Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Creative Apocalypse coda

No, it's this.
Since my last update, there have been many more responses to Steven Johnson's New York Times Magazine piece The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't, but it was largely piling on, and the essential points had been covered in the articles I originally linked to. The tone was continued unanimous outrage and derision, except for this blog post by Cortney Harding, The Creative Nonpocalypse. About the response to Johnson's piece, she says this— mind you, just about all I have left on this subject is snark. I think we're being played for suckers in this “debate”, and scorn is actually an appropriate response. Anyway, Harding says this:

Predictably, the responses from the music industry rolled in...

Yes, predictably, like a knee-jerk thing. Thoughtless, and likely meritless. Industry, suggesting representatives of big business, not the actual working artists who the respondents largely were. A bad start, to quote Zack Galifianakis.

First, [the major responses to TCATW] operate off of a narrow definition of “creative work.” The New York Times piece focuses on a giant data set that includes professional athletes, and then a smaller data set of self-employed musicians; Levine’s refutation responds to these stats. What’s being left out here is the massive number of creative workers who have jumped from self-employment into other creative professions — careers that didn’t exist before the rise of the internet. 

While I have no doubt that large numbers of formerly-creative artists have gotten day jobs, we have nothing but Harding's assurance that “massive” numbers of people are moving into other creative professions. She provides no evidence of that, save one example:

Take Bruce Henderson, for example. In 1999, he was a self-employed musician and writer who was booked on Letterman — surely something that would boost his career into the stratosphere. He played the Late Show and sold a grand total of 80 copies of his latest album. Around the same time, he started working at a fledgling website called Agency.com. He was doing creative work, some of it musical, just in a different place. Henderson stayed in the advertising world, eventually become the chief creative officer for North America of Geometry Global. When I spoke to him last month, he was calling from his beach house, so you can guess how things worked out for him.

Oh my goodness, a beach house! How incredibly patronizing. I guess, because the journalist obviously did not ask, the fact that he owns a beach house of indeterminate size/niceness somewhere on Earth, suggests he's making a lower middle class income or better. If you were wondering if there were non-music jobs that pay that kind of money, there's your answer.

Continued after the break— the best part, a response from another writer, is at the end:

One thing that’s been largely left out of all these discussions is that there are more avenues to make a living doing creative work than ever before. Almost every day I run by the new Vice offices, which take up almost an entire block in Brooklyn. They employ plenty of creative people to make music and films — and they barely existed fifteen years ago. Ditto for any number of agencies and web design shops that hire artsy types to bring their creative minds to work. 
Even for artists who don’t want to get a day job, there are more options now than before. Take Matt and Kim, an indie pop duo who haven’t sold many records but have worked with tons of brands and made the rounds on the festival circuit. Before 1999, artists shunned big brands for the most part — but now, bands are expected and even encouraged to partner with brands in order to make money. The rise of other creative industries, including the golden age of TV and the exploding video gaming market, also present opportunities for musicians to license and monetize their creative work. And while plenty of startups taketh away, a few also giveth — for example, Flipagram. Artists can now monetize when people use their music to score a photo slideshow or video — something that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago.

It's true, there are lots of things you can do in exchange for a quantity of money greater than $0 (or “monetize”), that can be made to sound pretty good if you phrase it right. I don't doubt that you can earn a living from some of them, but it's kind of meaningless to bring it up absent any data. That was the whole point of Johnson's piece.

