Saturday, August 22, 2015

Tech-boosting NYT writer beat up

For starters, I don't believe anyone was
predicting an actual apocalypse... 
UPDATE: More links at the end! Lots of people talking about this article. 

STILL MORE UPDATES: This thing is a hit. Will Buckley at Fareplay comments, in a piece called The Creative Meltdown That Is, author Steven Johnson writes a follow-up to his original article, gets comments from Marc Ribot and T. Bone Burnett! Excerpts at the end of the post.

Robert Levine at Billboard responds!  

Also see the comments of my Internet media piece for an ongoing discussion of the issues involved here, between me and an anonymous, pro-piracy/libertarian[?] reader. 

A little follow-up to do with one aspect of my Internet media piece of a few days ago: a New York Times Magazine article, The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't, by Steven Johnson, has been making the rounds lately. In it Johnson makes a case, based on very broad categories of statistics, that all the bad effects of Internet 2.0 media on artists' livelihoods, which artists say are happening, are not happening. Or are offset by good things.

I said this about it in the comments of my Internet media piece, where someone left a link for it:

Interesting article. We'll put him in the camp of writers boosting the idea that recorded music is now worth nothing (ignoring that a lot of people are making money off of it), and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The article is not a scientific study, it's one writer's opinion, based on very broad categories of statistics— which it seems to me would be prone to distortion because of the vast amount of money concentrated at the top, say, 1% of the business. His conclusion “Consumers spend less for recorded music, but more for live.” is indicative of that— if revenues for middle class musicians fall off a cliff, well, hey, U2 is getting $500 a ticket, so that makes up for it. I don't see his conclusions borne out in the lives of the musicians I know, and clearly a lot of artists have been alarmed about the way things are going. 

Similar questions and criticisms are now being raised by more able reporters than I. Jonathan Taplan, an artists' rights firebrand, calls it “one of the most brain dead pieces that the New York Times Magazine has ever published”, and says “Whenever the technology industry comes under criticism, they can always rely on the epic logroller Steven Johnson to roll out a book or article that 'proves' that everything you are observing is actually wrong.” He makes the same complaint as I do about the distortion of the statistics caused by the concentration of wealth at the top:

As we have pointed out before, the recorded music business is a winner take all business in which 80% of the revenue flows to 1% of the artists. So the fact that Beyonce and Jay Z are making more money today that in 2002 does not have anything to do with the lives of the average musician. If you average in the incomes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page, it looks like the median income is rising. Bullshit. 

Taplan is fun to read, but other writers go more in depth refuting Johnson's claims. Like Kevin Erickson at the Future of Music Coalition, in The Data Journalism That Wasn't. It begins:

Steven Johnson’s article “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” frames itself as a data-driven response to concerns about the plight of creative workers in the digital age. But Johnson’s grasp of the limitations of the data he cites seems tenuous, and he ends up relying on some very dubious and all-too-familiar assumptions. In its sweeping dismissal of artists’ various concerns, the article reads as an exercise in gaslighting.

The piece is so detailed that it's difficult to summarize— do go read that whole thing. I promise you will encounter Johnson's arguments again. Erickson concludes:

The debate today [is]... not just about whether art will make money, but whose art, what kind of art, and how much of the money generated by art ends up with artists, and what they’ll have to endure to get it. It’s about how much agency artists get in defining the terms of the digital landscape. It’s coming from artists who hated Napster passionately and artists who really had no problem with unauthorized file sharing. It’s coming from artists who’ve recorded for major labels, indie labels, or no label at all. 
Let us be clear: our problem with Johnson’s article isn’t that he fails to conform to some doom-and-gloom scenario for artists working today. Indeed, there are a lot of new opportunities for artists, and those opportunities are worth celebrating. Most frustrating to us is that Johnson reinforces a false binary between pro-technology optimistic futurism and anti-technology digital pessimism. And that simply doesn’t describe the state of the contemporary debate about art and the digital age. 
If you want to know how musicians are faring, you have to ask musicians, preferably a whole lot of them. You’ll get different answers from different musicians, and they’ll all be correct in terms of their own experiences. But your overall understanding will better reflect the complexity of the landscape. 

More after the break:

Blogger David Newhoff addresses some different points in a substantive, somewhat shorter piece, Steven Johnson & A Thesis That Isn't.

At best, one might conclude that coincident with the development of Web 2.0, general revenues in the creative sectors have risen, but these data alone do not reveal any specific information that justifies dismissing all the anecdotal evidence from countless creators who are telling us that, in general, the threats outweigh the opportunities. And so, it is not surprising that, after presenting these revenue data, Johnson himself resorts to a litany of familiar, yet incomplete, anecdotes about all the good news out there.  But before addressing some of these, I’d like to return to the matter of thesis and remind ourselves what the underlying logic is behind the question that’s really being asked.

