Technology and Society Technology and Society
There are two diametrically opposed stories about making a living as an artist in the digital age. One comes from Silicon Valley (USA) and its promoters in the media, according to which there has never been a better time to be an artist. With a laptop, you already have your recording studio. With an iPhone, the movie camera. GarageBand, Final Cut Pro: all the tools at your fingertips. And if production is cheap, distribution is free. It's called the internet: YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Kindle Direct Publishing. They are all artists; You just have to get creative and publish things. Soon, anyone will be able to make a living doing what they love, just like all those viral stars we've read about.
The other story comes from the artists themselves, especially musicians, but also writers, filmmakers and comedians. It is clear, they explain, one can publish their things out there, but who is going to pay for them? Digital content has been demonetized: music is free, writing is free, video is free, images we upload to Facebook or Instagram are free, because people can (and do) just use them. Not everyone is an artist. Making art requires years of dedication and means of support. If things don't change, much of art will no longer be sustainable.
However, people continue to make art. More people than ever, in fact, as techies like to point out. But how do they manage to do it? Are the new conditions tolerable? Are they sustainable? What does it mean, in practical and specific terms, to work as an artist in the 21st century economy?
Being an artist has always been difficult, but the important point is how much. Difficulty level affects how much art one gets to create, versus their day job, and therefore how good it gets. The difficulty influences who can dedicate themselves to it.
The difference today is that being an artist is difficult, even if you succeed: you reach listeners or readers, you earn the respect of critics and peers, you work steadily and full-time in your field. I discussed these issues with the frontman of hardcore groups Fugazi and Minor Threat, Ian MacKaye, who has also been a leading figure in the indie music scene since the early 1980s.
He told me, "I know a lot of filmmakers who put their hearts, souls, and all their money into projects long before the internet and lost it all, because there weren't enough people who wanted to see their movie." And that was how it had to be. The problem now is that often the artist can lose everything even if enough people want to see his movie, read his novel, listen to his music.
Many of us are unaware of the plight of artists in the contemporary economy, but there is an obvious reason for this. Not only is there a lot of art being made, but there is so much more and at a lower price than ever before. For art consumers, there really has never been a better time, at least if you equate quantity with quality, or if you don't care too much about the workers at the other end of the supply chain.
First we had fast food, then fast fashion, and now fast art: fast music, fast writing, fast video, photography, design and illustration, made cheaply and consumed in haste. We can get fed up all we want. The questions we must ask ourselves have to do with how nutritious these products are and how sustainable the systems that create them are.
How and how much artists are paid influences the art they create, the art we experience, the art that marks our development and shapes our consciousness. This has always been the case, and it means we get more of what we support, less of what we don't. Truly original art — experimental, revolutionary, new — has always been marginal. In the good times for the arts, most dragged themselves along the line of viability, where they could survive, where the artist stayed and kept creating, until they reached recognition. In bad times, most creep further to the other side. What kind of art are we offering ourselves in the 21st century?
The people who pay for art are the ones who determine, directly or not, what is generated: the patrons of the Renaissance, the bourgeois who went to the theater of the 19th century, the mass public of the 20th century, the entities of public and private funding, sponsors, collectors, etc. The 21st century economy has not only sucked a lot of money out of art, it has also moved it in unpredictable and not all bad ways. New sources of funding have emerged, most notably crowdfunding sites; Those of before are making a comeback, such as direct private sponsorship; some already existing ones are taking hold, such as brand art and other forms of corporate sponsorship; others are weakening, such as academically. All this also changes what is being created.
The Internet allows immediate access to the public and the artist. If you starve professional production, you encourage amateur production. It favors speed, brevity and repetition; the novelty, but also the recognizable. Prioritize flexibility, versatility and extroversion. All of this (and much more) is also changing what we think of art: it is changing our idea of what is good and what we believe to be art.
Will the art itself survive? I'm not talking about creativity or creating things: playing music, drawing pictures, telling stories. These are things we have always done and always will do. I mean a particular notion of art, art with a capital A, that has been around since the 18th century: art as the autonomous realm of meaning-making, not subservient to the old powers of the Church and the king or the new powers. of politics and the market, not linked to the authorities, ideology or the master. I mean the notion that the artist's job is not to entertain the audience or flatter their beliefs, not to praise the lord, the band, or the sports drink, but to proclaim a new truth. Will that survive?