The other main failure of the Times piece and the responses is that the data they look at is limited geographically. As someone who has done a fair bit of data journalism, I completely understand the desire not to wade through international data sets, and since the Times is an American publication with a largely American audience, keeping the focus narrow was a fair choice. However, it means a huge part of the story was left out.
Consider, for a moment, the case of Spoek Mathambo, a South African producer and rapper. Born and raised in Soweto, he rose to prominence when his spooky remix of the Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control” and the accompanying video blew up on YouTube; he signed to Sub Pop Records and has worked on a documentary series with Vice.
Would any of this have been possible before the web? Sure, there were international artists, but they had to go through gatekeepers to find broader distribution and a global audience. In Mathambo’s case, he was able to build his career on his YouTube popularity — no international distribution deal needed. All he needed was a laptop, a camera, and some recording software. 
For artists in certain countries, the web has made all the difference in the world. Ayham Homsi is a musician and producer in Saudi Arabia — a country where playing music in public is largely illegal. Before the web, he could have maybe recorded albums and given copies to friends; now, he posts his tracks on Soundcloud and YouTube for the whole world to hear. 
It’s always worth looking at who remains silent in many of these debates; while some Western artists have vocally opposed streaming, you don’t hear artists from developing markets doing the same. Maybe the heart of the debate about the new creative economy is this — are creators who were in power for so long willing to secede[??? -tb] some of that power if it means other voices can be heard?

In other words, first world problems, people! Stop being so selfish, artists living in America, hogging all the money, and not letting anyone else be heard! “Secede” some of your immense power, because that's the way it works— non-Western artists simply being heard depends on Western artists being unpaid! Those things are totally connected. It's like a yin-yang thing. Ever heard of Buddhism, you philistines?

Is it true that some artists have a harder time making a living than they did fifteen years ago? Absolutely. Is it also true that other artists have been able to make a living where they never could have before? Yes. We now operate in an economy where flexibility is key, and if you expect to keep making a living the same way your entire career, you’re going to have a hard time. 

Like if you were making a living in music, and you are now forced to earn a living not in music. You have to be flexible people! You can't use a narrow, Western definition of creative work. In Buddhist nations, manually beating the husks off of harvested rice sixteen hours a day is considered to be creative work. So if you've been driven into the beating-the-husks-off-of-harvested-rice business to survive, congratulations, you're a successful artist by some standards! Just because some tech companies are making inconceivably vast quantities of money devaluing and exploiting music, doesn't mean you're entitled to any of it.

This whole angle is a diversionary tactic, of course. I say tactic, but as far as I know, Ms. Harding is not actually a professional obfuscator in the employ of a tech company. For all practical purposes, she may as well be— in fact, if she's not getting paid for shilling for them, she's stupid. I actually think the tech sector getting people to advocate, without pay, for tech interests has been a major PR coup. I would also not be shocked if Google or whoever just had a few thousand drones paid minimum wage to troll the Internet with pro-tech talking points. Talking to this guy in the comments on my original tech post was not unlike talking to tech support at Comcast. With all of these people it's like they're reading from a script.

In a post on her blog, Tessa Lena, a musician living in New York, identifies what's actually going on:

Tech companies. Many of them have contributed to intentionally hijacking the value of music. They “disrupted” business models to send more goodies their own way, and this is not “progress”, this is a calculated war on the value of art and the personality type of a dignified artist. Their goal? Profit, of course! Are they willing to share scraps? Well, yes, if we shout loud enough. How kind of them. 
Are tech companies allowed to be predatory? Well, they are allowed to try, we live on Earth. In my book though, they absolutely aren’t allowed to dictate their rules to us creatives, unless we are happy to be slaves. 
Were tech “disruptors” the first ones to eat artists for breakfast? No, but their method is particularly cruel and particularly dissonant to people with a strong sense of artistic mission and dignity. Their version of progress is not the only one out there. It is important to remember that. 
Let’s take Spotify. It uses music as a fishing hook to attract customers much in the same way device and media manufacturers used music to sell their physical product. But they make their personal money on bulk (the more customers, the more data they can sell, and the more attractive they are to investors). They will likely get rich when IPO happens, it has nothing to do with music. They are not in the music business. In the meanwhile, do they care that listeners will not purchase individual albums or singles (physical or digital)? Nah, not their problem. There will always be new suckers willing to play by the rules.

She concludes:

It is not about whether internet and “progress” are good or bad. We always find opportunity anywhere we are. The fact that creative people find ways to not starve to death is a compliment to human ability to be resourceful, and not a compliment to the environment.

Of course. The question is not “do all people drop dead in the face of adversity?” it's “is the current situation, in which some corporations are getting extremely rich, good for everyone?”

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