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Artists deserve to be paid more

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions

September 8, 2017

One of the most important debates in the modern music industry is that on intellectual property rights. Intellectual property rights are expressed in the art and music worlds through copyrights. A copyright, in short, gives the artist the exclusive right to make money off of their work and to decide who is allowed to use their work.
Artists like Taylor Swift have brought the flaws of intellectual property law into full view. Swift is notorious for taking full financial advantage of intellectual property law, taking all un-approved copies of her music off of YouTube and attempting to copyright phrases such as “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.” She has also spoken to the press about the financial unfairness of illegally downloaded music, commenting that it robs hardworking artists of their money. Most people found Swift’s comments to be humorous and out of touch. Swift has a net worth of $280 million as of August, so her lamentations about losing money to illegal downloads came off as entitled and greedy.
But Swift isn’t necessarily wrong. Wealthy celebrities like Swift aren’t the only artist whose work is illegally downloaded. Anyone can download the audio from any YouTube video (which is not technically illegal, but still deprives artists of their money). It’s likely that all artists’ music is illegally downloaded at about the same rate at which it is bought, meaning that all artists are losing a similar proportion of money.
The reason people are so resistant to Swift’s ideas is more complicated than resistance to her entitled reputation. Our culture is generally reluctant to pay artists. Typically, artists are paid meager wages unless they are backed by a large union. Even then, it is difficult for artists to find high paying work. Americans spend all day consuming art. We wear clothing created by graphic designers and fashion designers. We browse websites with artfully designed advertisements and creatively written articles. We spend hours absorbing comedy on the TV and internet. Almost everything we do on a day to day basis has some connection to some type of artist.
We have two divergent notions of who artists are and how they live. Our first conception of artists is that of the rich celebrity. When Taylor Swift advocates against violations of copyright law, most people envision that the “victims” of the intellectual property crimes are these rich celebrities.
Our second archetype is that of the starving artists. We see artists who are not multimillionaire celebrities as poor, downtrodden and unproductive. This archetype is not completely inaccurate, since most art not consumed on a large scale does not bring the artist much income. However, Americans come into contact with the work of the “starving artist” far more often than they realize. Freelance artists often design logos, websites, and advertisements for small companies. Many popular songs involve album artists, producers, and writers who are not nearly as wealthy as the archetypical rich celebrities. Creative industries rely on a surprising amount of art from “starving artists.”
These artists, from conventional musicians and actors to fashion designers and video game designers, prop up our society. So why are so many of them underpaid? Part of the problem is greed. People don’t want to give up their money for something that they previously accessed for free, even if they do have the means to buy art. Another part of the problem is the matter of which artists are heard, and which are silenced by their lack of means. The artists with the most access to the ear of the public are naturally those with the most money. Thus, they are in the best position to advocate for artists with less attention and fewer resources. But because these wealthy artists are the ones advocating for increased pay of all artists, their advocacy comes off as greedy.
Despite all this, the financial burden of the starving artists is primarily not the fault of illegal downloads. Typically, artists are underpaid by the wealthier companies employing them. At these record companies, magazines, and other artistic media, executives rather than content creators collect most of the profits.
Even so, public unwillingness to pay for art can be a significant factor. Today, most of our art is obtained online. When people with disposable income are given the option to pay for their art or to download it illegally, they will often choose to download it illegally. Obviously, this is less severe of an issue when the person consuming the art cannot afford it, given that it might be their only way of obtaining the art. However, many of the people who do have the necessary income are not willing to pay.
Everyone would rather obtain something for free than pay for it. The only way to meaningfully improve artists’ financial situations would be forcing publishing organizations to pay artists more. This can be done most successfully through unions, which could regulate the pay and conditions of otherwise unregulated artistic careers. Unions such as SAG-AFTRA for film actors and Equity for theater performers have successfully regulated wages and working conditions for member artists. For example, Equity requires that performers be paid for rehearsal time Artists’ pay could also be improved through government regulations, but that is a less precedented and probably less likely option than unionization.
Artists deserve to be paid for their work. The largest obstacle between artists and the money they deserve is unrealistically low pay from large organizations who publish them, but public unwillingness to pay for art worsens the artist’s’ situation. In order for art to be lucrative, and for artists to be financially secure, the burden will likely fall to artists to unionize. Artists’ unions will have to form, grow, and push for more fair work.

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