An Important Open Letter to You About Lena Dunham


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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97 Responses

  1. Hilarious. Trenchant. Depressing. True. Brilliant.Report

  2. Avatar Glyph says:

    1.) Dude, I’m not even ON Facebook, and I am tired of hearing about Lena Dunham.

    2.) Isn’t this the Amanda Palmer kerfuffle all over again? What does Steve Albini have to say about this?Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Yeah, when I go to the grocery store, I see all of these faces on the tabloids and the only ones I recognize are the ones who are on deathwatch.

    The young’uns? No idea.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    Yeah but how does she define a sandwich? Why are you….YOU….dodging the real question.Report

  5. Avatar Chris says:

    Damn. I thought it was shitty that she wasn’t paying them, but I had no idea it had become something this big.Report

  6. Avatar notme says:


    Legal but shady is still legal. That is why folks hire lawyers.Report

  7. Avatar Stillwater says:

    the single-worst kind of human beings that exist in the world today: Artists whose work was really hipster-fashionable to like for a while, but then got too popular and faced hipster-pushback.

    Perfect. And I think the warning to hipsters and proto-hipsters alike is well founded. It’s a dangerous game, being a hipster.Report

  8. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    1. I have no idea what to make of the journalistic career of Hamilton Nolan. He seems to be a younger version of Abe Simpson (possibly with a prep school education) who was able to turn incoherent rants into a presumably well-paid gig.

    2. Yes this is just like Amanda Palmer but as I’ve said a million times before, the Arts seem to work in a world where you have a few people who make really good money and then a huge amount of people who live a life that is close to destitution. As a former theatre director (and general defender of artists) I think the general attitude that many people exhibit towards artists is hypocritical and bullshit. I also think it is rather fair to call out Dunham (who was rocketed to fame in ways that many people are not) and her publishing company. If you can afford to give someone a 3.6 million dollar advance and charge 50 or bucks for a speaking tour, you can put 50,000 or so dollars in your budget to pay local artists. I am not talking about an extravagant amount for each artist. Something around 400-600 dollars would do.

    4. I do subscribe to the general belief that Lena Dunham probably gets outsized attention. Girls is only watched by around 1 million people. When the show debuted (or right before it), it felt like there was a memo going around all of the media that stated it was verboten to criticize Lena Dunham and all most awe her, so I can kind of get why Gawker would want to stake out a claim as being anti-Dunham. I suspect that the media thinks those 1 million viewers for the show are just like them or will bloom into people with high disposable income in their 40s and 50s.

    5. The attention worked. I think Dunham’s quick response was quite admirable.

    6. I agree with you on the importance of the TAL story but at this point American politics makes the Battles of the Somme and Galipoli look like picnics. There is a sizeble chunk of the population that believes the response to the TAL story is simply to get rid of the regulators and let banks go hog-wild on whatever they want to do. There is a chunk that believes the solution is more regulation or tougher separation between the banks and the regulators and never the two shall meet. There are issues where an overwhelming majority of Americans agree upon but never seem to happen. I remember reading an article on Slate about how a huge majority of Americans of all orientations believe in laws that guarantee sick days for workers. The chances of such legislation passing seem dim because the Republican Party is to enthralled with corporations to pass such a thing and this does not seem to be something that would cause people to defect to vote Democratic.

    So I am pretty cynical about our current states of affairs and think that it won’t change until the cult of Reagan starts receding which can be a decade or two away.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      @saul-degraw There is so much here that baffles me, so maybe I’ll just take them in order…

      A. Who is Amanda Palmer?

      B. If an artist finds value in free publicity, why is that a bad thing? If, Agnostic-God willing, This American Life were to call me up one day and say, “Tod, we’re doing a show on online writing and we want to feature a few things you’ve written. We won’t be paying for this, but your stuff will be heard by tens of millions of radio and podcast listeners, and we’ll put a link to Ordinary Times on our website,” I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment. I wouldn’t hesitate even if I were in my 20s and not retired, and the reason I wouldn’t hesitate would be because I was making a business decision. Normally to reach 10s of millions of potential readers, I’d have to pay a butt-load of money, but now I have an opportunity to do it free of charge. I’m not understanding what’s wrong with that arrangement if both Ira Glass and I agree it’s an arrangement that works for the two of us.

      C. Yes, a lot of people wrote about Lena Dunham’s Girls in 2012, even though more people watched American Idol during that same time period. So what? Why is it therefore necessary to punish Dunham, or gloat over her missteps and misfortunes? Why the f**k would Gawker or anyone else want to “stake out a claim as being anti-Dunham,” and why should we defend or even reward that? Seriously, I find this totally weird.

      D. You say the attention “worked,” but that assumes that the goal of every artist in the country is to be paid by Lena Dunham. What if the next time she has a public event she thinks, “f**k it, who needs the headache of whatever the Twitterverse if going to decide to hang me on next time” and doesn’t give any artist the opportunity to get any PR or exposure, paid or not? Is that an example of the system working?

      E. Yes, Washington is in gridlock, and yes, there will probably be differing opinions as to what to do with things such as the Segarra tapes. That’s all true. But do we really want to use that as a reason that news publishers like Time — TIME! — stop covering those kinds of stories in favor for ones about whatever twitter has to say about Lena Dunham? More than anything else you say here, this point REALLY baffles me.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        A. Who is Amanda Palmer?

        Some chick. 😉Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Here was the comment thread on the Palmer kerfuffle, in which I got into it with BlaiseP (over Steve Albini, of all things):

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        A. Amanda Palmer is a musician who was part of a group called the Dresden Dolls. She is also married to Neil Gaiman I believe. She managed to raise a million dollars on kickstarter for a CD/Tour and then asked for local backup musicians to play for free hugs, high fives, and beer. This caused an outrage among artists and musicians and Steve Albini pointed out that she should have had plenty of money left over from the million to be able to pay local musicians to play backup on tour.

        B. I think this is a complicated question but I think part of my respect for artists is that artists deserve to be paid. I can see why artists at the start of their careers would do things for free publicity/exposure and why it is necessary. Plenty of artists self-produce when they can’t get anyone to produce for themselves. I am also skeptical about whether Lena Dunham’s book tour is going to be the same amount of publicity or exposure as This American Life. I know most about the theatre world and as far as I can tell working for free might just end up being a self-locking cycle. Plenty of young actors, writers, and directors self-produce, work for free, in order to gain experience and have a resume that they can give to agents/managers. I’ve heard too many stories about actors who were told “No agent is going to work with you unless you get experience” and then the actor goes out and works for free and gets experience/credits. Then said actor is told by an agent “I can’t work do anything for you because of all this unpaid credits at no-name theatres, self-produced one-person shows, and in student films.” The same goes for playwrights who self-produce their own work usually.

        C. Maybe it is but I also found it weird about the amount of praise she got before Girls even aired like it would be a fireable offensive to be skeptical of Lena Dunham at the Slate or Atlantic offices. Though she does seem to be a person that produces extreme emotions one way or another. Gawker is still a gossip site at heart and being snarky is their MO. I don’t think Dunham is talented but she is not amazingly talented either does work as a stand in for how the art world is basically unfair. There are probably a million people out there who could write stuff just as good as Tiny Furniture and Girls but the difference is that they did not have famous artists parents, did not grow up in NYC, did not go to St. Anne’s or Oberlin, and did not get featured in Vogue at 11 in an article about cool downtown kids professing their love for Jill Sander (who makes shirts that cost about 500 dollars). I would totally exploit Dunham’s connections if I had them so I don’t blame her but I also think she does stand in for the artistic equivalent of being “born on third base and thought she hit a triple.” Early success is going to breed resentment and pusback especially from people who worked long and hard and started doing unglamorous stuff and slowly but surely worked their way up. This is just basic psychology and human nature. I’ve been freelance lawyering for 2.5 years and might be looking at starting my own practice as a least bad option kind of thing. The advice I tend to get from lawyers and my parents is to start out doing a lot of cases that get you no money but a lot of experience like 10,000 dollar car accidents or slip and falls. Now maybe in 10-20 years I will see this as making me a damn good lawyer but it doesn’t mean I am not going to be jealous of my classmates who work for their parents (my parents are opposed to this and think it makes a person weak) and get to do more glamorous stuff right away or got fancy positions because of their connections. A classmate of mine brags about having the second lowest GPA in law school, failing the bar once, and still getting a Big Law job through family connections (his family as their own entrance to the SF zoo). I kind of dislike him. It doesn’t help that we are political antipodes as well.

        D. No comment here.

        E. I think the issue is that the media is still trying to figure out how to turn a profit in the Internet economy. Plus there was a change in the 1980s during which news went from being a public service to something that was expected to make a profit. The SEC story is complex, depressing, and difficult to convey. Outrage at a celeb doing something somewhat outrageous is easy to get clicks for.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @saul I think this is a complicated question but I think part of my respect for artists is that artists deserve to be paid.

        Of course they do. And free advertising and PR, as I said, has value.

        And despite what every artist I’ve ever known thinks, this isn’t a business decision unique to artists.

        When we were getting my division off the ground, we not only worked for no charge for a number number of clients, we lost money — a lot of money — on them on purpose. To be honest, we had to. No one else was really doing what we were at the time, and it was hard to convince people who didn’t do what we did for a living that there was value in what we did. It worked out, because we were abel to turn almost all of those free gigs into paying ones. But we might have just as easily has gotten nothing back, lost our shirts, and gone bankrupt.

        In fact, most businesses that start off giving their services away for free as a way to drum up interest go under pretty quickly. But that doesn’t make their decision to attempt that strategy that any less valid, nor does it mean that if they hadn’t done anything for free they would have survived.

        I am also skeptical about whether Lena Dunham’s book tour is going to be the same amount of publicity or exposure as This American Life.

        Oh, it absolutely won’t — and it doesn’t matter. That’s not the point.

        If a business thinks they can get enough value in return for doing something pro bono, they will generally do it. Sometimes that might mean a million potential new clients, and sometimes it means only a handful, and sometimes it means only one. That gets to be that business’s decision, not yours.

        I know most about the theatre world and as far as I can tell working for free might just end up being a self-locking cycle. Plenty of young actors, writers, and directors self-produce, work for free, in order to gain experience and have a resume that they can give to agents/managers. I’ve heard too many stories about actors who were told “No agent is going to work with you unless you get experience” and then the actor goes out and works for free and gets experience/credits. Then said actor is told by an agent “I can’t work do anything for you because of all this unpaid credits at no-name theatres, self-produced one-person shows, and in student films.” The same goes for playwrights who self-produce their own work usually.

        Again, this isn’t something that is limited to artists. A lot of businesses start off by undercharging (even up to the point of giving it away for free), and then find no one wants their service once they raise the cost to break even. A lot (more than you’d guess, actually) start off undercharging, and never find out if people would pay more because they never feel comfortable asking, and go out of business. But that doesn’t mean that those people shouldn’t get to decide whether or not they want to try to drum new clients up in that fashion.

        Take music, because it’s something I’m more familiar with than acting: My understanding is that if you include live ticket receipts (bars, pubs, and weddings as well as sold out amphitheaters) as well as recorded music, the music industry today produces something close to $25 billion annually in consumer revenue in the US and Europe. That’s a lot of people paying a lot of money for people to make music. So even though there are starving musicians out there, there is still a huge paying market — in fact, it’s five times larger than it was when I was playing professionally, which was before the big switch fro analog to digital really took place.

        Now, that doesn’t mean that most people that play music won’t see much if any of that coin. They won’t — and despite what you whippersnappers think, they never did. There’s never been a time in modern history when people who decided to try making their fortune (or even a decent living) playing music didn’t know getting into it that it was a huge long shot. But people still do it.

        And a lot of those people think their work is so good that, if people could only hear them, people would be willing to give them enough money to make a decent living (or a fortune). Yes, there have been, are and always will be musicians that have been proven right using this tactic, but the vast majority are wrong about that. Always have been, always will be.

        And again, even though you think of artists as being different in this regard, they aren’t. The vast majority of the businesses that start 2014 will lose money in 2014. (Actually, over 30% will pay the business fee with their city or state and never have a single sale before they bag it.) And of those 2014 new businesses that don’t lose money this year, most will be out of business before the end of 2016. It’s sad, but that’s just the way it is. Just because you have a dream you believe in doesn’t mean that people want to buy it, whether your’e an artist, an attorney, an insurance salesperson or a drywaller.

        And so the question, then, is who gets to decide whether my friend Mike’s band Mexican Gunfight should play a free gig they think might help them make more money in the long run? Mike and his bandmates? You? People on twitter who have never or will never pay money to see them play?

        That’s the fork where you and I diverge.Report

  9. Avatar Damon says:

    Who is this chick? Didn’t she have a tv show? That’s all I’ll admit to knowing…or want to know..Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Damon says:

      “Chick”? Not “dame” or “bird” or “skirt” or “doll”?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        What is the equivalent of “dude”?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Who is this chick dude? Didn’t she have a tv show? That’s all I’ll admit to knowing…or want to know..

        I’m sure that will cause no reader confusion, or umbrage (“What do you mean, ‘dude’? Is she not dolled-up enough for you, you misogynist?”)

        It’s possible “chick” isn’t the best word to use, but I’m not sure what other word conveys “some woman I don’t know”.

        “Skrillex? I dunno, I think he’s some EDM dude.”Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        AAANNNND down the wikipedia wormhole, researching the etymology of “dude”. Some fun facts:

        1889 – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain contains a feminine form: “dudesses”.

        1985 – Less Than Zero (a novel by Bret Easton Ellis) includes the first published usage of the now-common phrase, “No way, dude!”, and the first mainstream display of “dude” having crossed the gender barrier. In a noteworthy scene, a young woman tells her mother, “No way, dude.”

        Evander Berry Wall (1860 – May 13, 1940) was a New York socialite and later an American expatriate in France during the Belle Époque and beyond. He was famous for his extravagantly refined look and was crowned “King of the Dudes” in the 1880s.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        All that said, I think my original point stands that “dude” is still not entirely interchangeable between genders.

        If I tell the police “some dude just stole my bike”, they are probably going to ask if I got a good look at him.

        If it was a woman I saw, I should probably amend that to “some chick just stole my bike”, to avoid confusion.

        Of course, we could just avoid *all* slang terms; but where’s the fun in that?

        (Actually, it occurs to me “dame” is probably the “best”, or at least should be, out of the listed alternatives, since I am unaware of any infantalizing connotations for that one. Plus it has a pleasing symmetry with ‘dude’. Dudes and dames.)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I know that I shouldn’t rely on the Gorillaz, but “chicks and dudes” made a fairly prominent appearance in “Clint Eastwood”.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Yeah, “dude” is pretty gendered. I was mostly saying there isn’t an equivalent.

        Slang is cool, but “chick” is not the equivalent of “dude” either. The equivalent of “chick” would be something like “piglet” or “puppy” or something equally condescending to most adults.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Brief research tells me the word did not always mean “youthful bird”, but was actually originally (14th C.) simply a shortening of “chicken”, itself already a term of endearment, and migrated (see what I did there?) thence to its more youthful connotation due to its alliteration with “child”.


        As slang for “young woman” it is first recorded 1927 (in “Elmer Gantry”), supposedly from U.S. black slang. In British use in this sense by c.1940; popularized by Beatniks late 1950s.

        There’s also this:

        boy·chik or boy·chick (boichk)
        n. Slang
        A boy or young man.
        [boy + Eastern Yiddish -chik, diminutive suffix (from Slavic).]

        Anyway, some may see it as condescending, but the prevalence of the terms “chick lit” and “chick flicks” mean it’s a pretty-commonly used term.

        Going back to Pinky’s original comment, I still don’t know another (common) term that so succinctly expresses “random woman largely unknown to me”.

        Though I am bringing back ‘dame’, mark my words. Judi Dench and Helen Mirren are aces in my book.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Sorry, Aerosmith and Jerry Lewis screwed that one up.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Also, “lady” still doesn’t work to express the precise meaning or tone I think Pinky was getting at, which DOES contain a note of disrespect, though not (IMO) a gendered one.

        “Dude/chick” is a way of saying “I gather this random person is supposed to be important, but they apparently aren’t important enough for me to know/care about them.”

        “Skrillex? Dunno, he’s some EDM gentleman.”

        See? That doesn’t really express the fact that I don’t really care who Skrillex is, like saying “some EDM dude” does.

        I intend to express a touch of disrespect, or at least affect a nonchalance/non-investment in his existence.

        It’s got nothing to do with gender though; it’s just expressing that Skrillex doesn’t interest me. That his celebrity is meaningless, irrelevant to my life.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Dammit, Damon. No idea why I thought it was Pinky. Sorry bout that.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Chris says:

        I prefer “broad.”Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        We have a gaggle of guys talking about slang for women. I wonder what the women ’round here think.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Chris says:

        Eh. They’re probably busy thinking about wedding dresses and who to vote for.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        We could just ask ’em, see?

        What’s the rumpus?

        And don’t go givin’ us the high-hat.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

        In Yiddish, chick was slang for a kid. Boy chick or girl chick.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        What does “Dude” mean, in Yiddish?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Strangely enough, it means “Oy vey, I cannot locate my vehicle, and I was certain that it was parked right here.”Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Damon says:


      What do you think you are showing with comments like this?

      Besides your own ignorance?Report

  10. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    TV’s The Biggest Loser is airing a Halloween themed episode tonight – even though Halloween is still a few weeks away!

    Halloween is four weeks ago. Four is “several,” not “a few.” You guys should do a symposium on this.Report

  11. Avatar zic says:

    Tos, I sent you a piece on Segarra, it might be in the other inbox.

    I have two nits to pick; neither one having anything to do with Lena Durham.

    First, artist do deserve to get paid. This whole ‘just ask’ business wasn’t about getting to work for exposure, it was about people supporting you and your work so that you could get paid for doing what you do.

    My second nitpick is the attack on entertainment reporting, an argument bathed in sarcasm that it’s a poor allocation of reporting resources and media space. Free market forces are at work here.

    I grow weary and leery of arguments used to discredit one thing because they’re not doing another thing better; but that’s probably just my abrasive personality, because I’m better at snide comments than getting naked on TV.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

      Edit that Tos to a Tod.

      Bad migraine morning.Report

    • Avatar dhex in reply to zic says:

      “First, artist do deserve to get paid.”

      i think that ship sailed a long time ago. the culture has changed so significantly that anyone i know who is working professionally (meaning primarily) as a musician is 90% tour mode all the time. or 75% tour, 25% lessons/teaching/composition for agencies, etc. not the most fun life for everyone, but that’s the tradeoff reality.

      the milk is largely free these days. and the supply of cows will not slow down anytime soon. while i think she’s kind of a jerk for pulling this, i can’t say it was a bad business decision or particularly irrational. she’ll take a very minor pr hit for this but her niche is shallow enough that it’ll be essentially invisible in a few weeks. people who are predisposed to not like her will continue to do so, and vice versa.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to dhex says:


        Labor deserves payment including artistic labor and I think people speaking out against Palmer and Dunham did show that you can get payment for artists by calling out the really rich artists who ask for free labor.

        I don’t see why this can’t be a continuing labor trend to demand fair payment.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dhex says:

        This unfairly prejudices in favor of performance artists.

        What about sculptors? What about potters/glaziers?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to dhex says:

        With art, as with sports and some other endeavors, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between work and recreation. If enough people do something without wanting to get paid, it becomes harder to argue that there is an obligation to pay.

        There is also the question of value-added. Very few people were going to the Dunham events to see the musical act. If the musical act weren’t there, then I would guess that roughly the same number of people would be in attendance. So, without some tangible value added…

        The last is that even without direct pay, “free gigs” can provide an opportunity not just of exposure, but to sell CDs and such. I suspect in the Dunham case this is marginal because they are not there for the music (see #2), but this can apply at some bars.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to dhex says:

        @will-truman With art, as with sports and some other endeavors, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between work and recreation.

        I really do have to take exception here. Would you suggest a chef shouldn’t get paid because people don’t get paid to cook at home? Do you understand the skill difference between cooking for a family of four to six at home and preparing 60 dinners a night? That same skill difference exists between musicians who probably should get paid and those who pursue music as recreation. Same with writing.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to dhex says:

        I took a brief look at the linked Dunham article, which I see does reference the Palmer thing, and I saw this:

        After plenty of internet kerfuffle, Palmer began paying her collaborators, explaining that she had come to think ”it’s one thing to decide, independently, that you’ll play for free. It’s another to be a person with a lot of money who asks other people for free labor. Folks in the latter position shouldn’t confuse themselves with folks in the former.”

        Which was my position all along. I didn’t think that Palmer was being (intentionally) a jerk or a cheapskate.

        I thought it likely that she used to be in one position, and hadn’t quite clocked yet that she’d moved to the other.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dhex says:

        Wait, so the argument is that I shouldn’t get paid for making me and Maribou dinner?

        Fine. We can just throw some Stouffer’s in the oven. I’ll be in the basement.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to dhex says:

        To the extent that there is a difference in quality in the product of a worker and a recreationalist, that should be sufficient enough that the former can demand a salary and people will pay it.

        The point, though, is that if enough people do it recreationally, and enjoy doing it, and would like to make a career out of it, then not everybody can get paid to do it. Demands to be paid by virtue of doing it are hard to make.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to dhex says:


        I think fine arts are different because they tend to produce something more tangible to sell. Now plenty of them have trouble getting someone to buy their stuff but I have yet to hear a story where someone asked a fine artist to make vases or painting or sculptures for free.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to dhex says:

        Labor deserves payment including artistic labor

        No doubt, but let me go all economisty on you for a second. And for purposes of this comment a “Dunham” is someone who is hiring artistic labor.

        Anything of value can constitute payment. It doesn’t have to be money, but can be in-kind. So if Lena Dunham offered all the artists who performed a home surround-sound entertainment system, but no money, that would still be payment.

        Likewise, free publicity is a form of payment. Think of it this way–how much does publicity cost? What would it cost an artist to get X number of people noticing his/her work? That’s the value of the payment. And for many, paying for that kind of publicity out of pocket would be impossible.

        The beneficial thing about this kind of payment, from a Dunham’s point of view, is that the value to the artist is vastly greater than the cost to a Dunham. I think this is what offends–she’s getting something for free! But that’s to look at it the wrong way. For the artist, the only consideration should be how much s/he is benefiting, regardless of the cost to the Dunham.

        From the broader economic pov, we should admire this kind of transaction, because it’s a net increase in value. Let’s say the publicity has a value of $X (which is a positive number). If, instead, the artist just got paid $X, then little net value is created–$X goes out of a Dunham’s pocket into an artist’s pocket, and $X – $X = $0. (That’s a bit simplified, but it’s good for the moment.) On the other hand, if $0 goes out of a Dunham’s pocket, but effectively $X flows into artist’s pocket, then we have $X – $0 = $X, which as we’ve already noted, is greater than 0.

