Artists: We're Not Salespeople, We're Street Performers

My fellow artists, we need to talk. We’re all starving, our fans are starving, and life just sucks for all of us. The only way we’re going to make a living as entertainers is to sit back, cool our jets, and take a reality check. We are, and always have been, buskers.

I know it doesn’t seem like we’re on a street corner, guitar case propped open, ready to accept money from passers-by. We’re on the Internet. We’re selling albums, and movies, and games, and books, and all sorts of products. Right? And when people download our stuff without paying us, that’s theft. Of our products. Which we’re selling in our stores.

Except that’s a lie. We’ve had holes poked in the argument that we’re selling things, or that making a copy is theft, but it was a lie even before everything went digital. Even when our songs, our films, our novels, our software only came on physical media, we were never salespeople. We were never manufacturers. Those vinyl discs and hardback books were nice collectables, sure, but they were never more than packaging. Without the music, the story, the experience inside, who would want to buy those random knick-knacks we sold?

No, it’s never been about selling. Or pushing a product. The big distributors and publishers sure made us think that it was, but come on, artists. We’ve always known it was about the art.

We never stopped busking, guys.

I’m on a street corner playing my guitar, singing my heart out, and some jackass freeloader walks on by without even throwing a coin in my guitar case. What a scumbag! “Get back here, you ungrateful pirate!” I shout. “Stop, you thief!” And then the police come running, and look at me like I’m crazy.

That’s what we’re doing when we get mad at people who pirate our work. Except the police don’t always think we’re crazy. Maybe they ought to.

It sucks when someone enjoys your work and can’t help you put food on your table, I know. A lot of the time they’d like to help and just can’t afford it. But I’ve had people flat-out tell me, “That was great, but I don’t think I’ll be donating,” and of course it stings a little bit. You know what, though? That’s life. Wait for the ones who will pay.

And you know, maybe it sucks too that we don’t get to think of what we do as selling a product. Maybe it’d be easier if we weren’t glorified buskers. But I say it’s easier to embrace that. Do we really want it to be our job to sell products and move units? Hell no! We’re artists, man! Our job is to move people, to make people laugh, cry, and feel things they’ve never felt before. Our job is to connect with people. And the more people you connect with, the more likely it is that one of them can spare some cash for you.

I don’t know about you, but I never wanted to be a salesman anyway.


  1. benadrit


  2. Tom Jeffries

    I know this isn’t the right place for an ad for what my company is doing, but the whole point to Safe-Xchange is to help musicians do exactly what this article is about. We’re about to start a crowd funding campaign to pay the cost of getting our app ready to distribute. If this resonates for you at all, take a look at our site ( and watch for us at IndieGoGo.

    I’m going to post a link to this on Facebook and G+. Zacquary has it exactly right.

    1. Tom Jeffries

      Oops- it’s Zacqary. Pardon the extra ‘u’.

      1. Zacqary Adam Green

        Oh, it’s fine. I wouldn’t be spelling my name in this ridiculous way if I didn’t find it endlessly amusing watching people try to spell it back to me. 😛

  3. Caleb Lanik

    I’ve never entirely gotten why artists feel like they have a right to massive amounts of money. I mean, they’re basically demanding the right to get paid, and paid incredibly well in the case of the more popular artists, for their hobby. I mean, I like to program, but it’s a hobby. People shouldn’t feel like it’s both morally and legally required that they pay me for my hobby so I don’t have to get a real job. If I can find a company who wants to pay me to do it, that’s great, but why is it anyone else’s responsibility? I don’t know, maybe I’ve got things all wrong, but when artists tell me how important it is that people pay them for their hobby, and that if I don’t they’ll stop making art, well, screw those artists, I guess.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      This is the type of animosity we need to do away with. Attitudes of who has the right to money, or the obligation to pay, is what leads to the kind of contempt I illustrated in my last piece.

      Artists feel like they have a right to be paid, and pirates feel like they don’t have an obligation to pay, because none of us want to starve to death. And unfortunately, we live in a society that requires people to have “real jobs,” whatever those are, to be granted the privilege to eat food. So in our desperation, we start getting indignant at one another.

      Everybody needs to move beyond this righteous indignation at each other. We’ve got a lot of people in the world who think it’s valuable for artists to be able to devote their full time to their craft, but it’s not going to work if we’re all thinking of each other like greedy profiteers or freeloaders.

