Does Inequality Help Artists? Not So Much

by Henry on May 6, 2014

Matthew Yglesias, responding to Tyler Cowen and my critique of same.

high levels of income inequality lead to high prices for art. A lot of this reflects higher prices for old paintings by dead artists, but the art market exhibits sufficient efficiency that higher prices also benefit new works by living artists. … The mechanism, basically, is that art-buying is mostly done by very rich people so when very rich people get richer, the price of art gets bid up. When buying power shifts to the middle class they tend to buy more banal things like bigger houses or nicer cars. Whether these price trends are good for the arts is going to depend on a bunch of other questions that the paper doesn’t address. Do higher prices for art works induce artists to become more productive? Does greater output come at the expense of quality? Do people shift into painting from more mass market artistic pursuits (music, movies) or from careers outside the arts? Do higher prices make art less accessible to non-rich art lovers? One can imagine a whole range of different outcomes here. But the evidence that inequality boosts the financial returns to the fine arts — largely by diverting financial resources away from middle class consumption of normal stuff — seems compelling.

By coincidence, I’ve recently finished reading The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor’s wonderful new book on culture and the Internet (Amazon, Powells), which gives a much more jaundiced account of what is happening to art in the age of inequality (see here for an interview which gives some flavor of her thinking).

To be clear, I don’t agree with all of Taylor’s arguments. She disagrees sharply with free culture people, sometimes in highly personalized ways that strike me as unfair (n.b. that I’m friends with some of these people). She sometimes extrapolates a bit too broadly from the experience of the artists and culture makers whom she is most sympathetic to, to a more general public. But these are asides; unlike e.g. Evgeny Morozov with his self-congratulatory apercus at others’ expense, she’s clearly not interested in self-promotion but in tearing down arguments that she believes are weak. She poses the sharpest book-length intellectual challenge to technology-optimists that I’ve read.

The People’s Platform does two things surpassingly well. First, it provides a rich account of the experience of a grouping of people who have been surprisingly underrepresented in debates on culture and the Internet – the makers of culture themselves. Taylor herself is a maker of documentary films (Scott has written lots about her work in the past). She’s also a member of the music community (she’s a member of the currently touring incarnation of Neutral Milk Hotel). Hence, she has extensive experience of an important group of artists and makers of culture; people who are able to piece together some kind of a living centered on making good art, but who do stuff that is unlikely ever to be enormously commercially popular.

These communities are suffering badly in the modern economy. Their members never expected to be rich, but would very reasonably like to be modestly self supporting. That’s no longer an option for most of them. The long tail economy is one where the middle drops out. Bands can’t support themselves through selling their music on independent labels. They can tour, but this is both exhausting and not likely to do more than to break even. The economics of independent documentary making are even tougher. Documentaries have always been made more for love than money. Their economic prospects – in an economy where online sharing is ubiquitous – are becoming ever worse. Unlike Hollywood movies, there isn’t any fat to pare off.

This explains Taylor’s impatience with free culture advocates. She’s tired of being told that she ought to work for free. But her impatience isn’t an end – it’s the beginning of analysis. On the one hand, she excoriates free culture advocates for focusing on the problem of distribution at the expense of the problem of production. People like Larry Lessig focus on how to facilitate the dissemination of culture to people without undue restrictions, both so that they can consume it, and (more importantly) put it to new and unexpected uses. Taylor agrees with this up to a point (she’s no fan of the ridiculous excesses of IP and permissions requirements). Her question, though, is straightforward. If there isn’t an economic model for producing culture in some kind of self-sustaining way, will it get produced? Lessig, Benkler and others are big fans of amateurism. Taylor suggests that for some kinds of art, you need semi-pros and pros. More generally, in Taylor’s words:

openness alone does not provide the blueprint for a more equitable social order, in part because the ‘freedom’ promoted by the tech community almost always turns out to be of the Darwinian variety. Openness in this context is ultimately about promoting competition, not protecting equality in any traditional sense; it has little to say about entrenched systems of economic privilege, labor rights, fairness, or economic redistribution. Despite enthusiastic commentators and their hosannas to democratization, inequality is not exclusive to closed systems. Networks reflect and exacerbate imbalances of power as much as they improve them.