Production and distribution may be cheap or free today, but those are not the true costs of making art. The top two costs are staying alive while creating and becoming an artist in the first place, and both have skyrocketed.
Survival primarily means income, and the median income in the United States has risen 42%, adjusted for inflation, since 2000. It also includes food, clothing, and transportation. Add to this the fact that artists often pool their income from part-time work, which does not include other benefits, and this leaves them even more exposed than other workers to the increasing cost of medical care. Being able to learn and hone your talent also means having equipment such as instruments and art materials; the software is not cheap either.
To be useful, creative time must be free of interruptions. Space is needed to fall into the trance. But, in the attention economy focused on the overlapping trio of self-marketing, self-promotion, and self-branding, disruption is inevitable. It must be said that this is so even if the artist himself does not do it strictly. Even those who belong to the cultural industry have to do a lot of that. Writers, for example, already effectively work as partners with their publishers in marketing and advertising, something a person in the field told me is included in the deal. Martin Amis once commented that, in the old days, when you finished writing a novel, you just turned it in and that was it.
Jeff Tayler (not his real name) was the leader and creative force behind a rising indie music group when he walked away from music altogether, fed up with all the promotional demands of his brand: maintaining a constant media presence. social; post photos, videos, and links to his music; write a blog about their concerts; Contact and respond to music journalists and bloggers.
At the time, he confessed to me: "They don't want a group, they want a reality show." She later admitted: "I wanted to write, and think, and go deep, but I really couldn't, because I was constantly called to the surface." However, he had no choice, regardless of what he wanted, "because you barely make ends meet in the profession. You can be popular and have fans, but you need all the help you can get." So you agree to do that seventh interview for a music blog, "of a 15-year-old in a penthouse, [but he] could have a lot of followers", although "that will ruin your day". Tayler could no longer make music. He was too busy being a musician.
You don't have to hate social media to understand this. You can be young, skilled in social marketing, and also quite ambivalent about it. In fact, that might be more the norm than the exception. Illustrator Lucy Bellwood, who was born in 1989, maintains a large presence on various platforms and has a successful track record on Kickstarter and Patreon. What would it be like to "try to form a real and vulnerable human relationship with 7,000 people on a Twitter profile?" he wondered. "We're being asked to push the boundaries of what would normally be our most intimate friendships with strangers, and that connection is the glue that holds our fiscal lives together. And that to me is truly magical and utterly terrifying."
The central fact of the current artist's situation is that there are no tools left to protect him from the market. Artists do not represent a special type of economic actor, but rather belong to their time. They were artisans when that was the most common; they were professionals in the age of professionals and bohemians in the age when bohemia flourished. The same is true in the 21st century. We live in a time of economic fragmentation, in which more and more of us are not professionals linked to institutions in a lasting way, we are not workers strongly linked to employers and, of course, we are not entrepreneurs, but simply producers: particles free in the market, looking for any job for any money, and exposing ourselves without protection to the whims of the market.
To trade in the market you have to develop a market personality. In the digital age, the artist is constantly cool, funny, recognizable. Today's artists are familiar, humble, normal people. They need to involve their public and that's why they're nice. Their followers look to them for inspiration, and that is why they are cheerleaders. They are understanding and formal, without showing anger or character. And what is that personality, to stay positive, moderate, smiling, if it is not commercial? It's the smile of a store clerk, the friendly handshake of a salesperson, because today's audience is a customer base, and the customer is always right.
The market has also accelerated the traditional pace of artistic production as it has been disrupted by the internet. We can imagine the effect of such an environment on the nerves of the artists, not to mention their morale. The effect on art is also clearly noticeable. Irony, complexity and delicacy have been left behind; the game is won by being short, bright, loud, and easy to understand.
It goes without saying that the internet didn't give rise to the kind of art that requires a more visceral response, or resorts to a lowest common denominator, or is only made to last a day. But it did force everyone to enter the playing field to compete under the same conditions, which greatly favor this type of work. Before we had the internet, we read books of novels and reports in magazines, listened to music on our stereos or on the radio, watched movies in theaters and television shows, and contemplated paintings in museums, galleries, or art books. Each discipline had its own format, and going from one to the other was a relatively slow (and also mental) process. Today we have all forms of artistic expression in one place, and we can switch between them in the time it takes to move our finger.
The Darwinian derby of attention occurs not only between the different arts, but also within each of them. Jazz music competes with the pop song, the New Yorker report with the article presented as a list, the indie film with YouTube videos. Before the internet, someone reading the Paris Review was unlikely to suddenly stop and pick up the National Enquirer. He didn't buy it, and probably never looked at it. But nowadays an equivalent action is always a looming possibility, as the internet is always tugging at our sleeve.
Not only must everything be shared with the rest, but everything must compete, period. In the past, one of the main ways the culture industry supported more subtle, thoughtful, or artistically ambitious work was through cross-subsidies. Entertainment paid for art: the thriller supported poetry, the pop star helped the girl with the guitar, the blockbuster buoyed up independent films. Magazines and newspapers were themselves a form of cross-subsidization, with fashion reporting or sports articles making fiction or deep research possible. It was the same with albums: the "single" came out first, for radio; good songs or "deep cuts" were for art and soul. But today each of those formats has to stand on its own. Everything has been unlinked; each song, each report, each work must pay for itself. There are no more deep cuts.
When the market is everything, everything ends up being absorbed by the market.
There is no single answer to the problems of arts economics. There are only many small partial solutions. In case there were broader answers, they have nothing to do with the arts. To fix the economy of the arts, in other words, you have to fix the entire economy. That means that since the only effective response to the power of concentrated wealth is the power of coordinated action, we must organize.
Artists, as I have explained, are not just workers. They are also miniature capitalists: people who produce and sell their labor on the open market. In fact, in that aspect they are organizing themselves. There is more than one plan in the works, for example, to develop a blockchain registry (the same technology that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin use) to redress a long-standing injustice, and one that is especially vexing: the lack of a canon on resale of artistic creations. When someone buys a work and then sells it 10 years later, say for five times as much, the author doesn't get a penny of it, although it's usually his own continued productivity or the value of the work he produced in between that matters. in that assessment.
A registry would allow artists to retain an equity interest in their work (i.e., a fractional ownership fee), and the commonly proposed figure is 15%. Writer and educator Amy Whitaker is developing a version of this proposal in collaboration with other collaborators; while New York-based activist organization Working Artists and the Greater Economy is developing another proposal that would also include a set of moral rights: the right to participate in deciding how work is displayed, to recover it for a couple of months each year, to stop its use as a financial instrument. It is about establishing the principle that an artistic creation is not simply another commodity.
Such ideas and proposals are admirable. They are also clearly out of proportion to the scale of the overall problem. It's not their fault, and that doesn't mean they aren't worth it either. The problem starts with Big Tech. Silicon Valley in general, and the tech giants in particular—most notably Google, Facebook, and Amazon—have engineered a vast and ongoing transfer of wealth from creators to distributors, from artists to themselves. . The cheaper the content, the better for them, because they measure the flow, counting our clicks and selling the resulting data, and they want that flow to be as smooth as possible. Any true solution must also start from there.
Virtually everyone I've spoken to on this issue advocates a revision to the Digital Age Copyright Act, which was designed to update copyright law for the digital age. When the law was passed in 1998, Google was five weeks old, YouTube didn't exist yet, Mark Zuckerberg was starting high school, and Napster was a year away from launch. It was not designed to deal with piracy on the scale that was about to break out.
"Delete something" should be converted to "stay deleted", so the files can't be republished. A small claims court for copyright infringement should be created so that individual artists, not just media conglomerates, can afford to sue for damages. "Fair use," the provision of copyright law that allows limited exceptions (such as citations for scholarly purposes or sampling for satire purposes), which Google and others have continually tried to expand, should be kept within traditional bounds. . In 2019, the European Union passed a landmark law, as The New York Times explained, that "requires platforms to sign license agreements" with musicians, authors, and other creators before publishing their content; in force to proactively remove infringing material. A comparable regulation should be enacted in the United States.
But those measures only refer to copyright. The bigger problem is the grossly disproportionate advantage that monopoly platforms have in the fight for prices. For starters, the price is often a mystery. We don't know how much the platforms pay, in many cases, because they are not required to report. That's why music streaming fees (0.37 cents on Spotify, 0.05 cents on YouTube) are just a guess, as is the per-page fee Amazon pays through Kindle Unlimited (its Spotify for e-books).
