The Price of an Artist in the Digital Age

When I was in college for journalism, the changing world of the practice was a hot topic. How does journalism survive in a world where people expect to jump on the internet and find all the information of the world for free? Such is the struggle of the artist in this day and age. Writers, painters, musicians and many other professions involving creativity have struggled with the fact that – like it or not – their work ends up accessible on the internet for free. As bloggers, we are also artists who are enabled by the internet, but our work is just as easily stolen. Where do we stand in this world?

One of my goals for improving my blog has been to pay for images I use here. Right now, most of my images are from Flicker and include their title, creator and the creative commons license that allows me to use the photo. This doesn’t look to spiffy to me, but I’ve seen a couple of bloggers get in trouble for misusing images. I don’t want to be one of them.

Still, there’s a part of me that’s not satisfied. I recognize that using these images, even with the permission of the creator through a creative commons license, still means that artist gets nothing. I aspire to make an income someday through my writing and I’m sure many of the people creating these photos think the same. Even though I can find photos for free (the one here is from SplitShire and doesn’t require any credit to be given), I’d rather pay something – even if it’s only a few cents – for the photos I use. I have seen their photo and deemed it worthy for my blog. Why shouldn’t I give them something? If someone copied my entire blog onto their website, I’d expect to receive something. I don’t have a copyright for nothing.

Maybe this is only something I think about because I have my  hands is so many creative writing endeavors and like the idea of making a full income on that writing. Bloggers who have no concern for that may not think twice about the photos they use. They certainly don’t think spending a dollar per post on photos is a worthwhile investment.

Here’s the real question in all this. How can art survive without commission? How does a small artist become any bigger if people aren’t willing to pay something for their work?


I argue that, if you create great art, people will pay. Of course, you have to give people way to do that (which is why I sometimes thing of throwing a PayPal widget on here, but I’m not sure how weird that is), but I honestly think the average person will willingly choose to pay what they think something is worth in  order to access it.

Having mentioned this before, some friends have claimed no one will do that. They cite people they know who are huge movie buffs with crazy entertainment system setups and they have no problem never paying for the movies they watch. I argue that’s because their choice is between a price they think is too high and no price. Radiohead once offered fans the ability to pay whatever they wanted for their music. If they wanted it for free, they could have it, and right off their official site no less. Guess what? The average price was not free. Fan freely paid the musicians what they thought their music was worth.

I don’t think pirating anything and everything on the internet will ever go away, but I do think people will be willing to pay an artist what they think they are worth. Those without expendable income may consume an artist’s work for free, but their fandom may grow with their income, allowing them to contribute in the future.

Honestly, I don’t have a huge problem with things being available for free on the internet. When there is an artist, author or musician I truly appreciate, I go out and spend my hard-earned money on their work. If someone’s art isn’t up to par and I don’t feel like it’s worth my dollar, I’ll settle for a YouTube video.

Do you think people would pay something to artists they enjoy if given the option to pay what they want? If everything was paid for that way, how would we see popular music and movies change? Would they? 


62 thoughts on “The Price of an Artist in the Digital Age”

  1. That’s a very interesting and tricky subject. I agree with you – artists should get paid for their work. I’m drawing and painting, apart from blogging, so I know that artist’s job is not in any way easier or less deserving of compensation. It takes years of learning, mastering your craft, thousands of failures to create a work you feel proud of and then seeing it stolen is heartbreaking.
    It takes a shift in the consciousness and time for the world to understand this and value our work, but I have hope and faith that things are getting better 🙂

    1. Well, we’re in the middle of a shift that goes against compensating the average artist for their work. I’m not sure how to change that in the digital age.

    2. Well said; I totally agree. I think artists are in a tough place ie balancing the need for exposure and recognition, while at the same time running the risk of having original work stolen or reproduced. I personally wouldn’t post or use anyone else’s artwork or photos, unless I was so impressed that I felt the urge to share that person’s website or facebook page, along with thier full contact details, on my own, which of course would benefit the artist in question. I would certainly ask permission first. In the 2 instances where I have used another person’s photo as a reference for a painting, I have first asked permission, on the understanding that the finished painting is a practice or portfolio piece only and not to be sold or reproduced to sell in any way. ( in fact, I have plenty of my own photographs so have not yet used the 2 photos which I have asked permission to use) I also credit the photographer with the original photo. I would be very upset if another person used my artwork or photography without my knowledge. I believe I am correct in saying that in the U.S and U.K, original artwork is automatically protected by copyright anyway, and in theory a person using that artwork without permission could potentially be sued, even without copyright registry, provided the artist had a dated chronicle of the development of the artwork which would show its originality and time of creation.

