What’s money got to do with it? An artist’s perspective

If one considers art for art’s sake to be a concept worthy of merit, then money and art are often viewed as arch enemies, as if one corrupts the other. It has been long considered that if you’re a “real” artist, then you probably won’t make any money from your efforts. Conversely, if you make a lot of money from your art, then you’re considered by some to be a sellout, poser, or any number of derogatory expletives.

So what role does money play in the process of art, and if it does, should it?

From decades of personal experience, I can tell you that to keep the art going, an artist has to be able to at least make some sort of a living from it (unless you’ve got a wealthy patron, which most of us don’t have, lol). One doesn’t have to make tens of millions of dollars from a sold out world concert tour, but, one has to be able to at least pay the bills. I can testify to that from experience. If the money isn’t there, then the resources, time, effort and focus needed for the art greatly suffer. It doesn’t mean that one can’t do anything at all, but it can tremendously hinder the process.

Some artists don’t have to resort to other forms of work to try to make a living. Their art at least gives them enough money to be able to keep their art going. In those instances, it may not be glamorous, but it’s at least workable. A good example of this can be seen with my friends and fellow performers the Ramones. Even though they never made a lot of money, they at least were able to do well enough financially to keep their careers going.

In the instance of huge money-making artists, of course, they can easily keep it going, often at their own leisure, but what effect does making that amount of money have on their art? The danger is that in many instances, the artist becomes lazy, entitled, and that the quality of their work, especially their songwriting, suffers.

A perfect example of this is the songwriting of the Rolling Stones, arguably the biggest band in the world. I feel that the bulk of their songs have been lukewarm, forgettable and uninspired for decades. This is quite unlike their past catalogue, which contains some of the most fantastic rock songs of all time. I also feel this applies to Madonna, whose more recent material has felt completely devoid of any emotional conviction or feeling to me at all. Her newer songs sound like formulaic songwriting 101 hooks that don’t come from the heart at all, as if all it takes is a clever hook to sell a song. In comparison, many of her older songs contained the emotional connection that is such a vital component to a noteworthy hit song.

One could make the argument that styles change, which is why newer records by established artists don’t sell. That’s not entirely the case, though. I use the example of AC/DC’s “Black Ice,”  their most recent album, released in 2009. Even though I didn’t feel that it was a phenomenal album like 1980’s “Back in Black,”  it was a solid record from front to back – and it sold millions of copies. Certainly “Black Ice” didn’t break new ground, but I would assume it wasn’t supposed to. It was what one expects from AC/DC: loud guitars, simple songs about girls, partying, cars, a little satanic reference thrown in and high energy rock n roll.

So is money ultimately a good or bad thing for art?

To me, it cuts both ways: Money is necessary to be able to keep one’s art going, but it should never pollute the artist or the quality of the work, as it often does. Yet it doesn’t have to.

It’s important for an artist to aspire to build upon the commitment to the vision, the integrity and message of the work and to stay true to oneself, regardless of whether there’s any money involved or not. If the money is there to make a living or more, I believe that it’s important for an artist to never get lazy, egotistical, to believe that they’re invincible, pander to the audience or stay within the limits of their expectations. For so many artists, though, it’s far easier to just fall back on whatever the perceived formula is that got them there in the first place and then, the work declines and becomes second-rate.

Instead, an artist should continue to passionately evolve, whether anyone goes there with them or not – and that takes a lot of courage. Two strong examples of this evolution are the Beatles,  whose songwriting continued to improve and grow exponentially throughout their career, and Frank Zappa,  whose musical complexities and concepts continued to forge new ground for decades.

What a dream it would be if somehow, money was no longer a necessary part of the artistic process and everyone could have the resources to create their art without worry of survival. Of course, that’s not applicable in the material world, but I still feel that artists should aspire toward doing their best to create their art without letting economic concerns or pressures get in the way. And if the money is there, be absolutely grateful for it, but by all means, stick to the passion, principles and artistic hunger that were inspirational in the first place.

6 Replies to “What’s money got to do with it? An artist’s perspective”

  1. Well said, Jim,
    A very good read.
    I agree.
    True Art comes from the soul.
    There is a big thick line that is crossed when it has become a product, as marketable as a GMO (in food production) but not very good for us.

  2. Vincent! And the soul is where it needs to always come back to! To integrity and vision! Thanks for your words — Jim

  3. Money can still be your sole driver and the output an incredible piece, I think as long as money is not on your mind while you’re creating the art. For example, someone pays me to do music for their short film. Although money is the sole driver (I wouldn’t be doing it if I hadn’t been offered the pay), I wouldn’t be thinking about money during the creative process. Even some of the famous classical artists and composers were motivated by big money (paid by big money churches). If you know how to be creative, you can be creative whether paid big money or nothing at all.

    But of course there are always the exceptions. Say if the song you’re writing is about your greed for money, then not only can that greed drive your piece, but it can actually fuel the creativity for the topic of the song. Like drug addiction or cheating on someone or hating cops, greed for money is part of life (whether your own or other people’s). Over-the-top greed for fame and fortune, boasted in music and image, bred a whole different art form. It’s hard to say that form was tainted by greed when that is precisely what the artform is based on.

  4. Great point Jim…Another artist worth mentioning Captain Beefheart aka Don Van Vliet. A book on CB by Mike Barnes reveals some of their mis-fortunes. I just had a phone interview for my radio show Music Underdogs with CB guitarist Bill Harkleroad aka Zoot Horn Rollo (with CB from 69-74)…It was pre-recorded and I will let you know when it shall be broadcast. Plus I’ve been through the ringer a bit myself being in a band signed to Atlantic Records from 1991-98…

    Thank You,
    Rick Kubic


  5. Rick! I hear ya — you’ve been through it. I love Captain Beefheart and would love to hear the interview! Keep doing what you do — It is great! Jim

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