Art has been brutalized by tech’s giants. How can it survive?
There are two stories you hear about making a living as an artist in the digital age, and they are diametrically opposed. One comes from Silicon Valley and its boosters in the media. There’s never been a better time to be an artist, it goes. If you’ve got a laptop, you’ve got a recording studio. If you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got a movie camera. GarageBand, Final Cut Pro: all the tools are at your fingertips. And if production is cheap, distribution is free. It’s called the internet: YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Kindle Direct Publishing. Everyone’s an artist; just tap your creativity and put your stuff out there. Soon, you too can make a living doing what you love, just like all those viral stars you read about.
The other story comes from artists themselves, especially musicians but also writers, filmmakers, people who do comedy. Sure, it goes, you can put your stuff out there, but who is going to pay you for it? Digital content has been demonetized: music is free, writing is free, video is free, images you put up on Facebook or Instagram are free, because people can (and do) just take them. Not everyone is an artist. Making art takes years of dedication, and that requires a means of support. If things don’t change, a lot of art will cease to be sustainable.
Yet people are still making art. More people than ever, in fact, as the techies like to point out. So how are they managing to do it? Are the new conditions tolerable? Are they sustainable? What does it mean, in specific practical terms, to function as an artist in the 21st-century economy?
Being an artist has always been hard, but how hard matters. How hard affects how much you get to do your art, as opposed to grinding at your day job, and therefore how good you become. How hard affects who gets to do it in the first place.
The difference now is that it’s hard even if you do find success: if you reach listeners or readers, win the respect of critics and peers, work steadily and full time in the field. I spoke about these matters with Ian MacKaye, frontman of the hardcore bands Fugazi and Minor Threat, and a leading figure in the indie music scene since the early 1980s. “I know plenty of filmmakers,” he said, “who poured their heart and soul and all their money into projects long before the internet who lost their fucking ass, because not enough people wanted to see their movie.” And that is as it should be. The problem now is that you often lose your fucking ass even if enough people do want to see your movie, read your novel, listen to your music.
If many of us are oblivious to the plight of artists in the contemporary economy, there is an obvious reason for that. Not only is there a lot of art being made; there is much, much more of it, at lower cost, than ever. For consumers of art, there really hasn’t ever been a better time—at least, not if you equate quantity with quality, or do not worry overmuch about the workers at the other end of the supply chain. First we had fast food, then we had fast fashion, now we have fast art: fast music, fast writing, fast video, photography, design, and illustration, made cheaply and consumed in haste. We can gorge ourselves to our heart’s content. How nourishing these products are and how sustainable the systems that create them are questions that we need to ask ourselves.
How artists get paid (and how much) affects the art they make, the art we get to experience, the art that marks our age 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. Art that is truly original—experimental, revolutionary, new—has always been a marginal affair. In good times for the arts, more of it gets dragged across the line of viability, where it is able to survive—where the artist can stick around and keep doing it—until it can be recognized. In bad times, more of it gets dragged the other way. What kind of art are we giving ourselves in the 21st century?
The people who pay for art are the ones who determine, directly or otherwise, what is produced: Renaissance patrons, 19th-century bourgeois theatergoers, the mass audiences of the 20th century, public and private funding bodies, sponsors, collectors, and so forth. The 21st-century economy has not only sucked a lot of money out of the arts, it has also moved it around in ways that are unpredictable and not by any means all bad. New financial sources have arisen, most notably crowdfunding sites; old ones are making a comeback, like direct private patronage; some existing ones are getting stronger, like branded art and other forms of corporate sponsorship; others are getting weaker, like academic employment. All this is also changing what gets made.
The internet allows unmediated access to the audience—and to the artist. If it starves professional production, it fosters the amateur kind. It favors speed, brevity, and repetition; novelty but also recognizability. It puts a premium on flexibility, versatility, and extroversion. All of this (and a great deal more) is changing what we think of art, as well: changing what we think is good, changing what we think is art at all.
Will art itself survive? I don’t mean creativity, or making stuff— playing music, drawing pictures, telling stories. We have always done those things and always will. I mean a particular notion of art—Art with a capital A—that has existed only since the 18th century: art as an autonomous realm of meaning making, not subordinate to the old powers of church and king or the new powers of politics and the market, beholden to no authority, no ideology, and no master. I mean the notion that the artist’s job is not to entertain the audience or flatter its beliefs, not to praise the lord, the group, or the sports drink, but to speak a new truth. Will that survive?
