Should You Take Money From Rich Assholes? A Very Modern Artistic Conundrum

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One of the stranger stories to come out of the whole Martin Shkreli fiasco — in short: “rich tech bro buys rights to life-saving drug, jacks up price 5000%, Internet goes insane” — is the fact that up until a couple of days ago he was bankrolling Collect Records, a label founded by Geoff Rickly of ’00s emo idols Thursday. Once it became clear where their sugar daddy’s money was coming from, both the bands on Collect (including Nothing, Wax Idols, and the appropriately named Sick Feeling) and Rickly himself reacted with horror; as of yesterday, Rickly had cut all ties with Shkreli.

This has ended neatly enough from a moral perspective — Rickly et al.’s consciences are largely clear and Shkreli has lost his cool music industry friends (which probably hurts a guy like him more than being the most hated man in America). But financially, it’s a disaster. Without Shkreli’s morally questionable millions, Collect is left with a whole lot less money (going forward, at least — there doesn’t seem to be any question of Rickly returning what Shkreli has already donated), which means less cash for distribution, less cash for promotion, less cash for recording, and so on. Indeed, Rickly told the New York Times yesterday that this will mean the end of the label: “This is going to end the career of the record label, no doubt. If I were a band on the label I would be having a serious crisis of faith right now. The amount of money I have in the bank doesn’t cover my outstanding invoices. It’s devastating.”

In this particular case, I can’t imagine Rickly acting any differently. Shkreli is so odious, and his means of making money so objectionable, that it’s hard to see anyone who values their integrity continuing to associate with him. Still, it’s hard to fault Rickly for not looking a gift horse in the mouth when a rich dweeb came along offering wads of cash in exchange for nothing more than getting to feel cool by hanging out with a musician he admired. And, of course, there’s the question of where else that money might have gone – if Shkreli would otherwise have just bought a yacht, then where’s the harm in putting his stupid money to good use? (As Rickly told the NYT, “At the very worst, if Martin was a bad guy, then you’re taking his terrible money and giving it to artists who never get any. I wanted to make something great out of it — the stupid Robin Hood narrative that everybody knows.”)

More generally, though, the whole sorry business highlights the vexed question of how to fund art in an age when everyone wants it for free. This is especially relevant in the music industry, where sales revenue has collapsed, major labels remain as rapacious as ever, and money is ever scarcer. Beyond the lucky few who make a fortune, most musicians barely break even, which is a reality audiences don’t like to confront (remember the backlash against Grizzly Bear for revealing that they couldn’t afford health insurance?).

For individual musicians, there are ways around this: day jobs, for instance, which plenty of musicians maintain. If you’re lucky, you can find an employer who’s flexible enough to accommodate you going on tour, recording, etc. If not, you probably find yourself bouncing from one disposable minimum-wage job to another. But you certainly can’t fund an entire label that way. So what do you do?

Artists have long relied on the largesse of the rich, of course, as have others in fields where financial rewards are rarely forthcoming — intellectuals, for instance, who were often bankrolled by rich families in exchange for tutoring children and just generally hanging around to add prestige to the reputation of the family in question. Clearly, this has always been an ethical balancing act, and it remains so. Rickly has spurned Shkreli’s money on principle, but if another patron came along, one imagines Collect wouldn’t turn them away out of hand. They can’t afford to.

The other answer, one that rarely even gets considered in the free-market, user-pays capitalist utopia that breeds and idolizes people like Martin Shkreli, is public arts funding. America isn’t without its fair share of grants and fellowships, of course, but it’s notable that they are almost all privately funded, through endowments and trusts and similar arrangements. As such, they’re geared to the tastes of those doing the private funding, which means that it’s rarely a feasible option to get a fellowship to make a noise music record or run a throwback emo label.

The level of public spending on the arts in the US remains exponentially lower than that in other developed countries. Predictably, democratic socialist regions like Scandinavia pay out far more than we do — in Finland, for instance, visual artists can receive a five-year salary from the government — but even countries that largely share America’s free-market ideology outstrip us in public arts funding. Tory-governed England, for instance, provided £65 ($100, more or less) per capita in arts funding in 2014, compared to the pissant $0.41 per capita provided in America by the NEA.

Beyond this sort of formal funding, in countries where there’s an actual welfare state, the dole has often acted as a sort of de facto arts grant, allowing bands to have a minimum income while they’re starting out. (Sadly, this isn’t nearly as widespread as it used to be — it’s not only in America where a generation who grew up on free education and generous welfare are now rescinding those benefits from their children.)

Of course, those opposed to any sort of welfare would no doubt argue that the very last thing we should be doing is paying people to sit around and smoke weed in their bedrooms while they try to write songs. Whether you agree or disagree with that idea is ultimately a matter of perspective, but there’s one very real consequence of the lack of any public funding — formal or informal — for the arts: it’s only those who are independently wealthy who can take the time to make art.

The Quietus’s Wyndham Wallace addressed this subject a couple of years back in an excellent 2011 essay entitled, “How The Music Industry Is Killing Music And Blaming The Fans,” wherein he noted:

The first people to give up will be those with the least money. This, some argue, will sort the wheat out from the chaff: serious musicians don’t give up that easily. But this is clearly nonsense. Serious musicians might not give up, and some may thrive – if the cliché is true – because they have suffered. But if they can’t afford to tour, record, build a website and pay those required to supervise their business, let alone pay their rent, then they won’t make music their priority and potential stars will be lost to us… The first hurdle any musician must now leap is financial: can they afford to pursue the dream?

Public funding isn’t a panacea — as Wallace noted, even in countries where art is well funded, it tends to be the well connected who vacuum up that money — but providing at least some kind of meaningful assistance to artists would obviate the necessity of having to rely on the largesse of people like Martin Shkreli. If there were some sort of public grant that Rickly could have applied for, perhaps none of this sorry business would ever have happened.