Living On Spec: Why Don’t We Like To Pay Artists?


There isn’t a creative type on the planet who hasn’t heard at least one of the following:

  • “It’s a hobby, right? So, what’s your real job?”
  • “If you’re so passionate about it, then why does it matter if you get paid?”
  • “Why don’t you do a sample for free, and if I like it, I’ll pay you for the next one.”
  • “Aren’t artists supposed to be starving? Isn’t the romantic part of it?”
  •  “How do you put an hourly rate on creativity?”
  • “We’ll pay you in sample copies.”
  • “Isn’t exposure enough of a reward?”

Yup, this is going to be another whiny blog post from an artist who would like to be financially compensated for her work. If you’d really rather look at pictures of kittens, or read about the latest antics of a reality TV family, feel free to click off (that sounded ruder than I expected). But I’ve got a few decent points I’d like to make, if you can spare a few minutes. This one’s on the house.

Here are a few reasons why we don’t like to think about paying artists:

1. We don’t see artists as having skills. Being able to put someone’s guts back together in surgery involves skills. Doing someone’s taxes  involves skills. Building a basement rec room involves skills. However, when it comes to creative stuff, not so much. Let me tell you first-hand that creative work does not get produced by chance. Artists go to school. They train. They learn from mentors. They practice (oh, do they practice), and they produce a lot of crap in the process of perfecting their craft. Are there crummy artists? Well, yeah, but there are also crummy surgeons, crummy accountants, and crummy contractors. Whether you wield a pen, a paintbrush or an instrument, it takes skill to produce anything good.

2. Along similar lines, we think anyone can produce art. Okay, this one involves a lengthy philosophical discussion about what art actually is, but seriously, have you ever watched the audition rounds of a talent show on television? It’s pretty clear that some are better at it than others, and wanting to “be a star” is not sufficient. We wouldn’t expect that just anyone could be a scuba instructor, sushi chef, mathematician, or zookeeper. Whether it’s because of a lack of natural talent, inclination or training, I don’t think I have any of these careers in me, and I praise those who do. I hope that those who aren’t adept with language will show similar respect to my writing.

3. We think all artists want to be rich and famous, and maybe the ones who are don’t always set the right example. I like not being recognized at the grocery store. I’m cool with not being asked to headline at festivals. Don’t get me wrong, I love knowing that people read my work once in a while. It’s thrilling to share ideas, and I don’t care if my work gets me a villa in Tuscany or a bronze statue somewhere. “Steady” is a word I would like to associate with my paycheque, not “gargantuan.” If, by some stroke of cosmic luck, I someday make a lot of money from my art, I promise I’ll behave myself and do something useful with it.

4. We’re really not sure what we get when we pay for art. You go to a baker, and you get bread. You go to a salon and you get your nails done. You go to a mechanic, and your car run stops making noise. Art is a little more slippery, a little less tangible. What do I take home after a concert (besides a souvenir t-shirt)? When I’m finished with a book, is it really just a wad of paper that lingers? What do I point to after I’ve left an exhibit? Art is a business of producing ideas and experiences, of calling forth emotion and memory. It’s much more difficult to box up and sell, and we can’t return it if it bugs us. From a product standpoint, it is admittedly ethereal, but we have to keep in mind that everything we love that’s artistic, from the music on our devices to the pretty shoes on our feet, had to come from somewhere, with a creative, talented person putting themselves out there.

5. We think artists have chosen a lifestyle that involves poverty. We think they secretly enjoy it. Nope. This wordy, idea-ish stuff happens to be what I’m good at (most days). I’m also good at eating, and would like to be able to pay for that. I’m good not living in the rain, and would like to have a roof over my head. I’m good at leaving my house and going out into the world, and I’d like to be able to afford a little of that too. Okay, you could say art is my calling, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make a living from it, and let me tell you, between time and supplies, it ain’t free.

6. We see art as a luxury, something we don’t need or deserve. If there was ever a time when art wasn’t a luxury, it’s now. We’re in a little bit of pickle these days (thanks a lot, 2016), and while booze, weapons, and other distractions may provide some sort of outlet for our angst, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that whether you’re an artist or an art appreciator, there isn’t anything else that helps a human being deal more effectively and productively than art. It’s our collective soul. It’s universal. It’s primal. My human friends, we all deserve art. It’s not amusing or adorable. It’s freakin’ important.

