So, how do artists eat? Let’s change perspectives before we get into that, a lot of people have a skewed view of the arts and economics behind them. Imagine the biggest artist you know and how much money they make. If you thought Kanye or Tom Cruise, you’re probably right. They probably have a lot of money.
Now think of an artist you actually like and how much money you imagine them to have. If you mentioned a more mid level celebrity…an artist who’s prime was in the ‘90s, a technically proficient artist that’s out of the mainstream or just someone regionally well known. If you’re thinking millions, you’re probably way off. First, remove celebrity from the equation. Imagine you didn’t know their name. You’re just thinking about their job and the salary that brings them. Their salary would be the things that from year to year, they can rely upon. Steady gigs (round down, because you never know when it’ll be a lean year), product sales (you have a core audience that will always buy your work) or royalties/residuals. That salary generally stays pretty steady for an artist and it tends to hover around the middle to upper middle class. So about the same as a skilled worker or perhaps an engineer or someone in the medical field.
Now, that is with some people that are genuine celebrities…meaning you’ve paid for their concerts or bought their work and they’re generally well known. Their celebrity might earn some extra over their salary in a given year but that money can be very finite or very conditional. For example, album advances. Record labels give you large advances when you get signed but that money has to put towards actually making the album. You have to pay for studio time, engineers, equipment rental, session musicians, graphic designers. Basically, they have to pay the next class of artists under them.
That brings us to where most of us are at…local DJs, dancers, session and live musicians graphic designers, event promoters, social media content providers, engineers, editors, and other artists. We have a salary too and if you do the math for a lot of us, I’d bet it works out to about minimum wage. If you keep up with politics, you know that’s not a lot to support a lot of people out there. Most of us work day jobs, second jobs or use disparate creative projects to generate any income from any form of art we can do. Again, removing celebrity…social media feedback, YouTube views, Soundcloud listens…all that shit is temporary. It adds to the salary in a given year sometimes but now of that extra income ends up going to upgrading gear, paying other artists for work you need done, going bigger with your projects, etc. Any added popularity adds to your salary but it also adds to your expenses. Mo’ money, mo’ problems, you know the deal.
So today in the breaking community there’s a lot of talk over charging three dollars to watch a highly anticipated battle. There seems to be an idea that, since we’ve been provided high-quality battles on YouTube up until now, why should we have to pay for this? Let’s be clear, you don’t have to pay for it. You don’t have to watch it or you can find it for free, that’s up to you. I was a pirate for years so I’m not any position to judge you. However, don’t knock the hustle. If someone wants to make money of the art they’ve already put money in to, don’t badmouth how they’re doing it.
In this specific case, we’re talking about the promoter who paid the dancers, the DJs, the judges, the venue, the cameramen and editor to bring you the content that you’re looking at. It was an enormous cost to them and I’m sure they’d like to do more in the future. To do that, they’ll need more money. They’ve got to to increase the “salary” so they can quit a day job or free other elements of their life that would allow them fully commit to doing this to the best of their ability. They’ll also have to pay more dancers, DJs, judges, and everyone else. They probably want to be able to pay those people even better next time around so they can also fully commit to their craft.
This is personal to me. I get hired to DJ breaking and dance events. I’ve sacrificed a lot of time, effort and expense to do that because I care about these cultures. I could switch focus to doing wedding gigs and make more in one day than I would from several breaking events. It already takes a lot of work to be an artist. To try and be one in an extremely niche arena on top of that; it’s extremely tough. The breaking community is not a large one and many of the people working within it could be doing other things with their time and many of them eventually have to because this scene can’t sustain a career for many of us. We can all name plenty of dancers that had to move on to the studio and film world or promoters that moved on to day jobs or club promotion or DJs that are doing mobile and club gigs.
Back when I started DJ’ing around ‘99, there were these “Support your local DJ” stickers that were ubiquitous. They were on record crates everywhere, didn’t matter if it was a rave or a b-boy battle. There was an idea that if you like a local, you support them. You did it because you wanted them to get further ahead to do better things so you could get a better product in the future. They were a part of your scene and you wanted your scene to be as awesome as possible. I think this idea is still even more important than it was when I started but the internet has fundmentally changed how all that works.
We’re all competing with each other for your time because there’s millions of hours of content out there today. TV, Books,Streaming Video, Films, Podcasts, Audible, Spotify, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, Vimeo, YouTube, Video Games…there’s a lot of stuff and you can get 100% of it for free if you want. As artists, we need to keep a decent salary but this type of thing basically eliminates two of the main ways we could get it; product sales and royalties/residuals. We basically have to rely on live performance. That means that we have to provide free content to get our name out there to compete against the millions of other things you can do for free. Eventually, that free content has to lead to payment down the road or else, it is no longer worth doing. Either through a product (like renting a battle), through more live performance or the rare and random chance that someone decides to donate money.
If you like the free stuff you’re getting, you can’t assume it’s going to keep coming for free. Occasionally, you will be given the chance to pay for things you like. It’s up to you whether you choose to give that or not, but if you want better content in the future or more of it, you should pay. Remember that “Support Your Local DJ” bumper sticker I was talking about? Forget what local means, we’ve all made our own tribes and communities and for us, the global breaking community is “local.” We’re all in close contact with each other and have the means to exchange content and ideas. And forget the “DJ” part of the sticker, this goes for any artist in a community you support; the promoters, videographers, dancers, judges. You pay one of us, you’re essentially paying all of us. You’re raising the tide. You’re contributing to something that could lead to YOU getting paid.
Like I’ve said, you don’t HAVE to pay. If you’re not going to pay though; don’t knock someone else for trying to survive and move things ahead. I can’t believe I even need to say this, but definitely don’t steal the content they’re trying to sell and provide it for free. Even if you don’t think you should pay, you can at least have enough respect for the people in your local commnunity to not steal from them.