24 May 2012

The Utopian University

Musician Tom Milsom recently wrote on his Tumblr:

I just wanna make shit

I don’t want money

I want to be able to live in a nice place and eat and fund US tours and stuff but apart from that

Nope

Pirate my music if you can’t afford it, cause it all comes round eventually in like goodwill and stuff, I don’t mind

I just want people to be able to enjoy what I do in the best possible environment

This really got me thinking. It’s a sentiment you often hear expressed among creative folks, and yet it never really seems to be addressed. I’ve been wishing for ages that there were some kind of patronage system for creative people—to do for makers what Y Combinator does for tech startups.

Creative people mostly just want the opportunity to create without being bothered by irrelevancies. Art colonies fill this need somewhat—you apply for a fellowship and get space and potentially funding for a summer to work on whatever you want. But this is, by nature, small-scale.

No matter how hard you wish oh wish for something, nobody is going to make it for you. But if you have a problem, and you fix it yourself, other people will come to you and say “Take my money!” or at least that’s the hope.

So what is my problem?

In order to create, I have to work on stuff not immediately related to my creations.

Even as a programmer, who can ostensibly create value out of just caffeine and time, most of my ideas are not easy to monetise. My hobby project right now is the compiler and tools for a new programming language. Whatever money I stand to make from that would be in book sales or donations.

So I, like many, cannot reasonably hope that my creative pursuits will ever be self-sustaining. And that’s fine, though I do envy Tom in that he is successful enough as a musician to continue being a musician.

Now, I could solve this problem by aggressively contacting investors to set up some kind of ├╝ber-patronage venture fund thing for creators. That is, to my mind, the obvious solution.

But I don’t think it would scale. At all. In fact, I think it would be a spectacular failure.

Sure, the idea is straightforward. You apply with a portfolio. If accepted, you get a small amount of funding (say around $10,000) for a dozen-odd weeks to work on a particular project. That’s enough to ensure you have a place to live, food to eat, and the equipment and materials you need to work. Your patrons get a stake in anything you produce during that time.

But that’s not an attractive proposition for the people who would actually provide the funding. They have no way to force creators to stay on task. Worse, they won’t necessarily have the experience to know what to do with rights in widely varying projects.

And at the end of the season, they won’t have equity in a business. They’ll have rights in an album, or a game—a product with no business around it and no guarantee of growth unless somebody does some aggressive marketing. Which costs more money. That’s why specialised creative industries exist—record companies being the number one example. You make, we market.

Why would you, as an investor, buy a stake in something unless you expected it to be worth at least as much as you paid? This hypothetical patronage group would necessarily become a seed funding platform for creative startups, not just creative individuals in general. Even barring the other potential problems with that, it’s not what I want.

What I really want, quite frankly, is a Utopian University where creators can freely live and work and drink and mate and generally forget about the outside world. Creators create, the University helps market, the public buys, and the dollars come back to fund the whole shebang.

In order to keep everyone motivated, creators would be held accountable for their productivity—if you aren’t making progress on anything, you get the boot, or have to take a leave of absence. Call it an “artistic GPA” requirement.

That is something I think could work—with substantial initial funding, careful planning, and the right people behind it. I have no idea how to make it happen, but it will remain in the back of my mind as a long-term goal. And of course I’d love to hear a better idea.