How to Make Art Free without Starving the Artists

by Benjamin Studebaker

A few weeks back, pop star Taylor Swift pulled her songs off of Spotify on the grounds that free streaming services don’t compensate artists sufficiently for the value of their social contribution. You know who Taylor Swift is, right? If not, here’s a picture of her to help you out (and get more people to click on links to this piece–for some reason, people really like photos of young female celebrities):

Swift’s argument makes some sense–art certainly adds value to our lives and contributes to our society, and we can’t have art if we’re not willing to pay our artists. The trouble is that these days it’s very easy for people to avoid paying for art over the internet, and there’s no practical means by which laws would be enforced to ensure payment. Going forward, this is going to get exponentially worse, until the entertainment industry is left with a fraction of what it brings in today. Additionally, the age of streaming and downloading introduced a new principle that appeals to many young people–that all citizens, regardless of income, should be able to enjoy art equally in a free society. These two principles conflict. How can artists get paid for their art if their art belongs to society and individual consumers have the means to access the content for free with impunity? I’ve found a way to do it. I call it “”. If you’re a small government type, it’s going to rub you the wrong way at first, but hear me out. This could work.

The only way to make sure that artists get paid and everyone gets to watch for free is if we arrange for a third party patron to pay for art on behalf of the public. Historically, this was how a lot of art used to be made. Many famous authors, painters, sculptors, and musicians from centuries past were favored by wealthy individuals, monarchs, governments, and others. The public would enjoy the art, but the artists received payment from a small number of benefactors. Historically, there were two key problems with this model for making art:

  1. There aren’t enough voluntary benefactors to produce a large enough quantity of art.
  2. Because the benefactors get to pick which artists and projects to sponsor, they have an inordinate amount of control over what kind of art gets made. Even if there is no overt explicit censorship, the effect is to stifle expression.

There’s a way around this, a way to ensure that the third party patron pays for enough art without exercising inordinate control of what kind of art gets made. Here’s how you do it:

  1. The government creates a website (let’s call it “”) where artists can upload e-books, movies, TV shows, music, video games, and so on, with no restrictions on the content of the speech uploaded.
  2. Citizens who want to access sign up for the website. They get usernames and passwords, just as they would when signing up for Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, and so on. Once they’ve signed up, they can stream any content on the website they want for free. They could also use their accounts to get access to free movie theater showings, concerts, and so on.
  3. The government doesn’t keep data on which users are watching what, but they do keep data on how many unique users watch, read, play, or listen to each piece of art posted on The government sets aside a pile of money, and at the end of the year it pays each artist a share of it based on how many people chose to stream their content, go to their movies or concerts, and so on. As circumstances would dictate, the state would be free to expand or contract this pile of money each year to keep affordable for taxpayers. The more money available, the larger the amount and diversity of art there would be, and the more people would be able to make a comfortable living as artists.

In sum, it’s single payer entertainment. We’d do fun the way the Europeans do healthcare.

Now, this would not be cheap for the government–the US entertainment and media market is worth more than half a trillion dollars. The state wouldn’t be responsible for all of that money, just the money that goes to artists and studios that create the content, but even so, realistically, the amount of money available for content would not be anywhere near as high as it currently is. Artists and studios would survive, but their content budgets would be smaller and everybody in the entertainment industry would get paid less. And even if we reduced the pile of money to $100 billion (about 4.3% of the current federal budget), it would almost certainly require a tax hike.

But when you think about it, this would not be a bad thing–a lot of our best movies and music come from low budget, low tech indie sources, and the sheer size of the entertainment market encourages studios to hire more people than they need, pay people more than they need to, and risk large sums of money on big budget flops. In addition, by reducing the total amount spent on entertainment in this country by all people, we would free up billions of dollars. There are many possibilities for that money. Consumers could use it this to buy other goods and services they can’t presently afford, or the government could tax it to advance other public goods. Pick your favorite–healthcare, education, defense, law enforcement, welfare, transport, energy, you name it. There’s no reason so many artists and executives need to make 7 figures. 6 would be enough.

The US federal government isn’t the only organization that could attempt this, either. Other governments at the national, regional, or local levels could create smaller versions of for their local populations. We could experiment on smaller scales before creating a nationwide program.

The current way of doing things has a lot of inertia. The entertainment industry still makes a lot of money and has little reason to readily agree to the smaller pile of money the government would undoubtedly offer. I don’t expect my idea to go anywhere any time soon. But in the long run? As consumers become steadily more adept at avoiding paying for content and it becomes more difficult for the entertainment industry to sustain itself, this might prove to be a good compromise solution that keeps artists in healthy financial shape, maintains a wide array of diverse uncensored content, and allows the public to continue to consume art for free. We’ve been talking about the steady growth of this problem for years. Have you heard of any better solutions?