      1. I think you are right in terms of the law. But people get around that with websites like Flicker automatically putting photos under creative commons when uploaded. People need to pay attention to that. I’m not sure how it all works but I know that – in terms of blogging – photos are a big deal. That’s why I want to pay for the photos I use. Then I feel more assured the artist is getting paid.

  2. I’m not sure. I think there is value is original and print work still. If you are a graphic designer, you know that you can’t just rip images off from the Internet for print work because the resolution is to low. Anything that is going to make an artist real money isn’t going to get ripped off because it just doesn’t make sense to do that on the Internet. A blog post is more like a nod rather than a rip off.

    Music is a whole different thing. But… I’m not in that world. I’m a painter and a graphic designer.

    1. I suppose a blog post is a different thing, but there are plenty of professional bloggers out there. I’m sure they’d take issue with their work being copied.

    2. Good point on resolution, Callie. This is part of my solution when I post images that link to art prints of that image for sale. I upload a super high-res image to my printing service. But on my blog, I use an image that has been resized down to maybe 50 percent of the original size. People can look at the blog image, share it, or repost it – but they would not be able to make very high-quality prints from it. Other than putting watermarks on all the blog images – which just looks annoying on an art blog – I’d love to hear how other people approach the problem.

      1. I’m no graphic artist, but that sounds like a good solution to me. Even if someone does steal your work, there’s no way for them to make it look good. I don’t really think that would stop people from using it, but anyone who seriously want your work will hopefully seek out the original, good quality image.

  3. WOW, your post really struck me on so many levels. I recently made a little piece of “art’ referencing a movie. I initially contacted the company who holds the rights to the film and sent them photos and dimensions asking permission to use the image of the finished piece on my blog. I would have been more than happy to pay a small fee to post the image. I was told no special permissions were likely needed. Though the gentleman who helped me was not a lawyer, he offered information that put my mind at rest about sharing the photo of what I did online.

    I personally like to contact other artists and ask permission to use photos of their work I find inspiring and have never been told no, most are more than happy to let me share their work and provide a link to their blog.

    Very interesting post, raises good points on a topic many of us are confused about, sometimes people make honest mistakes and don’t even think they are breaking any laws. But clearly, the more we share information on the internet, the more we need to educate ourselves on the proper procedures.

    1. I’d prefer to ask artist too but I do a have a lot of time. I used to do that on flicker but that ended real fast. I didn’t have time to wait. That’s why I like the idea of buying images.

      1. You are right about that – I have been lucky to get quick reply from artist/bloggers. But I will definitely consider buying images – but even then – can’t find the exact ones I might want to use. I will say – the gentleman was very quick replying to my request about the movie still – replied to me in just a couple of hours.

        1. The thing is, and I know this might be a little picky, I typically need an image right now. I know I should plan better, but I can’t help it.

  4. I’m a graphic designer and ripping images off the internet is crazy easy for me. I don’t ever print what I rip though, I only use the images for personal little Photoshop jobs I like to do for my friends that they post to their Facebooks. The end resulting artwork never looks like what I ripped though because I usually only need part of a piece of something. My philosophy is something along the lines of, “If I need a tomato for some quick work for a friend, I’m not going to create one when there are thousands online I can use.” Most resolutions are too low for printing, but not all. You can find some pretty large high resolution images that you could totally print and sell if you really wanted to. I don’t advise anyone to do it since it’s not legal to sell something you didn’t make and I know all about the legalities of these things for personal experiences and college. Had to send some cease and desists 😦

      1. True. Fortunately, I and others like me have become experts at tracking down people who steal our work and my company has a exceptional lawyer. It’s one thing to use something for personal use, but to try and make money off someone’s work that you just copied and pasted onto your site… yeah, we’re gonna take you to court for shit like that. It’s so important that people use copyrights and trademarks. If you don’t then court isn’t even an option.

  5. As an artist, I found this topic of discussion very interesting. Any time I have exhibited or otherwise sold my work outside of commission pieces, I have found that pricing my work gives me a huge headache: I don’t want to price myself out of the market, want to have a price that appeals, but at the same time I cannot and do not want to short change myself.

