking hours. I’d like to reserve the privacy of my body and my health just for myself, my doctor, and when necessary, close family members. I hardly think it’s too much to ask that my employer stay out of that part of my life.

The Father Of “Getting Things Done”: You’re Getting Me All Wrong | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

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Some people need to focus more on their goals. Some people need to stop focusing on their goals and actually get shit done.”

via The Father Of “Getting Things Done”: You’re Getting Me All Wrong | Fast Company | Business + Innovation.

Note: Great article about the Getting Things Done philosophy of productivity and mindfulness, and interview with its creator, David Allen. I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I read the book back in 2009, and have been struggling to perfectly implement it in my work and personal lives. This article is making me rethink how I interpreted GTD (despite the fact that I’ve read the book cover-to-cover and listened to the full audio book at least 3-4 times!). I especially enjoy the analogy to Zen Buddhism, a philosophy and spiritual discipline that really resonates with me. Worth a read and won’t take more than 10 minutes to do so.

The Father Of "Getting Things Done": You're Getting Me All Wrong | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

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Some people need to focus more on their goals. Some people need to stop focusing on their goals and actually get shit done.”

via The Father Of “Getting Things Done”: You’re Getting Me All Wrong | Fast Company | Business + Innovation.

Note: Great article about the Getting Things Done philosophy of productivity and mindfulness, and interview with its creator, David Allen. I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I read the book back in 2009, and have been struggling to perfectly implement it in my work and personal lives. This article is making me rethink how I interpreted GTD (despite the fact that I’ve read the book cover-to-cover and listened to the full audio book at least 3-4 times!). I especially enjoy the analogy to Zen Buddhism, a philosophy and spiritual discipline that really resonates with me. Worth a read and won’t take more than 10 minutes to do so.

And now for something completely different

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Change is good. Good change is even better.

Change is good. Good change is even better.

If you read my previous post — written waaaaay back in October 2013 — you may have caught a hint of the dissatisfaction I was feeling in my life. My writing was beyond neglected. My life had become a roller coaster of activity, crammed with errands, endless to-do lists, money woes, sleepless nights, and this gnawing feeling that I’d lost my way. Somehow, in the previous four years, I’d launched a business, taken on an investor, adopted four dogs, fostered countless more, wrote a book, hired and fired employees, gained a few very unwanted pounds, landed in the ER, and oh, wrote very, very little of that novel that I began in 2006.

In other words, I’d lost my way.

If you read my short bio the left sidebar, you’ll know that things have changed. And if you used to read my blog back when it was hosted at Blogger, you’ll see that I’ve moved, too.

I’m now working at my dream job as Happiness Engineer at Automattic, helping WordPress.com users publish and share their thoughts with the world, and am winding down my marketing agency. I only recently started the job, and already I’m in love. If it’s at all possible to be madly in love with a job, this must be how it feels.

I’ll still write about books, films, writing, travel, and yes, the occasional posts about my family, but I’ll also be diving into the fascinating worlds of open source computing and publishing and the way the world has changed to allow the most ordinary folks in the most ordinary places to have their voices heard. It’s going to be a wild ride, too, but this time, it’ll be both fun and fulfilling.

Photo by emdot on Flickr.