Artists do not even have information to negotiate: that is, how much money they receive for the services. How much does Kindle Unlimited generate, for example? Amazon doesn't say. And even if we did have that information, it is unlikely that the platforms would trade. Filmmaker Ellen Seidler admitted to me that what really bothered her was "that nobody is willing to negotiate" on the other side. Instead, he says, "artists have been denigrated in a very orchestrated way. Our voices have been silenced. It's David against Goliath."
Even less is known about what could be done to have a more equal distribution of the many billions of euros that "demonetized" content continues to generate, to recoup the money that the tech monopolies have taken away. Workers can organize to fight for higher wages. But when producers cooperate to set prices—even imagining such a thing possible in this case, given the incredible dispersion of content production today—it's called collusion, and it's illegal. The Government can't set prices either, that's not even necessary.
But there is one thing that the government can do, and people have begun to realize that it is absolutely necessary. It must end these monopolies. There are already movements in that direction. In 2019, the US federal government launched antitrust investigations into four of the Big Five, and the US Department of Justice investigated Google and Apple, while the Federal Trade Commission did the same with Amazon and Facebook. The US House Judiciary Committee also announced plans for an investigation. That same year, the US Supreme Court, in its decision on Apple's App Store lawsuit, indicated its willingness to review its interpretation of antitrust law, something long overdue. [Since this book was published, several antitrust lawsuits, both state and federal, have been filed against Google.]
Such efforts to rein in "the super predators of technology," as described by journalist Kara Swisher, must not be derailed. The power of tech monopolies to circumvent the law, set terms, stifle competition, control debate, shape legislation, determine price—all of this flows directly from their size, wealth, and market dominance. They are too big, too rich, and too strong. And we have to do something before it's too late.
It is often said that the arts are ecosystems. That means that great talents, with their lasting and transformative achievements, do not fall from the sky, that their emergence depends on a large number of people: their childhood teachers, their first mentors, their longtime rivals and collaborators, all of whom must have a way to earn a living as well. That means that the institutions (the neighborhood venue, the 99-seat theater, the indie brand, and the independent press) can only survive with a critical mass of artists to serve, who are, in turn, dependent on the institutions. That even small or mediocre projects have their value, because they give creators experience, and perhaps a little income, to be able to continue working another day. That artists can't work if others can't either: the lighting technician, the text editor, the person who keeps the books or the cloakroom service or sells the beer. That means artists coexist in networks, helping each other find jobs, cheap housing, opportunities, but only as long as they can stay in the arts.
But all communities are ecosystems, not just the arts. Also in the broader economic ecosystem, whales get fatter while plankton starve. The consolidation towards monopoly is already affecting almost all sectors and is the main cause of the fall in wages. The trend towards low-paid work and service (commissioned work, piecework, temporary) is practically ubiquitous. As institutions falter and crumble, professionals in general lose their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is rising all over the world and the middle class is disappearing.
Some of the people I spoke to believe that the solution for the arts is better public funding. Others think we need universal basic income. Both may be good ideas, but I don't think they solve the problem. If you want the market to have a vote, it is because you want the public to have a vote. In fact, that the public has the majority of the votes.
Markets, when they work well, are mechanisms for transmitting signals of desire, or more simply, for saying what we want. What we do not want is for art to be separated from that, from popular taste; Let the bureaucrats on the arts funding boards tell us what we want. But the markets must work properly. Universal basic income seems to me like the wrong answer to the right question.
Yes, we have to put money in people's pockets, but it's better to do it organically, not simply by fiat; it's better to do it, in other words, by reforming the entire ecosystem, rebuilding the middle class. That would mean undoing a lot of what we did to get here: breaking up the monopolies; increase the minimum wage; reverse decades of tax cuts; restore free or low-cost higher education; empower workers, again, to organize, instead of constantly obstructing them. It would also mean updating laws and regulations designed for a bygone economy to reflect the one that actually exists: most obviously, extending the kinds of safeguards that long-term employees enjoy: health care and other benefits, protections against discrimination and harassment, the right to participate in collective bargaining, for the growing army of self-employed workers. You don't have to be a winner to not be a loser.