    A problem I have encountered is that people do not always appreciate just how much is invested in a work of art. Even if one removes the value of someone’s imagination, talent, skill, time and energy, the potential consumer does not always appreciate the actual cost involved in creating the art and thus underestimates the overheads. I remember someone once pitching me a price for one of my pieces that was a fraction of what I was asking and they seemed offended when I explained that I could not accept their offer as it would not even cover the cost of framing. It would, therefore, be a foolhardy and risky venture for me to ever try a “pay what you want” gimmick.

    In terms of online use of another person’s creativity, I think on the internet as in life it comes down to honesty, integrity, courtesy and respect. Referencing and acknowledging that the work is not your own and providing a link to the original creator I think probably covers the etiquette required.

    1. I can see that. It makes it difficult for the artist with little money. I feel like people are willing to pay less and less for good creative works theses days.

      1. Artists have to adapt to the market and economic context too. When the global recession struck, I increased my output of smaller, more affordable pieces and really only did larger, more complex pieces for commission. Sadly original art work is a luxury and luxury spending shrinks in lean times. That’s why my art has always been a supplementary income.

  6. In the old days artists had patrons who funded their work/life. I think that is returning in some ways through and similar crowfunding mechanisms. Once the digital banking kinks get worked out, i think that’s a viable route. I know I’d willingly contribute a few cents here and there to posts i enjoyed, but the idea of 50 or 100 transactions of a few cents on my account isn’t exactly appealing, nor are lots of tiny transactions cost effective to the artist bc of transactions fees.

    1. If we see system like that, I think it might be similar to certain ad networks websites use. Each individual action may not be worth so much as a dollar, so the artist doesn’t get paid until the pool reaches a certain number. Then there are no small transactions.

  7. I never speak of how much effort I put into my work. The average client is not interested in that. I think the key thing is the quality of work and imaginative prowess. I have seen my works being replicated on the internet but I have no objection except this one time, that I saw one of my earliest poems being used to promote a brothel. I did not create it for a brothel so I was really angered. Aside that, I think those who see some value in your work will gladly pay for it and tell you to keep the change. O! a little trick on how to get higher res. from lower res: convert the image to vector and blow it up. Then export to bitmap again. Use this trick on only monotone or duotone images.

    1. I think the same way, that people who value your work will pay for it given the option, regardless. There is a benefit to that system, too. Putting things out there without a price allows anyone to consume it. Even if someone can’t afford to pay for something, they can still spread work of your work. That alone might bring in more income….

      That is, assuming that most people who can afford to pay a small amount to people who create things they like do so.

  8. This is an interesting point I have often thought about. There is a restaurant in Salt Lake City called the New World Café which runs on that very concept. There is no menu, simply whatever the chef decides to make, and there are no prices, whatever you feel it is worth (but free is not an option) if you can’t pay, you can work to pay for your meal. This idea has stuck with me for a long time. Since I work in the field of natural medicine, I have seen many people opt out of more effective healing because they “can’t afford it”. But at the same time, there is the argument for seeing value in what you offer and being willing to put a price on it. Interesting post.

    1. I LOVE that idea, depending on how much work is there for those who can’t pay. I mean, that allows people who can’t afford to pay the ability to eat while also allowing the restaurant the ability to identify their most profitable dish. I imagine they have some of the best food. I may have to make my way to Salt Lake City one of these days.

  9. The arts truly flourished after the agricultural revolution, with the economic models used by most civilizations allowing for people to work as artists and use the money they made to pay for lodging and food. For thousands of years we’ve used this model. The 21st century is changing the game. With less money to be made as an artist, more artists have to either give up or take on day jobs, reducing the amount of art being produced. However, technology has enabled many to produce art. Digital photography, especially with mobile phones, has opened a flood gate of photographers, giving voice to many who were barred from the craft a generation previous due to technical or fiscal barriers. Online media has blurred the line between producer and consumer.

    Another benefit is people can now go online and experience art much cheaper, instead of being forced to buy plastic sealed $100 art books or pay a huge tuition to attend art school. I can go onto Flickr or 500px and experience photography. Before, I had to buy books or travel for hours to a major city to attend a gallery or visit a proper library.

    An honour system of people paying artists as they see fit won’t solve the problem of piracy, but it might be a valuable tool artists can utilize to enable them to produce art without having to work 40 hours a week at a day job.

