Ethical art economies

branching off from CrptoArt/NFT discussion (which I haven’t read most of) - I’m interested in stepping back & imagining our own solutions (technical or non-technical) to the issues that are getting a lot of attention on the internet right now:

  • as artists, how can we incentivize an audience to support us financially (which is necessary for some of us) while upholding our ethical values & ecological commitments ?
  • how can we realize the full potential of creative revenue without third parties taking a cut & limiting our options ?
  • how can we encourage an audience to support creators of digital work (with infinite supply) without unnecessarily limiting access to it ?
  • what approaches prioritize small yet financially independent (or partially independent) artists, who need the support the most ?

Somewhat music specific but @andrewhuang laid out some numbers on twitter for what we all know to be true with regards to music streaming vs direct purchase:

I am a luddite so my inclination is against tech solutions to anything in general, but bearing that in mind it does seem like the simplest answer is always direct support for artists which requires cultural change in our methods and attitude towards consumption. With a healthy skepticism towards these specific platforms, it does seem like the bandcamp & patreon type models do allow artists to support themselves. Unfortunately, these method also can put the artist under pressure to put certain things behind paywalls (a double edged sword) or to cater to the audience they’ve developed rather than challenging that audience (“don’t paint an unflattering portrait of de Medici or you’ll be out of a job” is coming back into vogue…).

Looking forward to seeing where this discussion goes, hopefully we can get a few more andrews in the chat :wink:

Edit: one more tweet — “Being willing to pay more for streaming”


This is pretty backwards IMO. We actually already pay enough in many cases, but rather than it going to artists it goes to stock dividends and executive compensation… If we wanted to make a more equitable streaming service the price might be a little higher, but the disparity at the moment isn’t on the consumer end as much as it’s on the capitalism/corporate end…

Just a short digression, when I have more time I’ll definitely share some other thoughts on this thread.


I’ll bookmark this thread in the hope of reading great things and finding initiatives I haven’t heard of. Maybe we can even find and make our owns, even if the task feels daunting, at our small level.

I think, if anything, the single best thing the NFT/Crypto discussion can do, is force us to take the opportunity of seeing the value of digital art being rediscussed to create our own avenues, our own discussions, far from scarcity, private ownership and gatekeeping. I don’t have much to add right now because I’m a little tired but I’ll definitely try to participate.

Thanks a lot @andrew for starting this discussion.


The trick to surviving and thriving in a manner orthogonal to the predatory pyramid scheme of capitalism, is to learn to recognize (first) and utilize (second) the natural sources of abundance all around us. And while we do so, it’s good to keep in mind that no abundance is infinite. Stay humble.

Some examples:

  • human ingenuity
  • sunshine
  • biology and it’s complexity

The more you look at it you might start to see that a lot of sources of abundance flow from larger sources:

  • free time (time undirected towards specific goals, unconstrained by external schedules)
  • the natural world

Our busy urban lives often cut us off completely from these motherlodes, so we are challenged to see them at all, let alone make use of them.


I worry that the only real solution is also a truly gigantic one: we need to somehow rewire our society so that art is actually valued instead of being seen as “content” to be shoveled into the gaping maws of massive tech companies. The problem is already embedded in our social DNA: see eg how so many websites attribute art to “the internet” instead of humans (“Amazon changed its app icon and you won’t BELIEVE the funny pictures the internet came up with!!”).

An ok start in the US (although obviously not a full solution) would be a much more robust government-funded arts program, but beyond that I don’t know how to fundamentally change our cultural relationship with art.


I don’t disagree that streaming services’ division of revenue could use a lot of improvement, but the entire model is absolutely devaluing music at the currently accepted subscription prices. You can get a Spotify family plan for $15/mo - that’s up to 6 accounts listening ad-free to just about all the music they could ever want. $2.50 per person per month.

Some people might not use the service everyday, and others might leave it on in the background constantly, so I don’t know how much the average listener would stream. But Spotify pays the artists per play, and that amount needs to be small enough that this tiny subscription fee can cover everybody as well as the cost of running the platform.

I don’t actually believe we can get to a place where streaming becomes a viable way to make a living the way downloads or physical sales once were, but it can be more fair than it is today if we could convince people that it was worth more like, say, $25/mo, as well as adjusting the payment models (pro rata is not great). It could become a significant pie slice for much smaller artists, rather than the pittance it is now.

To speak to the topic at large, there is absolutely a thriving “middle class” of creators right now who could not be doing what they’re doing without the internet, but they generally can’t rely on direct income from their recorded music. I’ve spoken to hundreds of them in my almost two decades of creating things online. Maybe some of them get enough via Bandcamp (probably the fairest model out there for where we currently are with music consumption). But by and large they have to rely on some mix of livestreaming, teaching, patronage (usually Patreon), commissions, merch, and once upon a time, touring.

I also want to say, I’m a big fan of third parties taking a cut if they’re the right third parties. (See again: Bandcamp and Patreon.) I’m happy to use their services so I don’t have to build entire systems from scratch that would allow me to distribute my work at scale and have to convince my audience to create yet another online account.


Yes, that’s really well articulated. I totally agree.

And thanks for taking the time to elaborate in response to my semi-knee-jerk reply :slight_smile:


Ha I’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about this :sweat_smile:

I just know so many incredible artists who are being undervalued at every turn and I feel like I lucked out because I’m a musician who happens to also be interested in making a thing (educational and entertaining content) that the system values a lot more than art


[ thank you everyone. that was a nice experiment. your notes are highly motivational ]


Anyone have an estimated income a platform should look to supply their artists with?

I think part of what keeps things down (and makes artists vulnerable to schemes) is the abstract nature of the demand for “more,” rather than an understanding of what might truly be enough. I know that would be different for everyone, but it’s important to articulate what exactly “we” want before we start in on how to get it.