Since Taylor very obviously isn’t a shill for Disney and friends, but instead is representing the real experiences of exactly the kind of people whom free culture ought to be setting free, her arguments strike their mark.

This leads into an excellent analysis of the actual political economy of the culture industry. If artistic production isn’t self sustaining, it will have to look to external support of one kind or another. And while it might get such support, it’ll come with a price tag attached. On the one hand are the owners of monopoly platforms like Facebook, Google etc. To the extent that they support artistic production, it’s going to be some kind of sharecropping, where they provide the platform and reap the lion’s share of the profits. Here, think services like YouTube, which simultaneously democratize access, making it possible for anyone with a video camera and Internet access to upload content and share it, but rely on an advertising model where the preponderance of the benefits go to the owner. Taylor has harsh words for tech optimists who identify too closely with the erstwhile ‘insurgents’ like Google. My read is more generous than hers – some technology optimists at least laid their bets on Google, not because they thought that the company was somehow altruistic, but because they reasoned that a company with a business model based on search-engine-plus-advertising would be more likely to preserve a space for open information than proprietary platforms which tried to build walled gardens. This wasn’t a ridiculous argument a few years ago – but (and this favors Taylor), it’s one that is increasingly difficult to sustain now, given Google’s rapidly changing business model.

On the other hand, artists can seek support from marketing companies. They are willing to support artists and even to pay them if they are good, in the hope that their material will go viral. However, the price, obviously, is that the art has to support and spread the brand name.

Taylor stresses that this is driven not so much by technology as such but by the radical inequalities of power that are accentuated by new media. A world in which the owners of a few key platforms – Google, Facebook and their ilk – dominate, will be a world in which previously self-supporting communities of artists will be squeezed ever more. And a world in which artists are increasingly reliant on commercial patrons will be a world of bad, dull art.

the exercise of power is rarely … overt. Instead of directly squelching artistic expression when it’s too brazen – a tactic that can backfire to the artist’s advantage – advertisers and sponsors protect themselves by favoring docile voices in the first place. Thus, they alter the cultural ecology, fostering work that is apolitical and unchallenging, making the innocuously entertaining more plentiful than it would be otherwise.

While Taylor is responding to Internet optimists rather than celebrators of the cultural benefits of inequality like Tyler Cowen, it’s not too hard to extract a clear counter-argument from her ideas. The model for artistic patronage in the new age of inequality is not some munificent and disinterested Maecenas, but businesses, which want to support cultural products that will enhance their brand. Such patrons will not be particularly interested in risky or controversial work, and will certainly not want to support truly challenging art, unless that challenge can be absorbed and appropriately redirected to commercial ends.

Nor does Matt Yglesias’s (admittedly very tentative) “rising tide will lift all art” hypothesis seem to me to be a very plausible one. There’s at least some evidence that the distribution of art prices is highly skewed,1 which suggests that the bulk of the proceeds of increased prices are going to go to a relatively small group of owners of dead artists’ art, and living artists. I would furthermore speculate (and this is speculation, but, I think, grounded speculation) that these tendencies towards skew are going to be substantially accentuated by increased wealth inequality, as very rich people compete over a tiny pool of premier artistic prestige goods, dramatically driving up the prices for this pool and this pool alone, while leaving the middle and the tail of the distribution to languish and stagnate.

This means, as Taylor makes clear in her Post interview, that the relationship is plausibly the reverse of the one that Yglesias postulates. Inequality, rather than benefitting artists, is instead universalizing the artist’s precarious work position, and making it into a general ideology.

In a way artists exemplify the rising inequality of our economy that everyone’s talking about post-Piketty: there are a few art stars and multitudes of starving artists. One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try to reach the top. … The book examines how more and more of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work. It’s a way of framing some of the unappealing things about our current economic condition—the lack of stability or of a social safety net—as something desirable and empowering. The ethos of the artist—someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock— is demanded of people across the board. For example, I mention a story from 2011 in which Apple Store workers inquiring about wages were told, “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.” There are numerous articles and books that advise freelancers to envision themselves as risk-taking creators.

