How much is a story worth?

Over the course of a conversation with the producer of a YouTube comedy channel some time ago, the matter of money came up. The videos published on this channel are, like almost every video online, free to watch. The producers of the channel make no money from viewers. The money comes from ads -- not only the ones that run inside and around the video player, but also ones that the channel produces for brands.

I was informed by my friend that something peculiar happens when they publish a "brand video". He said that in the comment section of these videos, viewers accuse them of "selling out" and becoming "commercial". We wondered if that is such a bad thing. Why is it that the smell of money seems to taint creativity in the eyes of some viewers?

Creators have more or less come to terms with the fact that advertising is a harsh reality of their lives. Ads sell video channels, TV programmes, and even newspapers. Without the money that advertisers invest, the business of creativity will not run.

That is not a universal truth though. Cinema halls have always charged money for tickets. Newspapers cost money too. Recent years have seen some experimentation with paid content models wherein creators and producers ask viewers to pay money to read / watch their work. But by and large, ads continue to be the default monetisation route for creative people who do not wish to die of starvation, or worse -- get a boring job.

But it would seem that at least some members of their audience want them to not touch ad money with a barge pole. These people presumably work under the assumption that creating art does not require money, or at least should not require money. You might think that if these people were made aware of the fact that their beloved creators were short of cash, they would be happy to pool in contribute funds. But you would be wrong in assuming that. You would be right however, if you assumed that people will steal creative content and feel no guilt for having done so illegally.

People want their stories, their videos, their music for free. Actually, people want everything for free, but they would prioritise almost everything else over creative work if it came to paying money. Somewhere deep in the heart of our culture, stories have no monetary value.

Our culture has stories at its very foundation. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, along with a host of puranic tales that embody an elaborate mythological universe, travelled the length and breadth of the world on the backs of storytellers. These stories have, over millennia, moulded our civilisation into the shape that it is in currently. Then why would we not pay for them?

The answer is simple -- we won't pay for them because we think we already own them. And this sense of ownership (entitlement?) stretches out and pulls in all stories, even ones that have never been told before. We won't pay for them because we have never paid for them. Because we have never paid for any story. We believe stories to be a communal inheritance -- things anyone can tell anyone, anywhere, and at any time. The bards who travelled with folk tales memorised, and the village theatre groups which enacted stories for eager audiences everywhere, never charged a dime for their efforts.

Stories have always been free. And in doing so, they have marked the act of storytelling as a free service as well. Most people who have taken writing up as a profession will know what I am talking about. Writing is not considered a "real" job. In the utilitarian world we all occupy, it is a hobby at best and at worst, a waste of time. After all, why do something anyone can do? Why expect to make a living doing something nobody will spend money on?

That's our problem in a nutshell. It is a matter of culture. The solution to this problem has to be cultural as well. And it boils down to how we answers questions like this:

  • Do artists deserve to be able to make a living with their art?

  • Are stories worth money?

  • What are the ways in which creative people might fund their endeavours?

People have been looking for answers to these questions for quite some time. And the fact that they are still looking, gives me some measure of relief.