Social media has given us a weird window into discussions between artists that we probably wouldn’t have been privy to before. The “open letter” environment can devolve into petty name-calling, sure, but it also provides a useful space to challenge power structures. The last time Garbage was involved in an open letter situation, frontwoman Shirley Manson was scolding Kanye for not respecting Beck’s artistry properly; this time, someone is accusing her of that same disrespect.
Garbage are planning to self-release a book about the band, and their management company Big Picture Music Co. reached out to photographer Pat Pope about potentially using some photos he took for them back in the ’90s. Pope revealed in an open letter on Facebook that they requested to use his photos with “proper credit” because the budget was “financially limited.” As anyone who has been offered payment in “credit” or “exposure” knows, this is a particularly irksome request. So Pope went on to point out how the request was logically inconsistent:
I’m a firm believer that musicians and artists deserve to be paid for their work. I’ll sign any petition that’s out there supporting that concept, and even when I choose to stream rather than buy, I’m one of the fans of your band that will pay for a premium service because I think you should be paid. That’s my point of view. Is it yours? When you think about artists being paid, does that include photographers? Do you think “content providers”, whatever the hell that means, deserve to be paid for their work, or is that a special category for musicians? If I want to release a music album, can I use your music in it if I give you a “proper credit”?
He also argues that assuming photos will be free sets a dangerous precedent for other artists:
If you’re putting together a book, presumably someone at your management company or somebody in the band has written a budget. And if there’s a budget, somewhere in that budget, against the line for “use of photos” somebody has written “no need to pay, we’ll just give them a proper credit and get them for free”… Who is that person? As a band are you happy to be employing someone who thinks like that? Because it seems to me that the person who writes down “zero for photos” today is the same person who will write down “zero for music” tomorrow because they don’t respect the “content providers”.
After his letter, Garbage posted a response of their own, clarifying that they did in fact pay Pope for the photos back in the ’90s when he shot them:
We regret that you interpreted our request so negatively. HAVING ALREADY paid you in 1995 for the entire shoot from which these images were selected, we really didn’t expect such a hostile reception to our enquiry. We adore the photographs you took of us at such a special time in our career but it was never our intent to use the aforementioned images without your express permission.
They further detail that it’s so expensive to put out a book without a publisher, they almost scrapped the book idea entirely. Their decision to ask to use the images for free was inspired by the ethos that Amanda Palmer set forth in The Power Of Asking:
Before we scrapped the idea of producing the book entirely, we decided instead that we would take a leaf out of Amanda Palmer’s book The Power Of Asking and simply ask the photographers themselves whether they wanted to be included in our book or not. Any refusal of permission would be respectfully accepted and no further questions asked.
Garbage also point toward other photographers who have agreed to let them use images for free, and argue that in the spirit of artistic community and collaboration, their request has merit:
We were so grateful and delighted to learn that most of the photographers were happy for their images to be seen in conjunction with the telling of our story. We would be entirely unable to produce a book at an affordable price for most of our fans without the generous consent of all these amazingly talented photographers and filmmakers. Historically, artists over the centuries have been known to help each other out in an effort to get their work seen and heard. We are proud and grateful to be part of this artist community.
This is a tough one because both sides genuinely have a point. Garbage wants to chronicle their history and make an artifact that’s affordable for their fans. Pope wants to highlight the way photography has become completely devalued (mostly due to the internet) and is treated like something that should be free. However, the band did pay him once so it’s not like they’re trying to completely rip him off. Personally, I’m more inclined to go off tone; Pope’s letter is calmly reasoned and very respectful, while Garbage’s has a bit of a self-righteous sneer in it.
Pope’s letter ends with one incredibly ironic anecdote, though:
Just so you know, this is actually an improvement on the management of your Absolute Garbage album where the record company just used my work without even asking. I only found this out when I went into a shop and bought a copy, which, when you think about it, has a certain irony.
It’s unlikely we would’ve heard Pope’s side at all before Facebook or Twitter since he isn’t as famous as the band. That alone feels like an important development in the discussion. Whatever your take on the situation, it’s a great example of the way we value and consume art is changing, and the way we hold those conversations has shifted.
[Photo by Victor Chavez/Getty Images]