Give It Away And Pray: Maybe Not A Business Model, But Still Important For Artists

Mike has written that "Give it away and pray is not a business model," however, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good way for Artists to live.

Business models can emerge from "give it away and pray." When I gave Sita Sings the Blues away, the audience created modes of sharing and revenue streams I hadn’t thought of. Many fans, on their own initiative, set up  screenings and house parties, and sent me donations. Now that I know this is possible, I could call it a "business model" that could be replicated by offering screening kits and guidelines. But the audience may be coming up with new ideas and wanting to engage in new ways I can’t predict or imagine. Last year’s business model can’t describe next year’s zeitgeist; "give it away and pray" is eternal.

Because I surrendered any commercial monopoly on the film (truly gave it away with copyLeft rather than "sort of gave it away" with no-commercial-use and no-derivatives restrictions), it has been incorporated into some amazing creative projects I could never have imagined. Bill Cheswick’s every-frame-of-a-movie poster and Star Simpson’s MonkeyLectric bike wheel display are just two examples. If I hadn’t given the film away, I wouldn’t have even known about these amazing projects, let alone been part of them.

"Give it away" means expecting nothing in return, so whatever does return is also a gift. "Pray" means letting go of the results and trusting that giving is the right thing to do even if nothing comes back. This isn’t a business model, because it’s not about business; it is about Art, and Love. Economists may not be concerned with Art and Love, but Artists have to be, or else they stop being Artists. Of course Artists can be concerned with business as well. Art and commerce can be fully complementary. I pay a lot of attention to business models (that’s why I read Techdirt). But I can forget that I am an Artist, especially when "give it away and pray" is so often dismissed. 

It’s easy for me to exalt "give it away and pray", because so much came back to me so quickly in the case of Sita. We can analyze this material success and derive useful business models from it. That’s quite valuable, but it’s only part of the picture. If we forget the "give it away and pray" part, we regard audience gifts as commodities, which degrades the artist, the community, and the artist-audience relationship.

We never know what the world will bring us. Adhering to a business model may make us feel secure, but the most exciting possibilities and opportunities are in the space of not knowing. In Art, unlike Business, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

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