I completely agree, I’m a bit frustrated I don’t have time to answer right now but in my view, the question of “when is it enough” is absolutely impossible to separate from “when do we need more”, which I think is in major part why the “NFT scene/hype” creates this nauseating (physically nauseating) feeling inside me.

The way I see it, musicians thriving in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from the EXTREMELY wealthy class (you’re extremely wealthy when you can bet 500k on a gif) for a looping video is so high past “enough” that I could never treat it as a success for artists as a whole rather than another lottery pick inside a system that’s litterally relying on them daily to present an inviting face to those it exploits.

So yes, absolutely, the question of “when is enough” should matter, and it also involves talk of redistribution, structural redistribution, and many more things that can create frictions but still need to be adressed.


thanks for all that you do @zebra - my work would not be my work if not for your work


holy hell, this is the most real. literally nothing i’ve made in the last 4 years would’ve ever crossed my mind without @zebra’s energy, ingenuity, and generosity to center much work as a platform for others to build from. coffees forever, fuck.


I’m writing this with genuine curiosity but with some ignorance of the territory: has anyone had experience with musician’s unions? My full-time field of work is unionized and it’s provided me with a sense of security and community. We’ve bargained for benefits, held strikes when necessary, and advocated for better working conditions for all other working class sectors. I did some quick research and there appears to be a large musicians union in my area. Would love to know if anyone has any insights good or bad.


I should point that UMAW ( is not solely for in-house content-creators from Spotify Owned studios, it’s very global and and anyone can join, it’s just very centered around that one key point (which is to fight Spotify’s current model).

I think what they’ve achieved so far, if marginal and still symbolic at that stage, is already quite incredible : A long comission (you can watch it all) that got all streaming services CEOs in the UK to be crucified live by a british commission of delegates from the parliament who asked them questions they didn’t want to hear (what differentiates you from Uber and why aren’t musicians on your platform considered employees at that point of control over the way they have to work in order to make decent money out of their work? These kind of things). You can even watch the entirety of this horrifyingly embarassing moment to have a guess at how much these people don’t have a clue and are just cynical vultures praying on an infinite value they find useful (“content”) at the expense of, you know, whoever boring ass people made that stuff : - Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (there are 4 more sessions like that for the people who have the courage to see that many scumbags in a row being grilled for hours !)


I can relate this. Being a union steward is sometimes like being a worker’s therapist. We try our best in bargaining to do what we can. In our last round of bargaining I advocated for a medical care leave for trans.nb workers, and was successful. I was particularly proud of that.

This is cool! And yeah from browsing around my local musician union they seem to offer similar supports. Going to union meetings might help folks get connected with possible gigs/work.

Being a steward has taught me that we are stronger together. The evil bosses of this world want us stuck in the atomized gig economy alone.


This is truly inspiring work! I hadn’t heard of this group until just now. Going to join up with them to keep up to date!


I’d actually have expected the $$ numbers to be reversed.

Here’s what it’s like at the level of someone who does no self-promotion, has no real YouTube presence, makes music in a niche genre and isn’t trying to make a living from art:

Over two years, Bandcamp has earned me about $540.
Spotify has earned me the mighty sum of $1.67.

All streaming services combined haven’t been enough to cover my yearly DistroKid fees, so I’m just going to cancel it next time it comes up.


love to see the union discussion! a problem with the commonly suggested streaming alternatives i observe (patreon, bandcamp, etc) is that it relies on individual artists to try to rally consumers to their specific less-exploitative platforms.

this seems so atomizing to me––in addition to all the other hustles a working musician might be expected to maintain, they are now also tasked with promoting the platforms that rip them off the least (without alienating the people who found them on the bad platforms…) as well as, in the case of patreon, becoming web admins, managing their own communities, providing Exclusive Content, etc. these are fairly time intensive jobs that, in any other field, would be comfortable middle class careers in their own right. and not even a taylor swift sized artist was able do much more than publicly shame apple music into paying out royalties on streams from their free trial. what hope do the rest of us, as individuals, really have?

as i sell my creativity to the media industry, rather than direct to consumers, i don’t have skin in this particular game, but the topic reminds me of a nonspecific mutual aid group i am aware of in LA.

the group launched a fundraiser last year in order to distribute supplies to folks experiencing homelessness. they raised a few thousand dollars for tents, food, blankets, tarps, medication, etc. then the george floyd protests popped off, america suddenly became extremely interested in mutual aid, and the group raised an absurd amount of money. these days, in a given month they’re distributing something like $45k of supplies to folks in need. but they’re running out of money. without a george floyd-sized uprising every year, even the limited amount of harm reduction––in itself already no substitute for housing––that they have been able to offer is unsustainable.

put another way (and this is the connection), the exploitation will continue as long as the structures which generate it are allowed to persist.

i don’t know that i believe it’s possible to create an “ethical art economy” without creating an actual ethical economy for all, but regardless of whether that’s true, to me, the path forward in either case has to be a mass collective action with the objective of structural change.


Ask a small scale organic farmer about this.

But the thing is, we would rather do it ourselves. We have total creative control and we pay less to arbitrators. We consider the time spent on marketing to grow our community of supporters to be time well spent. Also, it really doesn’t feel like advertising so much as communication for us. We are keeping in contact with our fans and giving them a reason to engage with the farm again, in a new season.

It’s true that we wear a lot of hats in the course of a week. We find that preferable to answering to impersonal systems of distribution and control.

Similar story for the way we sell visual art, when we get around to doing that.

(I’m happy to keep music as a hobby. Maybe this year I’ll make a Bandcamp release, but I have no real expectations of financial support from that.)