Okay, now’s the part where I’m supposed to come up with a plan for how we should pay artists, who should pony up the dough, and I’m so sorry, but I’m still working on this. Could it be considered a civil service job, with the government footing the bill? Should we take a tip from Shakespeare and get wealthy patrons on our side? Do we just go on strike, and leave the world a little uglier and more dull until we get our point across?

My guess is that art needs to undergo a massive re-branding. We need to put our assumptions about art and the people who make it through the ringer. Before making one of the comments mentioned above, perhaps ask yourself “Would I say that to a lawyer, or a school custodian, or a daycare provider?” If the answer is no, and you feel guilty (or if the answer is yes, and you don’t feel guilty), consider paying some creative type for their hard work, even if it’s just giving a busker the price of your morning latte, going to see an indie film, or buying something locally-made to hang over your sofa. Don’t ask your musician friend to perform at your wedding as a favour, don’t ask a graphic designer to give you a freebie, and don’t balk at shelling out a few bucks for an eBook when you’re reading it on a $200 device. The more an artist is able to actually live off their art, the more time they’ll have to devote to it, and the better it’ll get.


The best hashtag I’ve seen in a long time is #enough. It’s short, it’s poignant, and it expresses what a whole lot of people are thinking this week. Enough violence. Enough discrimination. Enough hatred. We probably reached the “enough” point thousands of years ago. According to a couple of famous political thinkers, history is littered with moments of “enough”. It fuels great literature, music and film.

So here I am, in 2016, sitting at my desk, and I really, really want to help. Besides trying hard not to be violent, discriminatory, and hateful myself, I’m not sure how my one pair of hands, my one little brain, my one squeaky, sarcastic voice can make a meaningful contribution to all of this long-needed, long-awaited “enough”.

Here’s the only thing I know how to do:  I’m adding more “enough” to the list.

First, enough pretending that being a thinker is something that can be left to academics. Enough shrugging our shoulders when asked about something important, something like justice, equality, identity, and saying things like “I dunno. Whatever.” Enough excusing ourselves from big questions because they’re difficult, or uncomfortable, or because we’re afraid that our ideas won’t matter. If there’s one thing that’s become clear over the past few weeks, it’s that the way we discuss questions about justice, equality and identity (and a whole lot of other important things) really does matter. It matters as much as cutting the grass, getting a haircut, watching TV, or the myriad of other things we spend time doing every day. It matters so, so much more than any of these things. Enough letting a day go by where it’s not important to think about these things.

Enough allowing ourselves to think things like “Well, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” We can no longer put stock in just opinions. Our new currency has to be arguments- reasonable, well-explained arguments. I’m not saying that there are concrete, clear-cut answers to difficult questions like these, but it should be pretty obvious from the events this week that some answers are better than others. Some answers clearly aren’t working for us. Enough with the “anything goes” approach, and of being afraid to challenge what’s already there.

Enough of not doing everything we can to encourage our children to ask these questions too. I’m not proposing that we sit them down in front of gory news footage or present them with vivid descriptions of recent events. We fuss over what our kids wear, what they eat, what they play with, how long they brush their teeth, but their reasoning skills, their ability to think critically, their insatiable drive to know “Why?” are often considered cute distractions, even annoyances.  Enough putting this on the back burner because, let’s face it, we’re not sure how to tackle these questions ourselves, as grown-ups. Yeah, parenting is hard, and awkward, and exhausting. If I’m going to finish the day completely spent, I’m okay with it being because of my kid’s incessant questions. Enough assuming that these questions don’t belong in their daily routine.

Enough assuming that I’m not part of the problem too. Yeah, if I turn over rocks, I’m going to find creepy stuff. While asking these really difficult questions about justice, equality, and violence, I’m probably going to find I’ve contributed, even if it’s just in very small ways, without realizing it. But I can’t fix something unless I know that it’s broken.

