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Hands Up for Democratic Patronage

Album cover

Hands by Steve Lawson

Throughout much of history, the creation of art has been supported by patronage. Rich people have provided the means for artists to sidestep the daily grind and create things of beauty and value. Over the last century or two this system has been gradually eroded not by the utopian ideal of each person having time to do what is good alongside time to do what is necessary but by the development of ‘creative industries’ like the music business. The trouble is, rather than encouraging the excellent, they have promoted the popular and, as well as deficiencies in taste, the new industrial patrons have proved to be less generous than the previous system to all but a few artists (who, whatever, their individual talent and dedication, end up being used as bait in the money trap).

Modern communications technology, while far from being a panacea from all ills, has it’s moments of welcome disruption. One of those is exemplified by the way some artists are using tools like the Bandcamp website to offer an affordable way for the many to become small scale patrons. For example, I subscribe to Steve Lawson’s work via Bandcamp. For less than the cost of buying a couple of CDs I get access to his general back catalogue and some subscriber only releases like Hands, which came out this week. It isn’t just streaming access either; I can download what I like and, if he stops producing new music, stops producing what I like or money simply becomes tight, I can still listen to the tracks I’ve downloaded even if I stop subscribing.

Obviously there is a limit to how many artists you can or would want to subscribe to but it is a fascinating reinvention of an old model. It is in a more democratic but simultaneously less populist mould. Perhaps there is some hope for new music yet, even if the music “industry” is still in a less healthy state than it once was.

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