Production and distribution may now be cheap or free, but those are not the true costs of making art. The two main costs are staying alive while you are making it and becoming an artist in the first place, and those have both been soaring.
Staying alive means, principally, rent, and median rent in the United States is up some 42%, adjusted for inflation, since 2000. It also means food and clothes and transportation. Add to this the fact that artists tend to piece together part-time income sources, none of which arrive with benefits, a circumstance that leaves them even more exposed than other workers to the ever-rising cost of health care. Being able to learn and hone your craft also means equipment such as instruments and art supplies; software also isn’t cheap.
Creative time, to be of any use, must be free from interruption. You need the space to sink into your trance. But interruption is inevitable in the attention economy, which centers on the overlapping trio of self-marketing, self-promotion, and self-branding. That much is true, it should be said, even if you aren’t, strictly speaking, doing it yourself. Even if you’re still affiliated with the culture industry, you have to do a lot of it. Authors, for example, now effectively function as partners with their publishing companies in the work of marketing and publicity—an expectation, one industry insider told me, that’s felt to be included in the advance. In the old days, when you finished a novel, Martin Amis once remarked, you just handed it in and that was it.
Jeff Tayler (not his real name) was the frontman of, and creative force behind, a rising indie band when he walked away from music altogether, so fed up was he with all the promotional demands that their label was making: to maintain a constant social media presence; to post photos, videos, and musical tracks; to blog about their shows; to reach out as well as respond to music journalists and bloggers. “They don’t want a band,” he told me at the time. “They want a reality show.” Later he said, “I wanted to write, and I wanted to think, and I wanted to go deep, but I couldn’t really, because I was constantly being called to the surface.” Yet it’s not as if he had a choice, whatever the label might have wanted, “because you’re barely scraping by professionally. You might be popular, and you have fans, but you need all the help you can get.” So you agree to do that seventh interview for a music blog—“it’s a 15-year-old in the attic, [but he] might have actually a shit-ton of followers”—even though “that will destroy your day.” Tayler couldn’t make music anymore. He was too busy being a musician.
You don’t need to hate social media to feel this way. It’s possible to be young, adept at social marketing, and nonetheless intensely ambivalent about it. That may, indeed, be more the norm than the exception. The illustrator Lucy Bellwood, who was born in 1989, maintains a robust presence on multiple platforms and has a successful track record on Kickstarter and Patreon. What does it look like “to try and forge an actual, vulnerable human connection with 7,000 people on a Twitter profile?” she wondered. “We are asked to extend the bounds of what would usually be your most intimate friendships to strangers, and that connection is the glue that holds your fiscal life together. And that is both really magical to me and also totally terrifying.”
The central fact about the situation of the artist now is that there’s nothing left to shield you from the market. Artists do not represent a special kind of economic actor: rather, they belong to their age. They were artisans when artisans were common; they were professionals in the age of professionals, and bohemians at a time when bohemianism flourished. So it is in the 21st century. We live in an age of economic atomization, a time when more and more of us are not professionals durably attached to institutions, not workers durably attached to employers, and, God knows, not entrepreneurs, but simply producers: free particles in the marketplace, finding what work we can for what money we can, and exposed without protection to the market’s whims.
Operating in the market inculcates a market personality. In the digital age, the artist is unfailingly genial, cheerful, relatable. Artists today are familiar, humble—regular folks. They need to engage their audience, so they are engaging. Their supporters look to them for inspiration, so they are encouraging. They are ingratiating and earnest, with no anger and no edge. And what is that personality—that stay-positive, self-effacing, smile-and-a-shoeshine personality—if not a commercial one? It is the shop clerk’s smile, the salesman’s hearty handshake, because the audience now is a customer base, and the customer is always right.
Markets, when they function properly, are mechanisms for transmitting the signals of desire.
The market, as it has been altered by the internet, has also accelerated the traditional pace of artistic production. We can imagine the effect of such a climate on artists’ nerves, not to mention their morale. The effect on art is also clear. Irony, complexity, and subtlety are out; the game is won by the brief, the bright, the loud, and the easily grasped.
