What is art worth — and how do we pay?

Ethan Kaplan, who is the vice-president of technology at Warner Brothers Records, wrote a long and thoughtful post today about the value of art, and how we as a society need to think long and hard about how we value art — including how (or if) we are prepared to pay for it — so that artists can make a living from what they create. Mike Arrington has responded to Ethan’s post over at TechCrunch, and he isn’t having any of what he calls “this new touchy-feely approach to the music tax.”

I thought Ethan did a nice job of looking at the issue and some of the questions it raises, without trying to boil it all down to an easy solution — but Mike zeroed in on one particular part near the end, where Ethan talks about how some artists in certain countries (including Canada) are supported by government programs. Putting two and two together, Mike says this is just Ethan’s way of rationalizing the “music tax” that Warner Music has been busily lobbying for:

“Strip away all the flowery language and what you have is a music industry executive calling for the ‘pro-ignorance’ US society to value music as art no matter whether it’s the ‘worst’ or the ‘best.’ He talks about how great European artists have it with government subsidies. And he’s doing it weeks after his boss called for a music tax.”

I think Mike is being more than a little unfair. It’s true that Ethan mentioned government programs in countries like Canada, but it’s not as though he is suggesting this is the entire answer (and I certainly don’t believe it is). In fact it’s arguable, I think, whether artists “deserve” to make a living at all, in the sense that society should move heaven and earth to ensure that happens. I thought the whole point of being an artist was that you are motivated by the desire to create and (in some cases) share your art, not by the desire to make a living or become rich.

Still, Ethan’s larger point is still well taken — and as he said on Twitter, what he wrote was his own opinion, not that of Warner Brothers. I think regardless of what you think of the music “tax” idea (which I think is ridiculous, and won’t work in any case), it *is* worth thinking about how we value art, and what it means to us as a society, and how we go about making that work in terms of economics. As someone who writes for a living, that’s something I think about quite a lot.

There are no easy answers. As it happens, these are just the kinds of issues we’re going to be talking about at the mesh 2008 conference in May, where Ethan will be one of our keynote speakers.

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