    1. You know, I think this is kind of like society in general. The system we’ve been using isn’t bad, but the world is changing. Perhaps a better system exist to work with current times. Ads seem to be the biggest thing in terms of online content. Could business and art support each other, allowing artist freedom to do what they want and those with the most views to be blessed with high paying ads? I can see that becoming a rigged game, easily though… still… there must be something. A new way for artists to flourish in the digital age.

  10. I think of online posting as a great source of feedback and word-of-mouth advertising, a portfolio of sorts. I consider the original works of art to be separate items from the digital facsimiles. One day, it would be nice to meet more people who say, “I have seen your work. I really like your style.”

      1. I see your point. But I still think there is a difference between people seeing and sharing a reduced size and lower quality copy and having the original art in full resolution.

        Though many will be satisfied with a downgraded version of the original, art collectors would not.

        1. That’s not really what I mean. I mean that there are graphic artist, video games, and forms of art that are created 100% with digital technology. A scanned copy of art can never match its original, but someone that was original in a digital form is still art. Like the physical counterpart, something created digitally can never shine quite as greatly printed out.

  11. Another issue is whether people can spare the money to pay for anything. There are many books I want to buy on amazon but I never have any money since it all goes to buy food or pay bills.

    So an artist should not feel bad if they cannot make a living doing what they do.

    1. Right, but in order for those books to continue to be made, they have to make money somehow. Ideally then, those who can afford to pay will do so while those of us who can’t will still be able to enjoy the art.

  12. I think you have some really good thoughts here, and I agree. The increased access to everything and anything does tend to have the effect of devaluing things. I too have recently come to have a change of mind, and decided I need to start paying for things from people I respect even if I can get it elsewhere for free. As an example, I follow a number of blogs, and am on some email lists. I frequently get links to free eBooks, and have started going back and donating to the ones that I thought were worthwhile.

    1. That’s great. I try to do that, but with student loans and a few other large payments I have, I rarely can. Someday, though, I hope I make enough where I can give to those creators I most admire.

  13. Very intriguing post, yes it needs more dialogue…the price of art in the digital space and technology invasion.

    I had just shared my thoughts on the role of artists in this digital is the contention and more on…looking forward to hear your perspective.

    The art of creativity is merging with the science of innovation. It is quite natural to debate, and a healthy dialogue between the digital development and the physical engagement is imperative…

    1. Dialog is always important. It’s the only way we can truly know the value of art and how to measure it in an age where all sorts of art are available for free.

  14. As an illustrator I’m happy to read your thoughts on valuing art on the net. I think, the more specifically an artwork is used in a fitting context, the more beneficial the created traffic is for all sides. As a blogger I observe how some posts use visual material without a convincing connection to the content (this is true even for many professional sites using only royalty free pictures). To make the visual and the textual content fructify each other requires real thought work – even when one person does the whole job (as I often do). Khoi Vinh has pointed at the unintentionally comical effects of bad, “automatic” use of pictures in the web:
    Right now, using the right visuals for the fitting kind of content becomes more relevant than ever, SEO-wise. The more we understand how to enhance content visibility through the use of pictures and the like, the faster we’ll get traffic and response results that will help us to remunerate the associated artwork.

    1. It’s all just so complicated. I work on the content side of social media marketing and seo. Every fine detail means something. Building a great website is almost a work of art on its own.

  15. Also tricky is the idea of selling let’s say paintings, or other pieces of art in a time when so much art is either installations, movies, performance art, or some other multi-media blast that is sponsored by Art Grants. To declare yourself an artist is to be brave, in that what you put out there will be criticized and often ignored, and rarely paid for. What can we do but keep creating? And, in terms of human rights abuses, my saddest story is one that’s been going on since 1969: the genocide of West Papuans by the Indonesian government in order to gain access to a huge pile of minerals. The Free Papua Movement exists, but how many people know that somewhere in the range of 500,000 and 1,000,000 millino people have been killed?

    1. I think that’s what makes artists such unique people. That passion is as important as anything else. On some level, the greatest artist just want to create, regardless of who pays attention.

      As for the genocide of West Papuans, I’m sorry to admit I don’t know much about that. I will say that I hate how our news leaves so much out. It bugged me even in grade school. We learned about American and European history. Rarely did we touch on much else. There are other countries and they deserve attention. When it comes to news, we should be hearing about all of this.