Again, it's not easily excerpted, and I encourage you to read the entire thing. Artists really can't afford to be uninformed about this stuff. Tech has given us some good tools, but the corporate entities that comprise it are also extremely self-interested, and will pay us a little as they are able. The survival of music as a field in which you can hope to make an average middle class livelihood is not guaranteed. That will only happen as a result of pressure from informed and organized musicians.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman comments on the piece, and is basically supportive, but has questions about how Johnson interprets the data. That's disappointing, because Krugman is usually very good— he seems rather casually informed in re: music. A frustrated reader left this comment:

Dr Krugman, did you even glance at the comments on the Steven Johnson article? They are largely by actual real-world creative professionals pointing out the yawning gap between Johnson's airy fantasy of how the present-day market for art/music/writing etc. works and the brutal reality of said market. I beg you, *please* spend some time reading the comment section of that article before you post on this topic again.

Aaand another good, substantive piece from Chris Castle at Music Technology Policy, noting the lack of difference between the piece and actual tech sector propaganda:

This piece is another of these “Sky is Rising” type things bankrolled by the Computer & Communications Industry Association, aka Google.  I’m not accusing the author of being on anyone’s payroll (except perhaps the Times itself…more about that later), but I can’t help noticing the similarities.

MORE UPDATES: Will Buckley at Fareplay sent an open letter to Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, in re: Johnson's article:

While it was encouraging to see the outpouring of over 200 detailed, predominantly negative comments about shoddy research and flawed conclusions, tens of thousands of your readers probably never saw them.  They may have even believed the fairy tale.   Some Congressmen may use the article as validation for maintaining the statue quo as they debate critical changes to our copyright laws for the first time since 1976.   Not to mention the highly problematic and counter-productive Section 512, Take Down notification process contained in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
I have spent nearly every day for the past four years following and writing about the destruction that is happening to our creators by a distribution network taken over by tech companies.  Companies run by individuals with limited understanding of the needs of those who create the content that powers their success.

Then Steven Johnson responds to the response to his own piece, defending his use of very broad categories of data in Can Data Capture The True Health Of The Creative Economy?. As one reader comments:

As far as the question about whether "data" can capture the creative economy, I think the answer is no. Johnson basically says this and then goes on anyway.

The real draw here is this comment from Marc Ribot (“M.R., NYC”):

Steven Johnson is debating a straw man. 
No one is claiming "apocalypse": but record budgets have been slashed, and this blocks talented artists without the means to self finance/promote from participation. 
Details like "who" can participate aren't visible from Johnson's 'birds eye' perch. But maybe he should swoop a bit closer to earth every now and then, because some really good music used to come from places -- Detroit, Liverpool, the Bronx -- where people couldn't afford to self produce/promote. 
The fact is this: rates of pay from streaming services are so low that, for most working artists, they don't cover production costs. As streaming displaces monetizable CD and download sales, artists are suffering losses in income. 
Creating paper gains by listing elementary school teachers as musicians won't change that fact. 
Mr Johnson also fails to note that much of the music economy in 1999 was gray market/cash, significant portions from overseas touring. The loss of this income simply isn't measurable by his sources, while the paper gains when this same income is pushed onto the books by ever increasing post 9-11 security, or when the same musicians are forced into teaching positions are counted as 'growth'. 
Equally misleading is data from 'gig economy' part-timers who 'identify" as musicians, rather than dog walkers or pot dealers. This choice doesn't change the income's source or reflect true music industry growth. 
We wish Johnson was right. He's not. 

And the hits keep coming. Robert Levine at Billboard responds:

The great thing about looking at data is that it can answer any question you ask. The problem is that it won’t tell you whether it’s the right answer -- or even the right question.
The biggest problem with Johnson’s piece is that he’s asking the wrong question. He’s trying to figure out if creators as a group are making more money. There’s considerable evidence they’re not. What we should be looking at instead is whether creators can sell their work in a fair and functioning market that will reward them according to the demand for their work. That’s why we have copyright -- because the best way to find out which artists ought to be creating what is to see who wants it and what they’re willing to pay. This isn’t a perfect system, and it has never worked in isolation -- artists have always gotten money from grants, academics and teaching gigs. But it only works at all if creators have rights to their work -- to sell, license, or even give it away, if that’s what they wish-and on the Internet they sometimes only seem to exist in theory. Johnson says that “we are living through a golden age of TV narrative," and he’s absolutely right. That’s been driven by a functioning market. Musicians deserve the same.

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