For Love or Money

I watched two videos on a lazy Saturday: the first was a documentary on the reviled/revered musician GG Allin called HATED, made by Todd Phillips. The second was the promo video that has been put together by Splitworks and Daedalum to commemorate the 2010 JUE Festival. It was an interesting juxtaposition that got me thinking about the relationship between commerce and art.

A study in paradox: There’s no money in art; artists work day jobs to support their art; said artists begin to garner recognition for their art and clamor for more money; the money rolls in; the art gets…

Better or worse? Does money make art better?

A quote from Zhang Shihao (a commercial illustrator) in the JUE video: “[Artists’] lifestyles are substandard, so their creations are substandard. [T]hey can’t sell so they can’t make money. In reality they are trying to resist the pressure for a more profitable lifestyle [b]ecause this road has strayed too far from a profitable lifestyle.”

This is a common misconception: Artists do better work when they are well supported financially. I think the opposite is true. I want my artists to be voracious, gambling with their very lives, and barely making it. True artists often need to make a choice: whether they’re going to starve or prosper. Money does nothing but spoil art, fatten it, and chase it to the penthouse of boredom.

A quote from GG Allin in HATED: “My lifestyle consists of pretty much what you see. You know, I got one pair of pants. I got a jacket, a shirt. Pretty much everything I own could fit in a paper bag. Pretty much it seems like the only type of way to live if you’ve gotta…I’m the type of person who always has to get out of town quick.” After he says this, a newspaper headline is shown that reads, “Fight Breaks Out at Anaconda; Three Arrested.”

I wonder if GG Allin ever made $1,000 off his art in his whole life. He was a deranged person who had a strange and damaging upbringing. His stated reason for pursuing music was to avoid killing someone. He made some of the truest, rawest, most disgusting performance art ever conceived. He lived from day to day like a drifter. But his art was riveting. Absolutely shocking and preposterous, but riveting.

Many people, like Zhang Shihao, will point to the fact that artists aren’t well-paid in China to explain the reason why the scene is small and still growing. I say that’s the reason why I love it right now and the reason that I believe 5 or 10 years from now we will look back upon these days in the China independent music scene with longing. Money infects things and forever makes them sick. I would rather my artists be hungry and healthy than fat and lazy.

What do you think?

Addendum: A fascinating Q&A with Hated Director Todd Phillips.

If you want to check out the GG Allin doc, hit me up at

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  1. Andy Best

    I agree with you all the way.

    I’m sorry to say this, because I know most of the people who say it, but the standard defense from ad and promotions people is BS. They will say, but Andy/Zack, musician X has to get money somehow, they have to support themself and their current job is shitty.

    This is dishonest/borderline offensive as every person who has ever said this to me is referring to a project that did not give the artist enough money to significantly alter their lifestyle.

    Also there is constant obfuscation from ad people on ‘selling out’. A big issue with advertising is that you are selling another persons message and your art becomes dishonest. This is a completely separate issue to having money or a certain lifestyle. And yet, when you bring up the honesty point, the ad companies will say “but selling out is dated, there’s nothing wrong with making money.” They are answering you with a different point, it’s called shifting the goalposts.

    That’s the problem with this discourse in the Shanghai scene. We never get to discussing the real issues for people diverting and attacking.

  2. Zack

    I wouldn’t say it’s confined to Shanghai, the diverting and attacking. I don’t fault bands for taking some money from Converse or wherever. We all have to make our own choices. But don’t those shows put on by companies just feel a bit shady? It’s the bands’ choice to play those shows or not, but it’s also my choice to stay away.

  3. Doc

    Very interesting, very interesting. Do you think that you look for artists that you enjoy that are poor because that is what you are looking for? Sometimes you will see what you want to see because that’s what you believe….

    This article reminded me of the song by Bare Naked Ladies called “Box Set.” They do a fantastic job of talking about how musicians sell out after successful careers and do what the producers want instead of what they want….

    However, when a band attempts to continue being creative, fans don’t like their new stuff because it’s not like their old stuff… What is your opinion on that?

    Love your articles Zack! I would like to hear your opinion on more. What about Lil Wayne? He did all of his own stuff back in the day, do you think he is selling out by singing with Eminem or anyone who asks?
    What about Jet(Sic)? Have you ever listened to the Lost Found?

    Keep up the good work! Talk to you soon.
    Word to Big Bird!

  4. zack

    Hey, Mad Doc. Thanks for commenting. Good to know we have readers all they way over in Iowa! I think you raise a good point about artists who have actually sold out and still do some good stuff. I definitely (of course) listen to artists who have recording contracts and whatnot. However, I think the recording contract is not really the way to money these days in music. Also, I think I enjoy these artists on a different level than the one I enjoy Indie bands in Shanghai on. Of course, usually I enjoy when artists take chances and re-invent their sound, but I reserve the right to hate on their evolution. As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Thanks for the comment, my man. Keep reading!


  5. zack

    BTW, Jet[sic] and the Lost Found are super awesome. Talk about true artists.

  6. Doc

    I agree with your opinion on Jet(sic) and the Lost Found…. I will keep checking in and commenting.

  7. Andy Best

    Zack, of course. Everyone with half a brain knows, and instinctively feels, that those shows/projects are shady and dishonest.

    I never said it’s confined to Shanghai anywhere there, we’re just talking about Shanghai. Although I will say that back home in Liverpool, this stuff is just taken as understood whereas here there are all kinds of young and youngish people who go around talking about ‘creatives’ and company work like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

    Unsurprisingly they often work for ad agencies and PR.

  8. shaun/tenzenmen

    i’m inclined to agree that poor artists produce better work tho i think the artist would prefer not to be in that position. i wonder if there’s any examples of people being well off and then creating good art in the spare time their fortune might afford them?
    also when a poor artist becomes popular is our judgement of their newer work effected by what we already know about them?


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