  16. The Pay-What-You-Want model is proving to be a good one for music acts with enough of a following (e.g. Amanda Palmer, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead), but being an indie musician myself with albums under that same model, I don’t see much income from it. It could simply boil down to a lack of continual self marketing.

    For writing however, it’s a different story. You may want to investigate how some musical and writing collectives have created subscription plans for their work (can’t recall the name right now), and even started micropayments so donors can have a regular stream of content delivered to them.

    Don’t fret, there is light at the end of this tunnel we travel.

    1. Thanks ^_^ I sure hope there’s a light at the end. I’ve always said writers must have a small bit of masochist in them because there is so much effort that goes into it and the chances of high reward are rarely high.

  17. I do think people will pay for content they enjoy.

    There are many projects I can site that live off this model, depending largely on using Kickstarter to fund themselves: many podcasts (including WTNV, 99% Invisible), webcomic series (Ava’s Demon’s creator works full-time on this thanks to crowd sourced funding), and tons of Youtube video projects (subbable being the more common source of funding for these). It’s worth noting that all this content is available to anyone with Internet for free. I think these kind of relationships are largely dependent on mutual trust. The artist trusts that the audience understands artists are people too and need money to continue supporting their lifestyle and creation of content. Similarly, the audience needs to trust that the artist will do right by their money and use that money to continue creating quality content.

    1. I think we are trying to figure this all out in a digital age. I went to school for journalism and there was a lot of discussion about how the industry will have to change to survive in the digital age. Artists are the same way. It’s not like it’s impossible, it just takes a different way of looking at how to attract interested people and how you make an income. I agree and really do think people will pay for content they enjoy. It’s a good way to judge your work, too. If people aren’t willing to pay for your work, then it probably wouldn’t sell if you restrict access to only those who paid for it.

  18. A system that allows members to upload images and/or get paid would needs to vet members and images to be trustworthy IMO. There are many sites that claim to offer images free or cheap, but infringers do upload things they don’t own to sites like that. If a blogger or someone inadvertently uses an image that’s not supposed to be there, they can get a DMCA takedown or worse, even though they didn’t know it wasn’t ok to use it.
    It pays to find the real owner and get express permission, or at the very least, determine which members are really uploading their own work and stick with trusted ones. I and many of my artist/photographer circle have found their work exposed to ‘licenses,’ stock sites, etc, without their permission. This article is a good explanation of the problem:
    I do agree artists should be paid! Getting paid is the only thing that allows most artists to make art full time and pay their bills. Otherwise it is relegated to hobby status and not much gets made. Artists should not give away their work nor be ‘flattered’ when it’s taken without permission.

    1. That’s why I’m leaning towards sites where i have to pay something. Not only will that help me from a social media perspective (I can put my title on them, for example, and post to Pinterest), I feel like the artists on those sites are more than likely getting paid for their work. It also allows me the convenience of downloading an image right away. Asking and waiting for express permission can be difficult if you have a deadline for your post.

  19. Kudos to you ChapterTK for discussing the need for $ for every creative. We all enjoy and appreciate, “Wow, that’s wonderful, amazing, inspirational…,” and would love to receive pay for what we do. While we are passionate about our endeavors and many are in the process of making something better, more pleasurable, interesting, colorful, enlightened with creative thoughts, words, deeds, art, music, sculptures, lyrics…, I don’t think we intend to starve in the process. Ours is as valuable as the structure that houses the $; as the tread that carries the vehicle; the pigskin that crosses over the 10-yard line; the scrubs that enter the antiseptic allergy and the voice that promises a balanced budget and the sound, scent, texture, prose, reflexed muscle, visual stimulation that soothes the savage beast, nest pas?

    1. you are welcome. I consider myself a creative myself and am working on my first books. I wouldn’t mind getting paid for blogging, too, which I see as a creative endeavor. It’s hard, though, as I have to have a day job (which I do honestly love) in order to get by. I hope to someday live off my creative writing, but that requires people who are willing to pay for what I create.

  20. Within every generation there are major shift in the economy of careers. History has relects the changes society has gone through. Starting with the telegraph, books, newspapers, radio, telephones, television, and home appliances. These are all changes in society that has improved humanity to make life better and more informed.

    Each of the items listed above took away some form of industry, yet created another. It is the changes that is forever apart of humanity causing a change in all of our lives. The future is always bright with the development of something new just around the corner.

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