Buy it and read it. [Also read this piece by Tom Slee, which came out in the interval between drafting this post and publishing it.]


  1. The author claims a power law on the basis of a whiffy-looking log-log relationship, but please let’s not make the baby Cosma cry

{ 164 comments }

1

Matt 05.06.14 at 3:18 pm

Nor does Matt Yglesias’s (admittedly very tentative) “rising tide will lift all art” hypothesis

I took Yglesias, especially in the part quoted above, to be limiting his claim to the “fine arts”. I’m not sure what counts, exactly, as the “fine arts”, but I expect it doesn’t include most documentary film making or playing in most bands, and lots of other art and culture that is at least potentially quite interesting. I didn’t take Yglesias to be saying that inequality was likely to help that sort of art, so if we care more about that sort of art, we shouldn’t expect it to be helped by inequality. But, maybe he’s saying something broader than he needs to or seems to be saying.

2

Henry 05.06.14 at 3:22 pm

Matt – I’d lay substantial sums of money that the same long tail phenomena characterize the attention economy of the fine arts (which are coming ever more to merge with video making etc anyway, as best as I can tell anyway).

3

Ed Herdman 05.06.14 at 3:36 pm

A cheese wrapper for the patrons’ halos, please, as Paul Harvey did for Saatchi! (In the US, do we have any movement of equivalent function and influence to the Stuckists?)

I am a bit confused about the reasoning behind optimism in Google a ways back.

Google actually allowing individual art to be monetized is at least partly separate from the issue of many people being misled – and continuing to be – about the actual value of Google’s “openness initiatives” like linking to DMCA’d results via Chilling Effects, which I make use of, and thieves make use of, but which often harm content providers. The same can be said of Google’s book-scanning initiative. These initiatives are great for preserving openness, but as you suggest they do nothing to scrutinize the problem of production. That’s the main thrust of the section about Google above, as I read it, but I am still left wondering if the people who saw through the first problem weren’t still naiive to think that somehow Google’s business interests would align with those of small-scale content providers.

I agree with your conclusions about high art prices being bad for the average artist, consumer, and for the art scene in general. In fact it seems that we could actually reasonably apply the ‘crowding out’ idea to this market, as with yacht-building: While the existence of an ultra-high-end market is harmless in of itself, the draining away of resources means that many other models and ideas simply don’t get pursued. It is interesting to reflect, though, that many of the world’s best-regarded artworks were made for very wealthy patrons or for monolithic institutions (court painters, the church). Personally I think that the greatnes of such works is evaluated somewhat in a vacuum, since a good deal of personal work and folk art simply couldn’t be grown in such a space to compete with the officially sanctioned-and-paid-for works.

4

Neville Morley 05.06.14 at 3:38 pm

Iglesias: “Do higher prices for art works induce artists to become more productive? Does greater output come at the expense of quality?”

I’m inclined to answer “Damien Hirst” to both questions.

5

Freddie deBoer 05.06.14 at 3:40 pm

But her impatience isn’t an end – it’s the beginning of analysis.

An analysis which the free culture movement has utterly failed to actually conduct themselves. We’re 14 years into the era of rampant digital file sharing, and yet I still hear nothing resembling a compelling argument for how to replace the old model. I’ve been asking for that for my entire adult life. When I do, the most typical response is for people to say that I’m an apologist for big media corporations or a supporter of current intellectual property law, neither of which is true. Worse, the free culture movement refuses to bring any cultural or social condemnation on the many people– and yes, there are many, many people like this– who don’t actually have a philosophical or moral objection to IP laws, but just want to get free stuff and don’t care that the creators of that stuff go unpaid.

I would love to engage with a mature free culture movement you’re describing, but I’ve never seen any evidence that the actual existing free culture movement is willing to do the hard work that goes beyond “free music for everybody!” Your example of business patrons seems like something worth chewing on. But that kind of idea gets drowned out by all the people who just want to plug their ears and complain about big media corporations, and there’s no discernible effort to arguing against them within the free culture movement.

