Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Data and How Artists Make a Living

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

In the Aug. 23, 2015 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson’s cover story, The New Making It (entitled The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t online), proposes that creative workers are slightly better off today than in 1999, when Napster first hit the scene. Basing his analysis on data from the Labor Department and other sources, Johnson concludes that well-known predictions of the death of creative artists and the collapse of creative industries due to changes wrought by the digital revolution have not panned out.

Johnson’s article doesn’t go far enough in the data it presents to fully understand or appreciate the fact that not all is rosy for artists trying to make a living today. There is little doubt that the methods of creating, marketing, distributing and consuming cultural products have changed in the past 20 years due to disruptions caused by digital technology. Previously, artists had a realistic possibility to create valuable content and live off the exploitation of that content. Today, with the value of content being driven towards zero, it is rare to make a living solely from such exploitation and artists have had to evolve how they sustain themselves. Additionally, in most cases, artists have also had to pick up the work of building and maintaining a career that others (agents, publishers, record companies) used to do; and all of this has a cost.

Regardless of the economic environment in which artists live, there have always been artists who have found ways to create their art and express themselves in ways that speak to large parts of society. In some cases, they have made a living from their art and in others they have not. Over time, it is also true that the relationship between artists and their art, and the economic framework in which culture exists, has continually evolved. In our current environment where everything is commercialized, artists are not immune from having to consider the economic impact of the work they do if they desire to make a living from their work. For some artists, however, trained in an ethos that predates our current century and the economic and industrial changes it has wrought, this new reality is a tough pill to swallow.

The debate that Johnson’s article engendered exemplifies the shifted landscape and the difficulty some have to adjusting to the changed realities of our creative industries. But, in the end, if artists want to make a living from their art, they have no choice but to engage with the current economic industrial realities and consider their intentionality in how and what they create. This, and not whether the data or its analysis is correct, is the real story underlying Johnson’s article.

Read the entire post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

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