Art Can Nudge Capitalism, Really...
Artists aren't usually that into business, but...
Here’s a special edition of my newsletter! -Ari
Who owns art?
Art can channel, challenge and improve our society — yet many artists find society takes control of their art. Capitalist rules press most artists, even successful ones, out of owning their work.
They not only lose control, they also lose the option to profit off the later value of their work — whether it’s reselling a painting at ten times its first sale price, or missing all the profits from later sampling and sales of a song they no longer own.
Young artists have scant leverage, so to advance at all, they often accept deals that sign away most rights to their work.
“Bought some artwork for one million…”
There is also a rise of a new type of artist-entrepreneurs, like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Jay-Z. They intentionally build businesses in the arts space, from record labels and streaming (Tidal) to concert promotion (Roc Nation), with more equity and control for artists. Swift is re-recording her early work so that she owns the masters.
The prolific producer Swizz Beatz, known for working with artists like Drake, DMX and Jay-Z — he’s also married to singer Alicia Keys — is now working on these issues in more traditional visual arts, like painting and sculpture.
Own the culture
He started the Dean Collection, which—ranging in theme—focuses on supporting living, black artists. A large part of its mission is to help creators maintain more control of the culture they pioneered.
He told me about his vision:
“It’s very important for us, as a culture, to own the culture; own pieces of the culture, and change that whole concept of ‘making it for other people to own.’
We don’t have a trace of it left around where we can pull from… we collect like we’re building a museum, because we want to save most of these pieces so the next generation, and the youth, can have something to pull from, and go back to of their history.”
Many artists avoid the commercial part of their industry. Engaging in the business side can stand in tension with independent creativity. From Rock and Roll to Punk to Hip Hop to contemporary painting, many artists view ‘commercializing’ or ‘hawking’ their work as corruptive.
Why bow out when you can take charge?
More artists in this new generation, however, seem to view it from the opposite lens — that bowing out of the business side leaves outsiders with more power; getting involved can protect more of the art and creator values to begin with — and more fairly compensate the artists instead of people trying to make money off them.
Swizz seems comfortable across the spectrum, especially because he was fusing art and hustle from a young age.
I asked him about his first forays in to music and he told me:
“I was making mixtapes — I was [13 or 14] years old, cutting hair in a barbershop; a youngun barber cutting hair. So, I would do a haircut, give you a design in the back, and sell you a mixtape, [all for] 30 dollars!
It became a good business.”
Within about three years, at just 17, he produced a hit song for a rapper who surged to #1 on the charts — DMX. Swizz was the teenage producer of “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem,” a mega hit that upended rap. Another artist he produced for, Jay Z, recently tied many of these strands together in his lyrics on “The Story of O.J.,” which explores how people can break out of racial and business traps in American capitalism:
Financial freedom my only hope!
F— "‘living rich and dying broke’
I bought some artwork for one million…
Two years later, that shit worth two million
Few years later, that shit worth eight million
I can't wait to give this shit to my children!
Y'all think it's ‘bougie’?
I'm like, it's fine
But I'm tryin' to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99
Y'all out here still taking advances, huh?
Me and my [redacted] taking real chances!
Jay is talking about the power of ownership — from valuable paintings that build generational wealth to spurning those record label advances that financially handcuff artists for years.
As for his financial advice?
He says the price is just buying an album ($9.99), while the value runs to the millions.
Do you think these new school artists can really change the system? Tell me and I’ll reply to some of you, per usual… and have a great weekend. - Ari
P.S. When it comes to the business and legal considerations for visual artists, my brother, Jonathan Melber, actually co-authored the book on this subject, Art/work, with Heather Darcy Bhandari. Full disclosure: he is my brother, I love him and am biased towards him, but this book has been added to many art school curriculum, precisely for artists to navigate these very issues — so FYI for any painters out there.
Hey Ari:) This is such an important topic, and hits close to home for me, thank you for shedding some light on it. Not sure if you are familiar with my dad and his music, so forgive me if I’m being redundant. I write about him a lot:) His name is Johnnie Taylor, and he was the first artist, ever to have a Platinum record, (EVER)!, with his single, ‘Discolady’’, on Sony Records. He first signed to Stax Records, after Otis Redding died, and then went on to sign with several labels including Sony Music, who released this single in 1973. Discolady was the biggest hit of his career, with worldwide success, but to this day, collecting his royalties, on this song, from Sony, has been intentionally challenging. There is a consistent lack of transparency in the accounting, so their math never adds up. It’s set up that way on purpose, of course. Although at one point they told us all his “debts” were forgiven, after he passed away, they continue to arbitrarily point back to, “past advances”, without a definitive paper trail, or contract, and use this to rationalize keeping his royalties in the negative on an ongoing basis, for this song. The amount of the “past advances”, is always going up, when it serves them, and down when we press them for answers, and clear statements. Dealing with big corporations, is tricky because they are counting on situations being too expensive for most people to hang in and fight for, via audits etc.
My dad always said: “It’s called show business for a reason, it’s 90% business, and 10% show, if you don’t know your business, your screwed.”Discolady came out in 1973, but clearly not much has changed with traditional deals. His experience was coming up in this business in the 60’s and 70’s, and it was even more deliberate then, especially for a Black artist. After everything my dad went through in his early years, he always emphasized to me, knowing my business, and always understanding what’s in the contract. Keeping an entrepreneurial mindset, as an artist, inspires new ways of thinking about the relationship between your art, and your commerce, which can be tricky from a creative standpoint, and a fine line, but I think, if you can think outside the box in any business, especially music, you are on a road to creative and financial longevity, rather than doing it the old school way, possibly ending up with 15 minutes, and nothing saved. Like Ray Charles said, “Always own your masters”. He was one of the first to do that. Knowledge is power:) Coincidentally, just this week, Rolling Stone Magazine just published an article on Johnnie Taylor, his heirs, Sony music and the difficulties with collecting artist royalties. Here’s the link, if you get a sec, check it out. Very on topic. Have a great weekend! 🎶❤️🙏🏽
I found it very creative and financially brilliant when rappers and hip-hoppers started making their own music and selling it from cars and basements. It’s the money management (for some), I worry about. Investing in paintings, sculptures, and other forms of artwork, is a growing trend…Must check out Jonathan’s book-he’s handsome, too, Ari.