The internet, needless to say, did not give birth to the kind of art that solicits a more purely visceral response, or appeals to the lowest common denominator, or is only built to last a day. But it did force everything onto the same playing field to compete on the same terms—terms which heavily favor such work. Before the internet arrived, we read novels in books and stories in magazines, listened to music on the stereo or radio, watched movies in theaters and shows on television sets, and looked at images in museums, galleries, or art books. Each form had its separate formats, and moving from one to another was a relatively time-consuming (as well as brain-adjusting) process. Now we take in all the forms in a single place, and we can switch among them in the time it takes to tap a finger.
The Darwinian attention derby happens not just between the different arts, but also within them. The jazz recording competes with the pop song, the New Yorker story with the listicle, the indie movie with the YouTube video. Before the internet, someone who was reading the Paris Review was unlikely to suddenly stop and pick up a copy of the National Enquirer. They didn’t have one, and they probably had never even opened one. But now the equivalent move, as the internet tugs forever at our sleeve, is always an imminent possibility.
Not only must everything compete with everything else, but everything must compete, full stop. In the past, one of the principal ways that the culture industry supported more subtle or thoughtful or artistically ambitious work was through cross-subsidization. The entertainment paid for the art: the thriller supported the poetry, the pop star supported the girl-with-guitar, the blockbuster floated the art-house division. Magazines and newspapers were themselves a form of cross-subsidization, with the fashion features or the sports reporting making possible the fiction or the deep investigative piece. So were albums: the “single” up front, for the radio play; the “deep cuts” for the art and soul. But now it’s every tub on its own bottom. Everything has been unbundled; every song, every story, every unit must pay for itself. No more deep cuts.
When the market is everything, everything gets sucked into the market.
There is no single answer to the problems of the arts economy. There are only lots of partial, little ones. To the extent that there are larger answers, they lie outside the arts entirely. To fix the arts economy, in other words, we need to fix the whole economy. Which means, since the only effective response to the power of concentrated wealth is the power of coordinated action, that we need to organize.
Artists, as I have explained, are not just workers. They are also miniature capitalists: people who produce and sell their work on the open market. Here, indeed, they are organizing. More than one plan is afoot, for instance, to develop a blockchain registry (the same technology that’s used in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin) to redress a long-standing, and especially galling, injustice: the absence of a resale royalty for art. When someone buys a work of yours and then sells it 10 years later, say, for five times as much, you don’t see a dime of that, even though it is usually your own continued productivity—the value of the work you did in the interim—that is responsible for that appreciation. A registry would enable artists to retain an equity stake in their work (that is, a fractional ownership share), the usual figure proposed being 15%. One version is being developed by Amy Whitaker, the writer and educator, in collaboration with others; a second is in the works from Working Artists and the Greater Economy, a New York–based activist organization. The latter would also include a set of moral rights: the right to have input into how the work is shown, to get it back for a couple of months every year, to block its use as a financial instrument. The point is to establish the principle that a work of art is not merely another commodity.
Such efforts and proposals are admirable. They are also plainly incommensurate with the scale of the overall problem. That is not their fault, nor does it mean that they’re not worth doing. The problem begins with Giant Tech. Silicon Valley in general, and the tech giants in particular—above all, 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’re metering the flow—counting our clicks and selling the resulting data—and they want that flow to be as frictionless as possible. Any real solution needs to start there, too.
Virtually everyone I spoke with on the matter advocates an overhaul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the DMCA, which was designed to bring copyright law up to date for the digital age. When the law was passed, in 1998, Google was five weeks old, YouTube did not yet exist, Mark Zuckerberg was starting high school—and Napster was a year away from being launched. It was not designed to deal with piracy at the scale that was about to erupt.
“Takedown” must become “stay down,” so files cannot go right back up again. A small claims court should be established for copyright infringement, so individual artists, not just media conglomerates, can afford to sue for damages. “Fair use,” the provision in copyright law that allows for limited exemptions (like citation for scholarly purposes, or sampling for purposes of satire), which Google and others have relentlessly been seeking to expand, needs to 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 licensing agreements” with musicians, authors, and others before posting content—in effect, to remove infringing material proactively. A comparable rule should be enacted in the United States.
But those measures deal only with copyright. The larger issue is the wildly disproportionate advantage that monopoly platforms possess in the struggle over pricing. To begin with, that pricing is often mysterious. We don’t know what the platforms are paying, in many cases, because they aren’t required to tell us. That is why music-streaming rates (0.44 cents on Spotify, 0.07 cents on YouTube) are just a guess, as is the per-page rate that Amazon pays through Kindle Unlimited (its Spotify for e-books). Artists even lack the information upon which to negotiate: namely, how much money the services are taking in. How much does Kindle Unlimited generate, for example? Amazon’s not talking. And even if we had that information, it’s unlikely that the platforms even would negotiate. What really bothers her, the filmmaker Ellen Seidler told me, “is that no one’s willing to come to the table” from the other side. Instead, she said, “artists have been vilified in a fairly orchestrated way. Our voices have been quashed. It’s David versus Goliath.”
