Sputnik Faith and Arts Are you a patron, or a consumer?

Are you a patron, or a consumer?

Arts patronage sounds very grand. It’s the kind of lofty practice that built St Peters. It is the realm of rich philanthropists and open handed millionaires.

The only thing is that, well… it’s not. In a way, we are all patrons of the arts whether we like it or not. We all buy stuff, or at the very least stream stuff, and our attention and the capital behind it encourages more art like that to be made. 

This should cause us to be careful about the art we consume, but more than that, I think it is a warning against viewing our art engagement through the lens of ‘consumption’ at all.

Our society is not known as consumerist for nothing. We are offered different diets in all the different areas of our lives, and we make almost all of our choices like we’re ordering from a menu. The watchword is value for money and the key question is how can I get what I want for as little money as possible?

Now, it’s easy to write off this system completely, but I personally think that this is an acceptable course of action when deciding which green beans to buy in Aldi. 

It is not, however, a good way to approach art.

Muddy digital waters

Obviously in the good old days, this was more clear cut. Let’s take music, for example. Twenty years ago, to listen to the music you wanted to listen to when you wanted to listen to it, you had three options: a) Buy a physical copy, b) Copy it, c) Steal it. 

C was obviously bad. B was basically the same as C (and deep down we all knew it). Therefore, if we wanted to appease our consciences, we were left with A!

Fast forward to today. Not saying it’s better. Not saying it’s worse. It’s just different. At least in some artforms. 

Take music and film as two examples. Almost none of us pay for individual artistic products in these disciplines anymore. Obviously, there are still DVD collectors and I’ve heard cassettes may be making a comeback, but for the vast majority of people, we choose our provider, pay our subscription, then stream.

I think, for music, it’s 0.004p a song. Might work if you have 10 million streams (and an advertising deal, and a sold out world tour). Not good if you are feeling your way, trying things out and producing promising but flawed music that could evolve into something great. 

If we all continue to approach art as consumers now, we will probably kill off the artists who exist in the ‘aspiring’ category, and ensure that the art that survives is unchallenging, populist and totally forgettable.

Yes, the production costs for emerging musicians have gone down (no CDs to press) but there was always a real buzz about breaking even when you’d printed up 1,000 CDs. It is not so encouraging when you spend hours and days and weeks crafting your opus, only to receive back £12.50 from AWAL for 6 months of solid streams. 

It must be even harder for filmmakers, and it’s likely to get harder. In terms of film, we’ve already got very used to watching most of our content for free on YouTube and Vimeo. Of course, we stream major releases, but you are not likely to find your friend’s short film in the Amazon Prime search bar. 

If we all continue to approach art as consumers now, we will probably kill off the artists who exist in the ‘aspiring’ category, and ensure that the art that survives is unchallenging, populist and totally forgettable. 

Or worse, any artist who wishes to make a living from their work will have to bow before corporations to sell their products. Who knows what the future holds for live art, but what we do know is that we’re likely to be spending more time in front of screens post-COVID, not less. This means that we will be spending more time being sold stuff. This means that, while other revenue streams dry up, the lure of advertisers will increase and artists who are willing to jump on that train will get paid, while others won’t.

I’m in no way suggesting that artists shouldn’t work for corporations or contribute towards advertisements. In many disciplines, to draw a line here would be career suicide. However, surely this should be an exception rather than the rule. Surely, we don’t want the corporations to be the sole patrons of the arts. That would be a bad thing, right?

Approaching art as patrons, not consumers

Now, I’m not suggesting there is an easy fix for all of this, and there are complexities here that need to be fleshed out at much more length. However, if enough of us made an effort to approach art as patrons not as consumers, surely it would improve the situation.

When it comes to art, especially our friends’ art, I think we need to learn to turn off the consumerist part of our brains and act in a different way. 

What could this look like? Here are a couple of practical examples.

1. A local musician releases an album on Bandcamp, asking you to pay whatever you want. 

A consumer does one of two things. They either download it for free or shrug their shoulders and wait till it comes out on Apple Music. 

But what does a patron do? A patron pays them for their trouble. I mean seriously, even if it’s not a classic, have you heard many albums that are of less value than a medium sized Costa latte? Surely £2.50 is not asking too much just as an act of respect for the human enterprise of music making. If you actually enjoy it, why not go back and download it again and bump it up to a tenner?

This is not generosity. This is not giving to charity. This is common sense. If you want more music like that made again, pay the artists so that they might have another go. 

2. A film maker friend of yours goes off the radar for 6 months to work on a short film. 

You hear about the project when you see a Facebook event for the film screening (this is, of course, in the far distant future).

A consumer again does one of two things. He assumes he can blag a Vimeo code off his friend later on, so stays in that night to continue binge watching The Crown from his sofa. Alternatively, he pesters his friend for a place on the guest list. After all, they’re bound to have got an Arts council grant at some point anyway, so why do they need my money?

But what does a patron do? Firstly, a patron turns up. Secondly, she pays for her ticket without moaning. Thirdly, she, at the very least, buys her friend a couple of drinks afterwards. Maybe some merch, if there is some.

If we care about the arts, we need to change our mindset, from that of consumer to that of patron when engaging with the art that we say we care about.

Again, these are not the actions of a maverick altruist. They are simply the things you do if you value the art that you are consumi… sorry. Start again.

They are simply the things you do if you value the art that you are enjoying. The art that is firing your imagination. The art that is putting you in touch with your humanity. However imperfect it may be.

These are just two examples, and I’m sure you can think of many more. The specifics are not the point. The point is that, if we care about the arts, we need to change our mindset, from that of consumer to that of patron when engaging with the art that we say we care about.

And that is the case whether you are an appreciator of art or an artist yourself. At Sputnik, we’ve always underlined that we’re here to give money to artists, not pester them to give money to us. This is still the case and will not be changing any time soon. However, the call to patronage is for artists too. In fact, there is a sense that if you don’t pick up this role with others, it is hard to see how you can complain if others (for example, your church) refuses to take up this role with you.

I remember a few years ago, a friend of mine moaning about the fact that an album that she’d just released (on a reasonably reputable label) had been downloaded illegally something like 12,000 times from a particular torrent site (I told you it was a few years ago). I expressed my condolences, but was slightly less sympathetic when she revealed that she downloaded almost all of the music she listened to from similar sites. This was blatant hypocrisy. 

Let’s model the attitude that we want others to have to our art and if, to fund this spirit of patronage, you need to pass on the occasional medium sized Costa latte, well, you know, your reward will be in heaven!

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