Three Quotes on Creativity and Commerce

I ran across a great quote today from Ernest A. Jones about creativity and commercialism. As usual with these sorts of things, it’s nearly impossible to track down the original source, but here is the quote:

Only for the phony is commercialism-the bending of creativity to common utility-a naughty word. To the truly creative, it is a bridge to the great audience, a means of sharing rather than debasing.

That’s actually a fairly revolutionary statement, since probably a majority of creative people view commerce as the enemy. Typical of this stance is Arthur Miller:

When any creativity becomes useful, it is sucked into the vortex of commercialism, and when a thing becomes commercial, it becomes the enemy of man.

There’s a real tension here, I think. If you’re doing interesting creative work, most of the time you want to share it with people. You want it to have an impact. Getting involved with some form of commerce is often the fastest, and sometimes the best way to do this.

But as the Miller quote shows, a lot of creative people view this is selling out.

I’ve seen this tension play out with a lot of artists that I’ve liked. One of the first was the band X, who started out on Slash records before signing a major label deal with Elektra.

They didn’t do that to get rich, they did it because they wanted everyone to hear their music. I wanted everyone to as well. Unfortunately, they didn’t get rich and they didn’t reach everyone either. Steve Albini nicely summed up the problems with this approach.

Afterwards, their guitarist Billy Zoom said:

It’s only selling out if you get a bunch of money.

I’m not sure what the right answer is here. As Albini outlines in his articles, in the music world, signing with a major label that is trying to sell to everyone hasn’t worked. I think that a big part of the problem is that the music they’re making will never appeal to everyone – so there is a mismatch between the value that they’re creating and the channel they are using to reach people once they sign to a major.

This leads to the Arthur Miller problem, where commerce pollutes creativity.

On the other hand, when you have great ideas, you want to have them heard. What can you do?

The Ernest Jones quote gives us a clue. You need to think about the business model – what is the value you are creating, and for whom? If you answer these questions correctly, then you can use commerce to increase your impact.

Kristin Hersh is a great example of an artist that has gotten this equation right. She has used a combination of free and paid distribution methods. She’s not making music for everyone, but she’s tailored her channels to maximise the chances that she’ll reach the people most likely to respond to her music.

That’s good commerce, and it’s resulted in great art. Her output since she hit upon this model is the best of her career, if you ask me.

Even though the term “business model” may be anathema to most creative people, it’s an important tool. Creative people do create value. And they still have to eat.

Building a good business model is the first step in turning creativity into impact. And if you do that well, you can turn creativity into other things too, like food.

You can use your business model to share your art, not debase it.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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