For profit or not, artists need tech designed for artists

By Adam Huttler

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In Technology Isn’t Magic. Let’s Make It Work Better for Artists and Musicians, Kevin Erickson and Jean Cook from the Future of Music Coalition offer some smart observations about the roles – both positive and negative – that technology can play in our field. Refreshingly, they avoid the all-too-common trap of anthropomorphizing new technologies as moral agents. BitTorrent is no more inherently righteous or evil than a toaster is; what matters is how the technology is used.

So how should we be using technology to ensure that it has a positive impact on the lives and work of artists? Erickson and Cook argue for increased investment in “artist-centered” technology infrastructure. This framing is critical and, I believe, correct. Where my own view starts to diverge from theirs, however, is in defining the factors that make a platform or service artist-centered. When technology fails to serve artists, it isn’t because of the provider’s tax status; it’s because the technology was never designed to serve artists in the first place.

Erickson and Cook emphasize a few elements:

  • Non-profit organizations should own and drive the development of technology services
  • Attention must be paid to power disparities and how technology amplifies or mitigates them
  • Artists must be involved in the design process from the earliest stages.

While none of this is wrong, per se, I’d like to offer a simpler framework. An artist-centered technology platform is one that makes artists its customers.

That’s it. As counterintuitive as it may seem, this single factor is both necessary and sufficient to ensure that a service supports and empowers artists, rather than exploits them for profit. When the artist is the customer, she ends up having agency in controlling and directing her own work, and it is her brand that accrues equity as a result of her success, not that of the platform. By contrast, when we consider consumers, advertisers or other third-parties to be our customers, then artists are inevitably treated as products or (worse) commodity inputs.

To illustrate, I’ll offer a brazenly self-serving example. Consider two ticketing platforms: Artful.ly and Telecharge. Fractured Atlas designed Artful.ly from day one to treat the artist, not the ticket buyer, as the customer. Telecharge is a traditional consumer-oriented ticket portal. Artful.ly allows users to sell tickets on their own websites; Telecharge drives traffic to a central, branded portal. Artful.ly makes itself invisible during the purchase process, putting the artist’s identity front-and-center; Telecharge presents itself as a consumer-facing brand. Artful.ly users own their audience data and can export it for free at any time; Telecharge retains all audience data and provides a limited subset of it to event producers. These are just a few of many examples; in truth, this one design principle pervades nearly every aspect of both platforms.

In contrast, the factors identified by Erickson and Cook are meaningful, but not essential. We can all stand to be more conscious of how power disparities contribute to inequality, and it’s never a bad idea to involve end-users in the design of a product. The only really problematic criterion is the question of non-profit vs. for-profit provenance — we must resist ascribing morality to a tax status!

The authors point out several for-profit, non-artist-centered platforms, such as Apple Music, Spotify and Facebook. Yet there are plenty of counter-examples of for-profit technology tools that do put the artist in the center – typically by treating her as the customer to be served. To stick with the music industry, consider CD Baby, which essentially allows independent musicians to serve as their own record labels. It charges them setup fees and takes a cut of sales, but puts them in control of their own catalogs and pays them both the artist’s and the label’s share of royalties. There are countless examples from elsewhere in the arts – digital cameras, graphic design software, film editing tools, some (but not all) crowdfunding platforms.

At the same time, many non-profit efforts fail to heed this principle. I’ll avoid calling out specific peers, but suffice it to say that non-profit initiatives sometimes put the needs and desires of third-party funders ahead of those of artists. The times when I’ve badly misstepped on Artful.ly and other projects have invariably been when I’ve fallen into this trap.

Technology innovation is hurdling onward, propelling us into the future at an ever-accelerating pace. The dangers that Erickson and Cook identify are real. We may yet find ourselves in a dystopian landscape where a handful of mega-corporations control all media consumption and treat artists as just another exploitable resource. This vision is hardly inevitable, however. If we are smart and intentional in our use and design of technology systems, we can just as easily put artists and creators in the driver’s seat. The good news is that the essential principle – make the artist the customer and emphasize her needs above other stakeholders’ – is remarkably easy to identify and equally easy to follow.

Adam Huttler is the founder and Executive Director of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit technology company for artists. Follow him on Twitter @adamthehutt.

Photo by Tracy Thomas via Unsplash / Creative Commons.

Published March 23, 2016

  • Marc Zegans

    Fine piece Adam. You’ve put the focus in the right place, artist as customer versus artist as input to an organization’s own production process, rather than for profit versus not-for-profit. It’s particularly important that you draw this line, because there’s been a long history in the not for profit world of supporting arts organizations, intermediaries and folks who do grant-making and policy, collectively known as “the field,” at the expense of artists themselves. Putting our attention instead on creating technologies and organizational structures that enable artists to thrive, is the truly interesting and important question. The practical issue then becomes, for a given kind of artist need, or bundle of artist’s needs, what’s the best technical and institutional vehicle for satisfying these needs, and what organizational form and capital structure best suits this vehicle? The distinction you draw between the two ticketing models is a good illustration of how, from an artist’s perspective, to solve the design problem well and how to solve it poorly. Your later reference to CD baby as a fine example of a for profit enterprise that serves the artist well underscores the point beautifully, to which as a CD baby artist, I can attest. Hope your piece opens up a rich discussion.

  • An an artist myself (I co-wrote the piece here on Creativz on artists partnering with activist orgs) who is also the co-founder of http://OtherPeoplesPixels.com, I really appreciate you bringing this discussion to the forefront. OPP is one of the oldest (and most popular…thanks artists!) artist website services, founded and run by artists and musicians (c. 2005).

    I appreciate so much your point about “not ascribing morality” based on tax-status. OPP is a for-profit company, but our ethical stance is that we are artist-centric before anything else. Unlike all the website companies that purport to be “for creatives” but actually use them as the product for freemium models or to boost their investor profile, OPP never has and never will take VC investment — as this would undoubtedly compromise our ability to always put artists first.

    Not only are we looking out for our artists customers, because they’re OUR COMMUNITY too, but we use our jobs at OPP and those we provide to our employees as a way to enable our creative work. Everyone gets insurance paid for by the company, as well as paid maternity/paternity and flexible work-from-home time — so we can work in the studio or be with family etc. In fact, I’m working flex-time right now on a train, so that I can install a solo show at a CA museum this coming week. OPP also gives back to the arts community: most recently with the MAKER grant, which awards unrestricted funds to socially/environmentally engaged artists in Chicago.

    You often people saying artists should “professionalize” and for “artists to act more like businesses” but this strikes me as inverted advice (artists should not be brands for sale; we should work against a destructive hierarchical system of capital!). In fact, what I think we need to make a better world, for artists and everyone, is for *businesses to act more like artists* — e.g. put the quality of the work first (before profit…though this does not mean you can’t support your employees well), to think creatively and be nimble, work to work outside of and around established norms, to shake up habituated states of being, and to put your care into your community. When artists win, everyone wins.

  • Pingback: Putting the Artist at the Center, Twitter's Music Strategy, Blockchain, and more - The Coyle Report()

  • Many artists put feedback into this…many support it…and it was designed to return balance between artists and technology. A legendary artist co-founded it. It was designed not just for music, but for all created artist as a framework to allow rights owners, developers, and citizens to be partners, not adversaries.

    http://n2one.us

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Hine

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

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Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons