The Dilemma of Choice: A Guide to Ethical Art Consumption

The question of how to reconcile consumerism with sustainability is more prevalent than ever in the age of COVID-19, where Amazon packages reign supreme and supporting small businesses seems like a Herculean (and expensive) task. These ideas of ethical consumption have not arisen with the pandemic, but they seem more pertinent now than ever before. What is often left out of those conversations, however, is how ethical consumption applies to the arts and media. 

The conscious consumer is no stranger to the day-to-day dilemma of choice. Whether checking a company’s environmental sustainability practices, considering its values and endorsements or looking into its worker treatment, the burden of ethical consumption can become overwhelming. It seems impossible to truly shop sustainably and ethically as store closures and shelter-in-place restrictions have created a reliance on packaged and imported goods. This individual burden is not entirely organic; it is the intentional manufacturing of guilt to shame the consumer, shifting blame away from corporations and creating a market for seemingly “sustainable” products.

At the same time, this mindset of ethical consumption operates from a certain level of privilege. The dilemma of choice between expensive “sustainable” brands and generic, exploitative corporations is a luxury afforded only to those with expendable income. Yet does this mean we don’t have to acknowledge the ways we contribute to this system?

This issue is perhaps most obvious in the music industry. With the rise of streaming services as the primary form of music consumption, artists have been forced into a cycle that places little monetary value on the art that they create. As consumer-first platforms, these services have allowed unprecedented access to the general population for next-to-nothing prices, while forcing an adapt-or-die market onto established musicians.

 This is a fact that many conscious consumers recognize, and yet today it seems almost unfathomable for anyone (at least within the younger generation) to directly purchase an album. Taylor Swift’s 2014 Wall Street Journal Essay exemplifies many musicians’ concerns: “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment [Spotify] that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.” Without high album sales, the main way musicians make money is now through merchandise or ticket sales for concerts, which have been canceled for the foreseeable future by the global pandemic. 

That begs the question: how do we support artists when consuming their work simply isn’t enough? Although the individual certainly isn’t to blame for the music industry’s mistreatment of artists, we perpetuate a system of passive and exploitative consumption if we fail to hold ourselves accountable for the ways that we benefit from streaming.

 This problem also manifests itself in television and film; streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have completely upended the film and television industry, similar to how Spotify upended the music industry. However, the fundamental difference between these mediums is that unlike music streaming, where independent artists first pay to get their music on the app and then receive royalties per stream, visual streaming companies will usually buy a project outright, setting the amount regardless of how well it does once released. This means that what you watch only indirectly supports the creators by showing Netflix that their investment was worthwhile. For instance, in 2018 Netflix spent $15 million to produce the academy-award winning “Roma,” which got roughly 3.2 million streams in first two months; they then spent $19.8 million producing “Birdbox,” which smashed records and was streamed by 45 million different accounts when it was released, over 10 times more than “Roma.” Despite the vastly different receptions these two films received, their creators saw only a fraction of a difference in monetary pay-off. 

While largely democratizing television and film for low prices, streaming services tend to reduce consumers’ options to interact with artists, leaving them to only passively support what has been deemed worthy of purchase by these companies. For instance, because Amazon Prime Video hosts a variety of exclusive films and shows, the conscious consumer must reconcile supporting the content with supporting the multibillion-dollar corporation. Unlike in music, where websites like Soundcloud and YouTube can provide creators an accessible platform, these streaming companies (or cable streamers) control what is pushed. Especially for films, where box-office revenue has dried up and now completely rely on online streaming, COVID has worsened an already strenuous situation for creators.

The pandemic didn’t create these issues of consumption, at least at a foundational level, but it did exacerbate our broken system of supporting artists. All of this is to say that the way we consume is largely out of our control, and there’s no practical way to ethically consume art under this current system. However, it is important to be aware of your own practices and how they affect your social and physical environments, while not carrying unproductive guilt with you. 

An increasing number of artists, creators and performers are turning to outside funding sources like Patreon or Cameo to make a living, especially in these restrictive times. These are great ways to support artists directly, and although not perfect, they can serve as a workaround from corporate exploitation. Not only does this grant heightened creative freedom to the artist, it also allows a more direct-to-consumer experience that helps create a more supportive and sustainable market. These services are limited in scope but are certainly a step in the right direction for artists and consumers to take control of what has seemed to be an unyielding cycle of exploitation. In any case, if you consume art as most of us do, it is essential to explore new ways to support artists and appreciate their work without taking it for granted.