Your Art is Not Enough: Skimming the Cream from Elvis to the Harlem Shake

I can’t write about this excellent piece by Kevin Ashton which describes the gestation, birth and death of the Harlem Shake meme without thinking of Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup. Heard of him?

How about Bill Kenny? Getting warmer? No?

Then how about Sam Phillips? Rings a bell, right? He was the man who owned Sun Records and famously said “that if (he) could find a white boy who could sing like a black man (he’d) make a million dollars.”*

The white boy Phillips found was, of course, Elvis Presley. Crudup and Kenny were among Elvis’ earliest inspirations. They were also black. And, frankly, to call them inspirations might be an understatement.

In fact, to my ear it is pretty much impossible to listen to Crudup’s My Baby Left Me and think that Elvis’ first single, That’s All Right, is anything less than a full-on lift: a white boy singing like a black man and making the businessman pulling the strings a million dollars.

I mention old-school examples in relation to what Ashton has written for a couple of reasons: first, because of how much his article seems to want the “right” people to profit from creative enterprise and second because he does such a good job of recognizing that the Harlem Shake revenue split is the latest example of cream-skimming in popular culture. Take this quote:

“The technology may have changed, but the money still flows the same way: to creators of contracts not creators of content.”

That said, there is one question which Ashton stops short of asking which I think is really important in the context of discussions of artist compensation. To wit: if we accept that it would have been great if someone more creatively responsible for the Harlem Shake meme were to have gotten rich off of it (Ashton mentions Albert Boyce and George “Filthy Frank” Miller but it seems from this article that we might want to add Hector Delgado and Jayson Musson, the artists who provided the vocal samples to Baauer’s hit) we may want to ask how it could have been made to happen?

This question is important because, as Ashton’s article shows, “being there first” – or even, arguably, best – isn’t enough to get the money in your jeans. Those who start into a creative process with a goal of making money – Ashton calls them “the corporations” as if it’s a curse word, but his point is well taken – are the ones who are most likely to profit.

My instinct is to suggest that one is very unlikely to get rich by accident and that our goals will often get in the way of our desired outcomes. As such, artists (those who most often start with the goal of creating something funny or inspiring or cool or, presumably in Baauer’s case, danceable) are much less likely to profit from the final output of their creations than the business people who start their efforts with the goal of using their creative skills to make money.

As much as we would like it to be, it is not a question of who is more original or deserving.** Consequently, as consumers or fans of the arts, we are often left with the feeling that Ashton deftly anticipates in his piece; a reflexive revulsion that suggests that the profit taking by those who aren’t “in it for the love” is unjust, or at least unfair. But does that reflex reveal a flaw in our understanding of how creative businesses work?

More critically, is that revulsion – especially when held, expressed and acted-upon by artists themselves – getting in the way of adequate planning and preparing the “business” parts of creatives’ businesses? Because the sad truth is that the arts are far from the only place where the guy or the gal with the smart idea, brilliant turn of phrase or visionary approach isn’t the one who gets rich off a creative output.***

In short, artists have to recognize that they are starting off behind the eight ball. Those who are closest to the sources of revenue – the bankers, brokers, agents, lawyers, accountants and managers  – often, though not always, will see more of the money than the people creating the art.  In this light, it is extremely important for creative people to understand that they will not receive that which they do not seek. As dirty as the words “business plan” are within a creative enterprise, they are often very necessary, even if they are not a guarantee of success. S/he who creates strictly to create is less likely to see his/her fair share when and if money arrives than s/he who plans; s/he who creates is even more unlikely to receive his/her fair share if s/he fails to take an interest in what a fair share is and how it is made.

To put it another way (and in a message to the clients who come to our clinic and those who should): Please create. The world needs more art, more science, more things which have been brought into being by the force of human will and spirit; but never presume that the mere fact that you have created something will entitle you to your fair share of the spoils, no matter how unlikely, and meagre, those spoils may be. That step takes luck, of course, but also conscious planning and business sense; things which can be bought, but also learned just like the chord progressions and singing style of a southern blues man.

 Read the footnotes:

*And the man who was the inspiration for this particularly excellent piece of rock and roll.

**Though it is interesting to think about the idea of “original” in the context of memed series of videos which are based on a single video, which didn’t receive significant credit for the creation of the meme and which counts on a very limited portion of a song which itself includes several, un-cleared samples of other songs… who is the unoriginal party here,  exactly?

***Take a look at Tim Wu’s excellent book The Master Switch to see how hard companies have fought to crush or co-opt disruptive technologies in the telecommunications sector as an example. Or, if you like your analysis a little more blunt, there’s always Frank Sobotka.

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