      From a purely pragmatic perspective, I think the first step towards getting over this indignation is for artists to change how we think about ourselves, which will put us in the right frame of mind to change our marketing strategy to one that doesn’t piss people off so much.

    2. JadeStar

      (I realize it’s way faux pas to post a reply so many months late, but it’s not like the topic itself has gone stale.)

      Caleb, what reasons have you for making the giant leap to equate “art” with “hobby” ?
      Also, what gives a person the “right” to find a “company” to pay you, but not the “right” to independently garner and audience and paying customers?

      Self-managed artists are no more hobbyists than self-employed programmers are.

      Both deserve respect for their work, and both deserve to be compensated, though I’ve never heard anyone make the argument that either should be compensated a particular amount, a particular way, or according to a particular model.

      The point of this article seems to be connecting with artists in particular, reminding each other not to forget that simply having an effect on the audience is a very satisfying type of compensation itself.

      An incredibly similar argument can be made for open-source code development:

      Do it for love and quit complaining about money — money will certainly follow the amazing work produced from a labor of love.

  4. Clocky

    So basically what you are saying is that all musicians are the same and doesn’t deserve to make money on a regular basis?
    You say that you dont want to be a salesman and most musicians probably wont either but those who want to sell their music and manages it well are the most succesfull. Doesn’t that ring a bell to you?
    B§y the way comparing nonpaying people walking past busking musicians with those nonpaying pirates who download exactly the music they want and really enjoy is not a valid comparison.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      1. Every human being deserves to live a comfortable life, live healthily, and do what makes them happy.
      2. Not every capitalist endeavor deserves to make money.

      We can all agree with both of those, but they contradicting each other. Everyone deserves food, health, and safety. Nobody automatically deserves money. But food, health, and safety cost money.

      It looks like we’re at an impasse here.

      That’s why I say we break out of this vicious cycle of looking at music as a business transaction. We’re only going to keep arguing about who deserves what, and never fix anything.

      How about this? Let’s pretend money doesn’t exist. Let’s pretend laws don’t exist. Now, let’s figure out how to make sure everyone can survive and devote their lives to whatever they want, whether that’s making music, building model airplanes, or curing cancer. How do we do that?

      1. jurijus01


        That is called “gift economy”.

  5. Crazygolem

    Artists are not salesmen, so they hire actual salesmen to do the job (actually it’s the other way around, but the result is the same, isn’t it?)

    So you have actual salesmen, record labels and majors, who are screwing everyone around, artists, fans and casual listeners alike, because artists did not want to be salesmen in the first place.

    Maybe if artists were a little bit more willing to be salesmen, the situation would not have been so messed up ? Actually no, because then we would have been in the exact situation you are describing.

    The whole debate about who is or want to be a salesman misses its target. The actual question should be: Do artists only want to produce something that is sellable (by whoever wants to sell it), or do they want something else?

  6. gurra

    There is frankly no need to “sell” anything. The music itself is ads / PR for the service to produce new. (Illegal) file sharing is just hobby marketing creating a demand for the service of creating new work. What may have a value is the new work and not paying for copies of old achievements.

  7. Valtteri Kokkoniemi

    There’s no need to craft more or less unfitting analogies. Business model that’s based on restricting the freedom of others is unjustifiable and that should be sufficient cause for rejecting it. Tangible goods are different because they are scarce, which information is not. Market economy is the best way to allocate scarce resources that we have yet come up with, but it’s not applicable to goods that are not scarce, without first artificially making them such. Which is exacly what copyright does.

    It’s also frivolous to claim that there could be no professional artists without copyright. Even if it were true, it would not justify copyright, but that’s an unnecessary argument because it’s obviously false, as people are clearly willing to pay for performances. Copyright is not needed to restrict access to a place like music club or stadium – that’s the standard domain of property rights. Without copyright, music would therefore be created to attain fame, which is requisite for selling tickets to performances. Best of all, this business model is ethically sound and proven to work. It also allows superstars to be rich, as they can do gigs to stadium-sized crowds…which is probably what we all consider reasonable 🙂

  8. […] is what I mean when I argue that artists are all street performers, and that creative industries are already donor-supported. Under the surface, the seed of a culture […]

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