When I was in middle school, downloading MP3s on Napster was the hip thing to do, and in response to that phenomenon, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich was quick to engage in battle, spitting out doomsday prophecies faster than AOL was mailing free floppies.
We’ve come a long way in the decades since, yet even now, when innovation has finally discovered several legal avenues for that sort of mass, bottom-up distribution, folks like Taylor Swift are quick to pen melancholy elegies, complaining about the plight of the struggling artist and the imperialism of our digital overlords.
Such concerns have their merits, but in addition to not recognizing the creative progress we’ve seen over the last few decades, they usually come prepackaged with clumsy critiques of capitalism and “artistic consumerism.” Who can we blame but the capitalists, drooling only for money, caring nothing for beauty, and so on? This is all more than a little ironic, particularly when spouted by the fans of artist-industrialists such as Swift.
Creatives Are Thriving
What is less discussed is the possibility that all of this newfound innovation, specialization, and creative empowerment might actually be better for culture than the status quo of yesteryear. Indeed, it may even be more profitable, should artists care to relish in the risk.
In an article for New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson gets at precisely this point, asking whatever came of Ulrich & Co.’s apocalyptic predictions. “In the digital economy, it was supposed to be impossible to make money by making art,” he writes. “Instead, creative careers are thriving — but in complicated and unexpected ways.”
For example, although we have seen severe declines in recorded-music revenue, Johnson observes that with live music (which is generally more profitable for artists), we see a steady uptick. Further, although record companies are surely feeling significant pressure and pain, start-up successes are now able to see and keep more of their own profits, not to mention control their own output. Pointing to data from the Labor Department, Johnson notes that between 1999 and 2014, “the creative class modestly outperformed the rest of the economy.”
Thanks to recent booms in technological innovations and prosperity, the cost of entry for such artists is lower than ever. Consumers have more ways to fund and purchase creative work, and likewise, artists have an ever-expanding range of options for compensation. This all piggy-backs on and feeds into larger cultural developments, whether in film, television, video games, or digital media at large. More channels for creativity means more creativity, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
‘It’s Never Been Easier’ to Bypass the Gatekeepers
Johnson digs into much of this and more, but the more basic observation is that “people will still pay for creative works.” In other words, it’s less about the consumption and more about the shape of future creative careers:
It has never been easier to start making money from creative work, for your passion to undertake that critical leap from pure hobby to part-time income source. Write a novel or record an album, and you can get it online and available for purchase right away, without persuading an editor or an A&R executive that your work is commercially viable. From the consumer’s perspective, blurring the boundaries has an obvious benefit: It widens the pool of potential talent. But it also has an important social merit. Widening the pool means that more people are earning income by doing what they love.
These new careers — collaborating on an indie-movie soundtrack with a musician across the Atlantic, uploading a music video to YouTube that you shot yourself on a smartphone — require a kind of entrepreneurial energy that some creators may lack. The new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-mindedly focusing on their craft. There are certainly pockets of the creative world, like those critically acclaimed books dropping off the mainstream best-seller lists, where the story is discouraging. And even the positive trends shouldn’t be interpreted as a mindless defense of the status quo. Most full-time artists barely make enough money to pay the bills, and so if we have levers to pull that will send more income their way — whether these take the form of government grants, Kickstarter campaigns or higher fees for the music we stream — by all means we should pull those levers.
Of course, market forces aren’t perfect indicators or organizers, particularly when it comes to the cultivation of good art. As channels of culture, they mostly funnel what they funnel, and that includes squalid appeals to the lowest common denominator. There is an “economics of quality” to consider in all of this, as Johnson duly notes throughout his piece.
But as we’ve seen with the Golden Age of television, such forces are not limited to the hearts and hands of the tasteless and trite. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the powerful and privileged, many artists are now finding themselves equipped and empowered to bypass the big shots altogether, taking their art and their audiences with them, from the production of their albums to the purchase of their paintbrushes to the publication of their portraits.
Thus, despite the critiques about capitalism, this larger shift from record companies as investment banks to individual artists as rogue capitalists is actually an apt illustration of the beauty of markets, demonstrating how the deleterious effects of distant and detached industrialization are checked no better than by the market itself.
Artists are only beginning to realize the ways in which those Big Art capitalists of yore are becoming less and less necessary in the twenty-first century. As those roles continue to shrink, artists and patrons alike need not fret about a future where artists need to beg for their bread. On the contrary, we should continue to embrace the power of trade and pursue new ways of creating and sharing the beauty they’ve been called to cultivate.