        Of course that ignores that what the artist would really like is the $X and the value of the publicity. (Why wouldn’t they, right? They may be nuts, but they’re still rational actors!) Now one could interpret that either as they want the publicity totally for free–not paid for out of their pocket, and not as an in-kind payment in lieu of cash–or one could interpret it as their price being higher than the asking price. (It works out the same, as a practical matter, the only difference being our normative interpretation of the artist’s motivation.)

        On a great number of transactions, bargaining over price occurs. A Dunham offers a price, and the artist can decide whether to accept it, reject it and break off negotiations, or counteroffer. And that is an issue of rationality and strategic behavior. On the minimal rational choice aspect, an artist decides whether the value of the free publicity is sufficient payment or not. And not only between different individuals, but for the same person at different times, the subjective value of a cash payment will vary. If the rent’s due tomorrow and I don’t have the cash, the subjective value of a cash payment increases, and I might tell the Dunham to put cash on the barrelhead or bugger off. If the rent’s paid up, the refrigerator’s stocked, and I just had a couple of decent gigs/sold a couple of pieces of work, the subjective value of the cash payment decreases, and I might think, “yeah, now’s the time to not walk away from free publicity.”

        And let’s not forget that artists asking for free or reduced rent on a performance/gallery space is not unknown. Are they just as guilty as the Dunhams? Or are they also just rational actors?

        Of course this approach sucks out the moral overtones of the interactions. Some people don’t like that, but I find it clarifies the situation. It makes more sense–in most cases, although not all–to view a person as a rational actor than as a moral monster.

        Where I would get normative is in response to those Dunhams who–unlike Lena the Original Dunham–respond with a sneering and condescending comment about how they’re just trying to do a nice deed for the artist. Interpreted as a bargaining strategy, that’s counterproductive, so counterproductive, in fact, that it’s hard to validly see it as a bargaining strategy. It appears, rather, to be a cheap parting shop by a Dunham who is unwilling to bargain, but assumes the artist should be a price-taker. Depending on one’s perspective, that’s either stupid or assholish, or–as I’d view it–both.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to dhex says:

        “but I have yet to hear a story where someone asked a fine artist to make vases or painting or sculptures for free.”

        that’s a long way of saying “i don’t know any graphic designers, illustrators, or painters”.

        that stuff happens all the time. and it works so often, because milk, cows, etc etc and so forth.

        “That same skill difference exists between musicians who probably should get paid and those who pursue music as recreation.”

        as someone who enjoys stuff that’s probably in between or on the other side or whatever, the only real decider of this is if someone pays. skill is a meaningless term in this context, because for most audiences, it is largely invisible. it sucks to try and squeeze blood from a niche, but “skill” as an argument is not going to sway anyone. you can’t eat the fiddle music, and if you can youtube/soundcloud/google fiddle music and get a lot of fiddling…etc etc and so forth.

        no one cares if you put in thousands of hours playing a fiddle if they don’t ultimately care about the fiddling. especially if hundreds of lesser fiddlers will give you 95% of your fiddle needs for zero cost.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to dhex says:

        The other day, I posted a link to Ringo Starr covering Toto’s “Africa”.

        One of the things I couldn’t help but notice was that the cover was no better than I’d expect to hear down at Thunder and Buttons in Old Colorado City on the night that they have “Live Music”. I mean, it wasn’t a *BAD* cover. It’s “Africa”. After a beer or two, you’re going to enjoy the ever-living crap out of hearing it.

        But if you go down to Thunder and Buttons (or any other watering hole down in Old Colorado City) for any night that they have “Live Music”, you will see an audience hoping for “fun” songs that are “fun” to listen to (if not sing along to) that are songs that you can still have a conversation with your boothmate over.

        We’re not talking songs that absorb you and demand attention as much as songs that you listen to with your memory as much as with your ears (if not more).

        The music equivalent of Thomas Kinkade.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to dhex says:

        Oh yeah- amateurs have flooded the market, no doubt.

        But does publicity have any value anymore? I can only speak as a musician, but while there sure are outlets that bands can pay to get “exposure” or “publicity”, doing so is generally seen about like investing in that Nigerian businessman who emailed you about his bank account. There are so many outlets that are dying for press releases, which you can write yourself and there’s always the Internet, where doing something moderately clever gets you lots of attention. Is someone offering “publicity” really offering anything? Or are they about like the Nigerian businessman?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to dhex says:


        Then I’d expect a lot more artists to decline such offers.

        It may even explain the uptick in complaints about such offers. And those offering may not be monsters as much as clueless about the artist’s valuation of what they’re offering (much like ITunes offering me a free U2 album).Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to James Hanley says:

          Wait, how do we know that nobody turned her down? Or how many just ignored the offer?

