Musicians, writers, and other creative folk are still scratching their heads over the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine: “The New Making It” — packaged online as “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” — looked at how the Internet economy, instead of destroying creative careers, had redrawn them in “complicated and unexpected ways.” The story’s author, Steven Johnson, is an engaging writer, and the piece is told largely through statistics, which most readers assume to be beyond criticism. So why are so many people who work in the world of culture wondering why the article seemed to describe a best-of-all-worlds planet very different from the one they live on?
The tone of the Slate article is a little off-putting for me though I understand where the author is coming from. I do agree the trope of musicians making more money on the road, thus compensating for lost recording revenue, is a bit of a wrong turn, and isn’t encouraging to us studio hermits or songwriters. That was a trap that Johnson fell into. But I feel there’s too much focus in these complaints on the traditional occupations – session players, record store clerks, and so on – without acknowledging the newly emerging opportunities. It is melancholy to see some of these professions fade (and I was a happy record store clerk for many years), but I accept this is what happens as society and technology evolves. Again, I feel we should be focusing on the prospects of autonomy and what it can do for creative people. This is the real story for me … the possibilities that are now available, when before we had to deal with labels, and distributors, and (yes) touring, and publicists. There’s now a freedom to opt out of any or all of those and still make a living.
Here’s another paragraph from the Slate article about a larger trend that I do agree is troublesome:
It’s worth looking at the world of culture as an environment: As rents in cities that have traditionally made creative life possible – especially collaborative creative life – jolts up by 10 percent or more a year, musicians, writers, actors, and others get forced out to make room for financiers and trustafarians. If I can extend the eco-system metaphor for a second: For most people working in film, music, television, or books, that is hardly sustainable. David Byrne has made this point about the one-percenting of American cities and its impact on culture quite eloquently; “The New Making It” does not even engage his argument indirectly.
The part about ‘collaborative creative life’ really hurts. Much of the music I listen to wouldn’t exist if not for the downtrodden arts community that inhabited New York City in the ’70s. This concern is a bit outside of Johnson’s original article, in my opinion, but is something that will have an impact on the quality, and regional meaningfulness, of American art moving forward.
Meanwhile, Bob Lefsetz weighs in:
Expect a flurry of naysayers to come out of the woodwork shortly. The Trichordist will freak out, all those agitating for a return to yesteryear. But the truth is we’re never going back, even if everything Steven Johnson says in this article is wrong. So why can’t we just accept it and move on, certainly the public has done this.
So stop complaining. You can make money in music, many are. Yes, the spoils are going to the 1%, but that’s true in all walks of our economy. Turns out there’s a limited number of top-notch execs and a limited number of top-notch musicians.
The public is happy. Instead of trying to get people to change their minds and go back to a past that you want, better to give them what they want, even better, give them MORE than what they want, new and different. That’s what turns people on, not when they’re corralled and ripped-off, but when they’re enticed.
And then Steven Johnson has posted his promised response to the criticisms from the Future Of Music Coalition.
Interestingly, in all the responses to the article, no one so far has been able to suggest a data source that suggests that mean or median incomes for musicians have declined since 1999, adjusted for inflation. Everything that I have uncovered in many months of researching this article suggests that the story of music since 1999 is one of steady but small growth for musicians. Not some glorious renaissance, but certainly not a crisis.
As I wrote at the end of the article, I do not think this data should be used as a mindless defense of the status quo. For what it’s worth, I think musicians (and other creators) deserve to see an even bigger piece of the pie. I get that groups advocating on behalf of musicians may worry that a modestly optimistic story will make it harder for artists to negotiate better deals with their labels or new streaming services, or will encourage consumers to return to their old music-piracy ways because they read some article that said the musicians are doing just fine. But I think it’s just as important to point out that it has turned out to be a very exciting time to make music for a living, one filled with many new opportunities that didn’t exist 15 years ago. It’s important, for starters, because it contradicts a (false) theory that many smart people still hold about the state of the culture. But it’s also important for the music itself. I worry that there’s a whole generation of musicians out there who will be scared by all the doomsayers toward more conventional career paths, when there is so much evidence of opportunity all around us.