Heading an opera company has put me directly in touch with the pros and cons of making artistic content available to the public without charge. The argument for an arts organization on the public side is that pervasive distribution can increase exposure, diversify the demographics of the audience and compete with the commercial entertainment industry. The argument on the artist side is if you give away their talent or “product” for free you erode their ability to be compensated. And then there are the issues of how a public will find their way through the large morass of content without any curatorial process to weed the seed from the chaff, and from the artist point of view – who should be that curator.
Although there have been successful models that have distributed content without charge yet garnered income from capturing eyeballs or niche constituencies for advertisers, there also have been successful models whereby a weary public is willing to pay for a quality critically-sanctioned product. But I fear we are focused on the wrong topic and the wrong word, namely whether content should be “free.” As a writer, or a creator, I know that there is nothing that I write that comes without a price. I may share it without remuneration, but I paid a price by exposing a bit of myself in any opinion piece, essay, poem or fiction. The price that many of us pay is one of vulnerability. That is a different experience than when writing for income. It is then that the art becomes craft. A writer can always hope for a plum assignment that combines both art and craft, but those have always been hard to come by. A writer may be hired to accurately reflect a technical document, or to influence public opinion, or to communicate effectively. I believe those skills will always be in demand, as will the willingness to pay for knowledgable curatorial content. I also think those skills are assets that help one candidate get the dream job over another, because the skill of communication has always stood the test of time.
The real debate over income streams for writers really is held in the texting hands of our youth. I would argue that for the majority, the only writing that a teenager or young adult does these days is in the short hand texts that are sent that may be craft, but certainly has obliterated the art of the written word. Spellings are truncated, plot is gone, and you have emoticons that determine whether a message is flaming or in jest. Verbs have gone to the wayside and attention spans are shorter than ever. The art of crafting a 140 character twitter or a pithy comment on Facebook is as far as many of our youth get in crafting a sentence. The real culprit to the longevity of the written word is developing a population that is willing to both read and appreciate poignant prose, provocative nonfiction, and heart wrenching poetry. In order to create a written word revolution, writers need to write. Each one of us needs to be willing to pay the price of becoming authentic and vulnerable, and committed to fostering writers,readers, and curators with a vengeance. One thing I know: revenue is never earned without an audience, without amassing eyeballs, without a valiant fight to the finish. For me, I vow not to focus on the transaction but rather the transformation. History has taught us well that revenue streams aren’t the beginning, they are the end.