          We’ve had gala events around here where local bands get asked to play for free in exchange for exposure. Usually what happens is everyone just ignores the offer as a waste of their time except for some band that then the rest of us see as not knowing what they’re doing. There are always a few artists to fill the slots, usually ones who are at roughly the age where Mom and Dad are still paying their bills. At that age, their time is free in all senses. But, for most of us, it would be about like someone saying, “We have an event and need waiters who are willing to work all day for free! Lots of people will see you!” I don’t even respond to those sorts of emails. We will, sometimes, play charity shows if we know the people doing them, but that’s about it.

          I don’t think it has anything to do with “monsters” really. Most people are a-okay with getting things for free. I’m generally a supporter of the concept myself. And most people really are clueless about the value of art. The fact that there are people willing to work for free suggests it really is worthless too. I agree with you that this is what people are really complaining about. The problem for working artists is the huge, gaping divide that exists between workers and hobbyists. Usually, when I hear artists complaining about the people who want artists to work for free, the subtext is they’re really angry at the ones who agree to it.

          What I say is they get what they pay for. I wouldn’t expect much in the way of quality from an artist I asked to work for free. In the case of our band, if we played one of those gala events, I would feel very sorry for whoever fell for our offer.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to dhex says:

        @rufus-f – this is OT, but I wanted to thank you for turning me on to that excellent Simply Saucer record a while back. I was listening to it again the other day and occasionally the singer reminds me a little of Robert Pollard with his singing/speaking voice (the shared Floyd/Barrett influence plus lo-fi garage sci-fi psych weirdness is probably where I am getting that occasional vibe from).Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to dhex says:

        Oh, cool! Yeah, Edgar Breau’s a great musician. They seem to be finding a second life these days, although still not as well known as they could be. Weird thread connection here too: those Simply Saucer recordings were pretty much the first things that local lad Daniel Lanois recorded before he went on to become a producer for folks like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and won his Grammy for The Joshua Tree.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to dhex says:

        Yeah, it’s really good. It’s always nice to find a “lost” album or band that actually lives up to the hype (sometimes, you hear them and think “yeah, no WONDER nobody ever heard of these guys”).

        But that thing is terrific, like a demented Stooges/MC5/Floyd/Velvets/Can hybrid. Total rock-nerd-bait.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to dhex says:

        @rufus-f I am standing in the back of the room, applauding these two comments with all my might. Too many people just don’t get it, and when it comes to music, I guess it’s part and parcel of our shitty music education. Someone who needs to rehearse their stuff every week and can barely play what they’ve rehearsed (often the exact same way every show) is an amateur; maybe worth paying for some novelty, but not a professional who can step in and play because, you know, that’s her job.

        She shows up at the gig on time, with the necessary equipment all in working order. She’s sober, and will remain so (or mostly so) until after the gig. She plays respectfully, listening to what the other musicians are doing so that she doesn’t trample all the air out of the music. Even if she’s never played with these musicians or this music before, the audience will think she’s been here, part of the band, rehearsing these songs like our amateur, for a long time.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to dhex says:


        It sounds like you’re arguing with me, but actually nothing either of us has said contradicts the other.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to dhex says:

        Yeah, I didn’t intend it as arguing with you. Mostly just fleshing out a few thoughts.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to dhex says:

        I definitely agree with the “You get what you pay for” at least when it comes to live music and musicians. I used to go to a lot of live music. Overwhelmingly, there was a relationship there. At the same time, I don’t consider there to be anything immoral about the places that don’t pay the musicians. Oftentimes, if they did that, they would have to charge a cover, and I would be less inclined to actually go there (and, presumably, I would not be the only one).Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to zic says:

      @zic I’m not seeing it anywhere. Can I get you to resend?Report

  12. Avatar clawback says:

    So I take it you consider bank regulation to be a more important issue than rapidly increasing income inequality. Duly noted.

    But leaving aside your strange assumption that the media cannot cover both, perhaps you could explain why it is so self-evident the rest of us should share your priorities.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to clawback says:

      Oh, they can cover both. They don’t.

      As to the rest of the gotcha-esque statement: meh. It’s kind of like when people say if people who say they value tolerance and diversity really valued tolerance and diversity, they’d approve of white supremacists.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        You know, I do find kinda weak the ‘why are you writing about this?!’ (and/or ‘why is the media ignoring this’) argument(s) when 1) in the internet age, column inches don’t matter anymore 2) there is this here website that already has a fairly hefty (and legit derived) SEO (and a co-founder and editor emeritus that writes for a major business magazine, albeit in the ‘lifestyle’ section)

        (iow, Jaybird’s (very good) ‘Write a Guest Post’ response when content decisions are questioned around here).Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        It’s kinda like when people talk about a certain politician from the 49th state, and just talking about the talking about her keeps her in the mix. When everyone should just ignore everything about her.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        Space does not matter anymore but pay for a click does.