Enough wishing and hoping that everything just fixes itself. We’ve had a long time as a species to smarten up, and we haven’t. In fact, we seem to be making an even bigger mess. What’s different about this particular moment in time is that technologically speaking, we now have the capability to share. Sometimes the sharing is of the bad news itself, the shock and the horror, the disbelief. Maybe this in and of itself is a good thing, at least a catalyst for change. It’s much more difficult to excuse one’s self from difficult questions when there’s video evidence that they need to be asked. Enough thinking we don’t have a means to talk to one another about these things. Enough bemoaning social media or other mass communication for being vapid or unsubstantial. Let’s actually learn to use them for something important. What’s more, enough using these tools to be violent, unjust, or hateful.

Here’s my humble suggestion: once a day, after you’ve cruised Twitter or Facebook, after you’ve read the paper or watched TV and you’re properly horrified by what’s been happening, take a few minutes and formulate a question. Make it a big one, one that begins with “Why?” and one that doesn’t have an immediate resolution. Think of an answer. Turn it over and over in your mind for a bit and see if you can find holes in it (you probably will, so don’t be alarmed). Sometime later in the day, try another answer, and another, and another. Then ask someone else the same question, and be patient and respectful when they give their answer. Patiently and respectfully turn their answer over and over, looking for weak spots, just as you did with yours. Repeat the process. A lot. Like, all the time. Share. Discuss. Listen. Respect. Keep going with all of this, knowing that even though you’ve had your fill of tragedy, when it comes to asking big, important questions, you will never reach “enough”.

What I’ve Learned From Spam (Both Kinds)


There was a time when Spam was just gross, pre-chewed meat in a can. It was survival food, something to be tolerated and consumed almost against one’s will. Okay, in discussing this version of Spam, I’m revealing that I’m older than the internet, but stay with me. I’m working on a metaphor here.

Enter internet/email spam. The more platforms and new forms of media we’ve created, the more different kinds of spam have oozed in. Like its canned predecessor, internet spam is disgusting, devoid of taste or class, an eyesore among meatier, more nutritious options. However, like my predecessors, who made peace with having to co-exist with protein that jiggles, I am choosing to take my spam in the form of teachable moments. Just as said predecessors would have preferred to have steak or rack of lamb, I would much prefer to have real comments on my blog (hint, hint), and real messages in my inbox. Just as spam-sufferers of the past dressed up their mess of pre-chewed meat with pineapple, fried eggs, and various condiments, I am making a silk purse out of a pig’s ear (see what I did with the pork theme?).

Here are suggestions for deep thoughts that one may glean from online sludge:

  • I will not send my bank account information to an exiled prince in a faraway nation. I will, however, take note of the fact that there are others in need of my help, both in faraway nations, and in my own backyard.
  • I am not in the market for a mail-order bride or questionable photos of underage women. Nonetheless, I will remind myself that even in 2016, my fellow females are still considered by many to be property to be sold and traded.
  • I do not need knock-off athletic shoes in mass quantities. But I do need to put the runners sitting idly in the front hallway on my feet, and walk my desk-chair-decrepit body around the block more often.
  • I will not be requiring assistance in monetizing my social media feeds. Regardless, I will remember that what I do for a living has value, and that I deserve to derive benefit from the hours I put into my work.
  • I shall not absentmindedly hit delete or block, even though the vast majority of what rolls in isn’t even generated by another human being. Instead, I will seek the useful needles in the haystack, the small bits that actually mean something. Doing so will make me a more critical, discerning thinker, and man, will it ever train me to scan effectively!

When you think about it, Spam is actually kind of funny, sublime in its ridiculousness. The canned stuff seems to be the rubber chicken, hand-buzzer, whoopie cushion version of nutrition. The online stuff is also pretty much clown shoes, a reminder of the great stupidity of which human beings are capable when handed a useful tool. Just imagine what future civilizations will think of us when they did up our email accounts thousands of years from now.

Perhaps spam, whether in canned form, or as electronic pestering, is the universe’s way of asking us to be patient. We turn the key on the ham substitute with the hope that better days with real ham will follow. Online, we sigh as we empty our trash folder, or banish an unwanted message with deletion, in the hopes that an actual message, one intended just for us, will fill its spot.