Has the digital age brought about a decline in artisticand creative careers? A recent times article says no, but the creative economy is complex and creative work itself can be difficult to define.
Last weekend, the New York Times ran a piece called “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t”, which used employment data to make a case that the predicted decline of arts careers in the digital age hadn’t come to pass. Predictably, the responses from the music industry rolled in, including a thoughtful piece from my former editor Rob Levine in Billboard. Both pieces are worth reading, but they also both miss a number of key points.
First, both pieces 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.
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.
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.
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 some of that power if it means other voices can be heard?
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. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore copyright and condone piracy, nor does it mean that artists and their supporters shouldn’t advocate for fair compensation. But to suggest that creative workers are doomed in the current market vastly overstates the case.