        I also think the old media bosses were more paternalistic in what they covered and did not mind making decisions about what was important.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        “Space does not matter anymore but pay for a click does.

        I also think the old media bosses were more paternalistic in what they covered and did not mind making decisions about what was important.”

        1) the term is pay per click (PPC) and doesn’t actually apply in this context.

        2) that is a particularly rosy, if not unique, way of thinking of the history of american journalism.

        heavily targeted, niche market papers were the boom of many a large town – your daily democrat and local republic papers catering to each party’s partiers, insulated from some (but not all) cashflow factors based upon regular classified advertising revenue and the monopoly of print. to presume an eat your vegetables model of cultural i know better than you goddamn barbarians was driving this is cute.

        the great newspaper consolidation trend was an acceleration of a process that began back in the 1950s. the internet killed the remaining lifeline of money.

        however, i find tod’s argument unpersuasive. to say that the depth and breadth of what’s available now is less than what it was 20 years ago is, i think, to misremember the past quite deeply. to be sad that there’s too much infotainment going on is probably natural, but thanks to niche filters, utterly avoidable. god bless satan!Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @dhex There was a brief time, though, from the Good Night Good Luck era to around the first Bush administration, that business model and regulatory factors created quasi monopolies (really oligopolies) on how both news and entertainment were delivered to vast majority of the American public. Three national networks, one or two major dailies in each metro, hollywood that transitioned from the studio system to the blockbuster, and that was about it. Magazines, maybe, was were you found niche stuff. (including the old school partisan stuff, but mostly (by circulation) about sports and celebrity).

        So with little competitive pressure and some FCC and other government pressure, yes, I think there was some elite curation for the masses during that era.Report

  13. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I am familiar with Lena Dunham, which is something of a miracle for me, but not this kerfuffle. It seems to me that there are two things going on here:

    1. People who are sick of the idea of giving free time and labor in exchange for exposure are latching onto this and making a big deal. Most landlords still do not accept “buzz” as rent.

    2. We all complain about how insipid cable and print media are; yet, the most successful online sites essentially offer celebrity reporting. In fact, maybe we could just see the Internet as a sort of audience response loop for the mainstream media.Report

  14. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I kind of wish my annoying facebook feed were consumed by screeds about Lena Dunham asking performing artists to play for free. Instead I get the today’s misinformed food fearmongery, infographics informing me that drinking some rather tasty-sounding vegetable smoothies will totally obviate the need for flu vaccines, and an Islamophobic rant video with headache-inducing animated text in too many typefaces and a man with an English accent reading the exact same words, the latter reliably posted by that one person in my friends list for purely historical reasons, and the rest by any one of dozens of quite nice people with whom I can have a pleasant conversation about anything that isn’t health or science.Report

  15. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:


  16. Avatar LWA says:

    This issue exemplifies the confusion within the art world itself about the nature of art.
    Is what we produce commerce or not?
    Are artists entrepreneurial capitalists producing and selling a product, or something different?

    The answer of course is, its complicated.
    There are plenty of artists who would be happy to forego riches, and simply exist like the imagined medieval craftsmen, subsisting entirely on the most simple room board and stipend, while allowed the freedom to be creative.

    But there are others who really do want to make money, as much as possible. They really do see their work as a commercial product, and have no trouble exchanging it for money.

    The disconnect comes when we try to have it both ways- to create what we want without suffering the demands of the marketplace, while easily earning a comfortable affluence.

    Even speaking as a card-carrying liberal, the notion that artists deserve to get paid raises questions.
    We get paid to perform labor for someone else’s benefit and at their request. All work of course contains some proportion of outside directive and individual creativity and control.
    Work that contains the outcome of the outside control is objectively valuable- I asked for X to be done, and received X.

    Work that is the outcome of individual creativity and control sometimes- but not always!- has an objective value. A painting done on spec may or may not have any value to an outside party.
    Which is why the arts world has such a lopsided inequality to it. Most art is done on spec, done to no one’s specification and control but the artist.

    Yet it is often just assumed that it should have value. As if we asked for it to be created, as if it reflects our desires and tastes, as if there is some obligation on our part to respect and honor the vision to which we are being invited.

    This is my problem with much of the modern movement- broadly speaking it sets itself in opposition to popular culture, yet demands the level of respect that was afforded work that used to reveal a shared truth.Report

  17. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    I skimmed this whole thing while having Lena Dunham confused with Lena Headey and thinking “What? Overrated? She’s fantastic as Cersei!”Report