Editorial: How Does One Define an ‘Artist’ and How Does it Fit in the Copyright Debate?

An editorial by Drew Wilson contemplating what an artist even is in the context of the copyright debate and in general.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Over the years, I’ve held a rather unique perspective in the copyright debate. I’ve covered several different areas in copyright and technology and drew different conclusions from a number of these topics – not to mention learned a good share of knowledge on the topic myself. Adding to that, I’ve toiled around with software for hours on end making, or at least trying, to make something that is audibly enjoyable in genre’s of music some consider merely as “experimental”.

As such, I’ve had numerous, to put it mildly, colorful debates on whether file sharing has a net positive or negative on art in general. A lot of the more interesting debates happen pretty much where you would expect, in a place where there is someone who adamantly disagrees with me and when several intellectual blows are exchanged leaving a few bruises on our beliefs by the end of it rather then a few petty insults being exchanged.

From my position, it has always been, “My choices, my music, my intellectual property, my business” and “interference on my choices is something I will always fight” which stems from a the strong position of actually being one that creates the music in the first place. Thus, I always felt that I was an artist.

So from that, there was a sense of puzzlement for me over the reaction when Radiohead released In Rainbows in a “pay what you want” style sale where some consider this move “new”, “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” because thousands upon thousands of artists have given away their music for free online and/or have solicited donations with their music for years before that happened – myself included. While my reaction is, “Cool, well, join the club of other artists who are doing the same thing”, others felt that this was magically different to which I credit the celebrity factor of Radiohead more than anything else.

Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated issue, a couple of the more colorful debates I’ve had with people sometimes had the other person saying, “Think about what it’s like for the artists!” to which I get the opportunity to say, “I am an artist actually and I know what it’s like to be one these days.” Sometimes, the debate pretty much ends there, but other times, the person I am debating with makes the rather audacious argument that I don’t count as an artist because I’m somehow not “popular” enough – to which I think, “Look up “artist” in the dictionary dude.”

The big question in all of this is, how does one define “artist” anyway? Do certain people qualify as an “artist” and are able to give a qualified opinion on copyright? To the best of my knowledge, an “artist” can be described as “one who creates art in some form or fashion that can be experienced in some way by another person.”

To me, the definition is pretty cut and dry to which I qualify myself as an artist because I create music that can be heard by another person. Just for giggles, I decided to find a number of definitions for the term “artist” and I did what is often the most prescribed action anyone with a question should do: ask Google.

Using my Kung Fu Google skills, I typed in, “define:artist” which asks Google to find definitions from a number of sites for the term “artist”. Interestingly enough, this is what I found:

# a person whose creative work shows sensitivity and imagination

# The definition of an artist is wide-ranging and covers a broad spectrum of to do with creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. …

# Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson; June 7, 1958) is an American singer, songwriter, musician, and actor. He has also been known under the unpronounceable symbol , which he used between 1993 and 2000. …

Whether or not by accident, the three definitions seem to pretty much summarize the competing visions of what a number of people have for what an “artist” is. Yes, there’s really nothing wrong with pointing to a pop culture artist and saying, “That is an artist” but is there a level of success someone has to achieve before they become an “artist” anyway?

Is the, as some might put it, “textbook” definition of an artist sufficient to describe one as an artist or does one have to be played 6 zillion times on the mainstream radio before one can be qualified as an artist?

Maybe in an effort to bring some value to the term “artist”, some have raised the bar on what qualifies as an artist. Those people might argue, “I’d hardly consider some person who sits in their parents basement with a drum set or acoustic guitar and an amp an artist!”

Maybe these same people romanticize on how one becomes an artist where some nobody upstart forms a band in their garage, happen to have the talent to make some good music to the point of catching the interest of a major record label. After that, this artist signs on to a record deal, becomes an overnight sensation, get’s played on every radio station goes on tour where life is one big party. Then they get to hang out and brag about their multi-million dollar mansion on Cribs and live happily ever after rolling in a giant pool of cash. If one doesn’t fall in to that scenario, then maybe there was something wrong with their music and they become little more than nobodies playing a few established tunes at run down bars – thus making them “not artists”. To those who honestly believe all of that, I say to you, “…and there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, dragons and magic really exists and kissing a frog will turn it in to a stereotypical prince.”

Maybe the definition of artist varies from person to person and it’s all in who you ask. Some, though, would go so far as to say that only the popular artists should have a say in copyright because they are the ones making a living in this gig and everyone else should back off because they don’t know what they are talking about or they simply, “never been there.”

What I Think

Money is not a measure of talent. If one were to create an imaginary scale where “some nobody” is at the bottom and “artist” is at the top and put increments of money on it from top to bottom, then they are deceiving themselves and can’t honestly describe what an artist really is.

While some might argue that my preferred “textbook” definition does not adequately describe what an artist is, I think it’s a better definition then simply saying that only top 40 artists are artists and everyone else is simply not talented to earn the title of “artist”.

My beef is not who some consider are an artist, but rather, how some people are not considered an “artist” whether through not being “famous” enough or simply not being palatable to certain people’s ear drums. Go ahead and say, “indie garbage” or “lamesteam crap”, but leave the word “artist” out of the debate.

No matter how much a capitalist might argue that only artists earn the big bucks and everyone else just needs to find another job, that doesn’t make the “others” any less of an artist. They bust their butts trying to create art too. Many who work in this gig that involves creating music knows that it’s not what “sounds good” that becomes popular, it’s what is promoted that makes a song popular.

Anyone who says that only those that make the “big bucks” in music should be heard and represent the artist aspect of the copyright debate need a reminder that some of the most famous compositions are made by those who never made a dime off of their work while they were still alive – yet they are considered musical geniuses in a number of circles. I think everyone deserves an equal voice in the copyright debate, not just those who make the big bucks or happens to agree with the big record labels (which is becoming increasingly a minority in terms of numbers if you ask me).

The term “artist” is not something that is achieved through fame and fortune, but rather is a term automatically given to those who try and live out what that term represents – even if for a brief period of time. Results and outcome have nothing to do with the qualifications of being an artist. Anyone who dismisses someone who does create art as “not an artist” should be treated with a grain of salt and if that person argues that the same person have no real place in the copyright debate if they hope to have the perspective of an artist shouldn’t be treated very seriously on that front.

Go ahead and express your view on copyright, just don’t try and block out the dissenting voices on the subject because they have a legitimate place in the debate as well – especially not in certain town hall meetings.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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