The Return of Patronage
Before the Internet age, corporations acted as the largest gateway to any kind of consumer need, in particular media. Infrastructures were maintained for optimal consumption. In music, artists and corporations alike wanted a single to be hit on the radio, so people would buy the records, and perhaps even see the live tour. Other media had similar (and perhaps simpler) means of PR and sales. Either way, it was either buy or get nothing at all for consumers. Corporations held the keys to the floodgates of content, and only opened them for the right price.
The internet, of course, changed all that. That’s not to say bootlegs and other means of piracy did not exist before, but the internet expanded beyond the scope of analogue. Vastly quicker and more accessible (for those with means), the internet allowed consumers to avoid the floodgates altogether. And the corporations felt it. Various media have experienced this dramatic change in content consumption. The echoes of cries that “print is dead!” have come to a point where young millennials have lived almost a decade of it. T.V. runtimes get shorter and shorter for more ads to make more revenue.While the full experience of watching a film in theatres can only at best be mildly approximated at home with much equipment, most have forgotten the importance of the theater-going experience, the grandeur that one can see on screen. I’d write more, but Film Crit Hulk has it covered. I could go on, but much of this is a summary of what we already experience on a daily basis, whether we notice it or not.
Buying content used to be the only method of consuming content. At the very least, you’d have to sit through ads. Once that barrier was taken away, people were free to consume however they like. They could have content for free, but of course it also came with a cost towards the artist’s wellbeing (and their company’s.) The economic recession certainly hurt artistic industries that were already reeling, and fans took notice. Many a localization anime and manga company shut its doors within the past decade, for instance. I also suspect a sense of maturity that has grown in handling the internet as a new medium, in recognizing how their actions affect others. People have seen what the internet can do, and have a better idea of what they can do as well.
Amidst this new climate, I’ve heard over the past few years from different camps passionate about the media they consume to “support the artists, buy their stuff.” I hear it over at Anime News Network every time the issue of piracy comes up: buy the stuff legally so we can get more good anime. I heard it every time before a concert last year at Calvin College, as the Director of Student Activities told the students that buying the artist’s work is a way of “loving your neighbour.” Devoted T.V. fans tune in once a week to support the show they love. Film buffs buy the DVDs. Avid readers buy the books. The list goes on.
This is called patronage, and it’s a concept I believe consumers are relearning and tacking back for the sake of the artists. The only other times I think of the word is when I think of the patrons of famous composers, or Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera. Perhaps the idea disappeared beneath the blank mask of faceless corporatism. But there’s been a resurgence of a better, albeit meager, realization of the systems of exchange for aware consumers. Now, buying people’s stuff often means one’s actions are still complicit in a system of corporations with varying degrees (and furthermore, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, if Marx is right.) But with the internet, consumers have better flexibility than ever to support the artists, whether it be buying goods, watching ads (particularly more important than ever now), or supporting their fund-raising efforts directly.
Freedom demands responsibility, and I see niche consumers of different stripes in particular taking up the challenge to varying degrees. The path of the artist is always fraught with uncertainty. But in the digital age, perhaps the stakes have lowered just a bit.