What’s less clear is what can be done to create a more equitable distribution of the many billions of dollars that “demonetized” content continues to generate, to claw back the money that the tech monopolies have clawed away. Workers are allowed to organize for higher wages. When producers cooperate to set prices—even imagining that such a thing were possible here, given how incredibly dispersed the production of content now is—it’s called collusion, and it is illegal. The government cannot fix prices either, needless to say.
But there is one thing the government can do—and as people have increasingly begun to realize of late, absolutely must do. It must break up these monopolies. Already there are moves in that direction. In 2019, the federal government initiated antitrust investigations into four of the Big Five, with the Justice Department looking into Google and Apple and the Federal Trade Commission taking responsibility for Amazon and Facebook. The House Judiciary Committee also announced plans for a probe. That same year, the Supreme Court, in a decision on a lawsuit over Apple’s App Store, signaled a willingness to revisit its approach to antitrust law, a move that was long overdue. [Since this book was published, both state and federal antitrust lawsuits have been filed against Google.] Such efforts to rein in “the apex predators of tech,” in the journalist Kara Swisher’s phrase, must not be derailed. The powers of the tech monopolies to flout the law, to dictate terms, to smother competition, to control debate, to shape legislation, to determine price—all these flow directly from their size, wealth, and market dominance. They are too big, too rich, and too strong. And we need to get this done before it is too late.
The arts, it’s often said, are ecosystems. That means that major talents, with their lasting, transformational achievements, do not fall out of the sky, that their emergence depends upon a host of other individuals: childhood teachers, early mentors, lifelong rivals and collaborators, all of whom must have a way to earn their keep as well. It means that institutions (the local club, the 99-seat theater, the indie label, and the independent press) can survive only with a critical mass of artists to serve—who rely, in turn, upon the institutions. It means that even small or mediocre projects have their value, because they give creators experience, and maybe a paycheck, so they can stick around and work another day. It means that artists cannot do their work if others can’t as well: the lighting technician, the copy editor, the person who keeps the books or checks the coats or sells the beer. It means that artists coexist in networks, helping each other find jobs, cheap rooms, opportunities—but only as long as they’re able to stay in the arts.
As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place.
But all communities are ecosystems, not just the arts. In the broader economic ecosystem, too, the whales are getting fatter by starving the plankton. Consolidation toward monopoly is now affecting nearly every sector, and it is the major cause of falling wages. The trend toward poorly compensated contract work—gig work, piecework, temporary work—is virtually ubiquitous. As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is moving upward everywhere, and everywhere the middle class is disappearing.
Some of the people I spoke with believe that the solution for the arts is better public funding. Others think we need a universal basic income. These may both be good ideas, but I don’t think they would solve the problem. You want the market to have a vote, because you want the public to have a vote. In fact, you want the public to have most of the votes.
Markets, when they function properly, are mechanisms for transmitting the signals of desire—in plainer language, for saying what we want. What we don’t want is for art to be cut off from that, cut off from popular taste; for bureaucrats on arts funding boards to tell us what to want. But markets must function properly. Universal basic income strikes me as the wrong answer to the right question. Yes, we need to put money in people’s pockets, but better to do it organically, not simply by fiat—better to do it, in other words, by restoring the entire ecosystem, by rebuilding the middle class. That would mean undoing much of what we did to get here: breaking up monopolies; raising the minimum wage; reversing decades of tax cuts; reinstituting free or low-cost higher education; empowering workers, once again, to organize, rather than persistently obstructing them. It would also mean updating laws and regulations fashioned for a bygone economy to reflect the one that actually exists: most obviously, by extending the kinds of safeguards that full-time employees enjoy—health and other benefits, protections against discrimination and harassment, the right to engage in collective bargaining—to the growing army of gig and contract workers. You shouldn’t have to be a winner not to be a loser.
Excerpted from THE DEATH OF THE ARTIST: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz. Published by Henry Holt and Company July 2020. Copyright © 2020 by William Deresiewicz. All rights reserved.
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