The Physical Impossibility of Making It in the Environment of Financial Sharks

Damien Hirst’s artworks go for millions of dollars at auction. By several accounts, he is the richest visual artist in the world. The old caution that parents made to children: “Don’t be an artist. You won’t make any money until after you are dead” clearly doesn’t hold. Hirst is 56 so he has a long way to go, adding to his ~$400-million personal valuation.

Hirst is an artist who creates works that, by and large, are large such that they aren’t things that he can personally execute. Take, for example, what is arguably his most famous piece to date, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which is a 14-foot-long tiger shark in a large aquarium (84 x 204 x 84 inches) that is filled with formaldehyde. Unlike those sailfish that are mounted on the walls of paneled basements that are meant to speak to the piscatory prowess of the residential fisherman, Hirst didn’t go out on a boat in subtropical waters, catch the shark, then bring it back to his studio, where he wrested the dead, slimy object, which probably weighs just under a ton, into the tank.

He had help.

So because Hirst is as much an entrepreneur as artist, he cleverly created a company named “Science (UK)” that includes staff that at the end of 2020, numbered at 156. As was the case in the U.S., the U.K. had a government program established to address potential job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Companies would get money in order to protect employees.

Turns out, according to ARTNews, that Science (UK) received £1.31 million (a.k.a., $1.77 million) in 2020.

The same year it gave the shove to 63 of its employees.

There is a charity in the U.K., the Music Venue Trust, which “exists to protect, secure and improve UK Grasroots Music venues for the benefit of venues, communities and upcoming artists.”

While this is mixing visual and aural art, something is still striking.

According to the Crowdfunder page the day this is being written (3/26/22), there has been £1,256,901 raised in support of the Music Venue Trust.

Look at the amount that Science (UK) received.

There is another phrase that parents sometimes tell their kids: “The rich get richer.”


Spotify came out with numbers for things of a financial nature for 2021. The probable reason for the Loud&Clear reporting is to make it loud and clear to those who may be somewhat uneasy about who is making what money from the streaming service is that Spotify is actually quite benign, not some sort of tiger shark (lest you think that I am glomming onto some sort of cliched “shark = danger” narrative, according to National Geographic: “Tiger sharks are responsible for more recorded attacks on humans than any shark except the great white”).

It starts out by proclaiming that in 2021 it paid out “$7.1 billion, up from $5+ billion in 2020. . . . more than double what we paid out in 2017 ($3.3 billion) and represents a big part of the $30 billion we’ve paid to rights holders since our founding.”

Which brings a couple potentially Hirstian thoughts to mind:

(1) There were more subscribers in 2021 than in 2020, so presumably that has something to do with the increase, although focus on its thrifty payouts might have had something to do with it increasing payments

(2) The $200,000,000 it reportedly paid Joe Rogan is 2.8% of $7.1 billion

(3) Spotify was established in 2006, so while the $30-billion is nothing to sniff at, spread over 16 years it doesn’t seem particularly astonishing

Spotify points out that 1,040 artists made over $1 million on Spotify. What’s more, of them 450 made over $2 million and 130 over $5 million. Certainly nothing shrug at. . . but then there is the more realistic number: 52,600, the number of artists who made $10,000 from Spotify. Oddly, just after boasting that in 2021 streaming revenue exceeded total industry revenue for all sources of music from 2009 to 2016—meaning all of those other forms are passe—it adds that the performers who made $10K on Spotify are likely to have garnered an additional $30,000 “across all recorded revenue sources,” which probably means other streaming services as well as the moribund things like physical forms.

And to point out its indie cred, Spotify Loud&Clear reports that of the 52,600 artists who made $10,000 or more, 28% of them (15,140) self-distributed to the outlet.

But about that $10,000.

Despite the fact that a number of companies increased their minimum wage during the pandemic (e.g., Target, CVS, Walmart) to $15 per hour, the federal minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour. So someone who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks per year, grosses $15,080 per year—or 50.8% more than the Spotify $10,000. If that person is working at Walmart and making $15, then that’s $31,200 per annum. Yes, that is only 78% of the $40,000 that they might make if they’re musicians with on Spotify and elsewhere, but then there are only 52,600 of these people.

Somehow generating excitement about numbers less than or slightly greater than prevailing minimum wage rates seems to be a strange thing especially knowing that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 there were 73.3-million workers who were being paid at an hourly rate, and of that number, only 247,000 were making the $7.25 per hour. Which is a damn sight better than the Spotify numbers.


Another thing that you’ve probably heard—though not the sort of thing of parental guidance—is that sharks must constantly swim or they’ll die.

This goes to the need of getting sufficient oxygen. By swimming they get the oxygen through what is known as “ram ventilation.” They move along with their mouths open, which forces the water over the gills. Others use the buccal method, which means that they don’t need to stay on the move as they use their mouth muscles to draw in the water over their gills.

Tiger sharks use both methods.

It seems as though there are some individuals and some organizations that have adapted very nicely to the financial environments that they move through.

Others, to mix, slightly, the metaphor, have a hell of a time trying to keep their heads above water, whether they are working in support roles in a studio or on a main stage.

According to the government of Canada (admittedly an odd resource for this), when it comes to the diet of tiger sharks, “Common prey include crabs, shellfish, lobsters, squid, bony fish, small sharks, skates, rays, porpoises, turtles, marine birds and mammals. A large number of inorganic artifacts and garbage associated with humans have been found in the stomachs of tiger sharks as well. With such a diverse range of prey, the tiger shark is considered the most adaptable of all shark species.”

And one more, this from the Australian National Maritime Museum (who knew governments were so interested in this stuff?): “sharks have existed for more than 450 million years, whereas the earliest tree, lived around 350 million years ago.”

Those who are going to be taking it while others are making it have long been with us and are not going anywhere.

They are relentless, omnivorous and adaptive.

Sort of takes some of the joy out of art. And limits the food on the table.

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