How do artists get paid?

NB: The bit about NFT and smart contracts is at the end.

As I discussed yesterday, being able to resell digital art via an NFT means that the price of art falls to zero. Let's assume that I'm correct and, through a combination of technology and changing social attitudes, no one wants to pay for music, books, films, or art any more.

What are the ways that art and artists could get funded? Here are a few sketched out ideas - they all overlap a little. And then a brief discussion about how smart contracts could solve this - but probably won't.


I commission someone to paint a picture or write a book. I can then release it to the public if I want. This is how a lot of public art and statues are funded.

This generally means that art caters to the very rich. This may reduce the choice and inventiveness of the art as it is specifically designed to appeal to an individual patron.


"And then Harry and Hermione celebrated with a refreshing glass of Coca-Cola."


Of course, product placement is already used to subsidise movies.

Private Works

Lots of performers do "private" gigs. My previous employer once paid Elton John to serenade staff at a private party.

Could I pay James Patterson to write me an Alex Cross book? Or get Jane Campion to make a movie just for me? Sure, if I had enough cash.

This locks other people out of the experience - which, in itself, may be worth paying for.


Perhaps only independently wealthy people will be able to afford to create art. If you have no need to make something profitable, you can dedicate your time to making something which appeals to only your tastes.

For a long time, art creation and appreciation was restricted to the wealthy. Do we want to go back to those days?


The cost of generating art falls to zero, so anyone who wants can do it in their spare time. People may not even care about being paid for what they create.

Is flooding the market with self-published fiction and badly recorded songs a good thing? Does it mean people rely more on taste-makers and trend-setters?

Fan Collectives

The 1,000 True Fans theory states that if you can get a large enough group of dedicated fans, you can make a living. Having 1,000 fans pay £30 per year, would give someone an average income. It then doesn't matter if no-one else pays.

But there's a limit to how many artists one person can afford to be a fan of.


An extension of the above. A group of people pay for a library to buy and maintain a collection of books, music, and films. We all pay a small amount, the library tracks what is popular, and pays out on that basis.

This is how Netflix works. And Spotify. And, indeed, regular book libraries.


If we all have Universal Basic Income, we can spend our time creating whatever art we want. And, if we have spare cash, we can join with others to commission larger works.

But would we choose to create art if there was no profit in it? Would we bother paying artists if we knew they weren't going to starve?

NFTs and Smart Contracts

Suppose you buy a piece of digital art - be it a stupid picture of a monkey, or a book about cheese. Embedded in the smart contract is a clause that a percentage of the resale price goes back to the original author.

For example, a smart contract could say "If you sell your copy of this work, you must pay the author the higher of £1 or 10% of the sale price."

This sets a minimum price for "second hand" digital goods. If the price is set higher than buying directly from the author, it may incentivise people to buy direct.

Limited Releases

The Wu-Tang Clan released a limited edition album - Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. It was a limited edition of just one CD. The buyer is not allowed to play the album to the public - although private listening parties are allowed.

The music industry is in crisis. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity ... By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale ... we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music. (Archive of the original)

Perhaps the final "Game of Thrones" book will be limited to, say, 1,000 single readers at a time. And you'll need to wait for someone to finish reading their copy before you can buy it off them!



The central joke about NFT is that they try to impose artificial scarcity on inherently fungible good. My copy of your JPG is bit-for-bit identical in both appearance and utility.

It is often said that the downfall of MP3 piracy was the convenience of iTunes and Spotify. Lots of people are happy to pay a modest sum for music - if it is convenient and reliable.

Could I go to some dodgy torrent site and get a cam of the latest Spider-Man? Sure - or I could pay £6 per month to Netflix and have unlimited everything.

Everyone in the UK has access to a taxation-funded library which gives them access to most books. Or they can pay a subscription to a private company like Amazon.

The key with all of those is breadth of choice, low price, and ease of use.

If prices go up, or services become too fragmented, people return to piracy.

If an piece of art is locked down, it will be trivial to copy it and then either give it away or sell it. And so the cycle continues.

What's the solution?

I want more art by more diverse artists. I think the world is moving to a model of collective micropayment patronage clustered around a few big players.

Small-time artists will benefit from the discovery of being on the big platforms. Maybe they'll go viral and make money - but most likely they'll get dribs and drabs of income. People will still steal their content.

Dedicated fans of small-time artists will buy direct. Better profits for the artist, and a sense of satisfaction for their fans. Some fans will still steal their content.

Extremely large artists will, eventually, become annoyed by the limitations of the big platforms and try to go independent as well. The network effects will be too strong, and the non-dedicated fans will just steal their content

The future ain't what it used to be!

3 thoughts on “How do artists get paid?

  1. Leopold says:

    Have you read Doctorow's 'Information doesn't want to be free'? I think it posits some interesting ideas for art in the information age.

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