6

UserGoogol 05.06.14 at 3:53 pm

It probably varies from medium to medium. The webcomic industry is pretty lightly dependent on big tech companies, and tons of people have managed to make a living there. And even with Internet Videos, a lot of that sort of thing is hosted on Blip, which is a relatively small company compared to the behemoths of Google and Facebook. Advertisers still pose a big factor, but it’s a very broad and indirect influence.

As is so often the case, a basic income guarantee seems like it would solve the problem.

7

Barry 05.06.14 at 3:57 pm

Frankly, it sounds like Matt is just channeling his inner Mankiw[1], and running a Mankiwian ‘benefit’ analysis[2].

[1] IMHO, 90% of Matt’s problems come from having taken his Econ 101 from Harvard, and therefore from Mankiw.

[2] Meaning that only the benefits of a desired situation were accounted for; costs were deliberately overlooked.

8

UserGoogol 05.06.14 at 4:05 pm

Barry: Did Yglesias take Econ 101 (which is actually called “Economics 10a” or “Principles of Economics”) in the first place? He majored in Philosophy.

9

brandon 05.06.14 at 4:32 pm

On the other hand, artists can seek support from marketing companies. They are willing to support artists and even to pay them if they are good, in the hope that their material will go viral. However, the price, obviously, is that the art has to support and spread the brand name.

* blank stare *

What kind of arrangements are you thinking of here?

What does “support artists” mean, if not paying them?

10

TM 05.06.14 at 4:35 pm

My ceterum censeo: stop wasting space and thought on Tyler Cowan’s ignorant and poorly argued right-wing apologetics. This waste is inexcusable. Frankly, the right-wingers are winning because they further their agenda while liberals think they can show how smart they are by refuting each and every silly right-wing talking point over and over. Please please please stop this BS.

11

Harold 05.06.14 at 4:36 pm

High prices for art creates a winner-take-all culture that is very harmful for artistic expression. It results in no one ever seeing the art, which is kept in a vault. What are needed are measures that make artist’s life more bearable and help them to get their work out to the public. Art is a public good – and its positive qualities spill over into other areas such as industrial design and engineering, to name a few. Art education ought to be a human right.

12

Consumatopia 05.06.14 at 4:36 pm

That interview was very smart, I definitely need to read this.

But I don’t suppose there’s any hope that it avoids blurring together the effect of piracy and the effect of the Internet generally, is there? Because life would still kind of suck for artists today even with perfect copyright enforcement. I don’t think I know anyone who pirates newspapers or magazines, but journalism seems to the hardest hit media sector. Once you offer a technology that enables reproduction at a marginal cost of zero even if that technology only worked with the content owner’s permission, there will always going be some owner out there willing to offer their content for close a price only a little better than zero. Which means that if you actually want to make life stop sucking for artists, even copyright maximalism doesn’t go far enough–you need either some kind of government support (and I would be very much in favor of a tax on tech companies to pay artists), or you need to severely restrict the technology.

exactly the kind of people whom free culture ought to be setting free

Is that actually true? Does Free Culture have to set artists free?

Suppose a global socialist utopia is achieved tomorrow, nobody has to worry about market incentives any more. But no robots yet–there’s a still a great deal of boring work to be done. Should the central planners designate a minority to do creative work full time while most people toil to support them? Or should they make everyone do their share of boring work, and permit people to create whatever amateur works they happen to find the time for? In the second choice, some artists will be less free than they are today–people wouldn’t be able to work on art full time anymore. But I don’t think that that alone means it would be the wrong choice.

Obviously in that thought experiment the context of socialism changes everything. In the present context in which the world’s richest companies are raking in billions off of other’s people’s content, it’s totally reasonable for creators to ask for a bigger piece of that. But “what about the artists?!” starts the conversation, it doesn’t end it–the welfare of full-time artists is not the only thing at stake in these arguments.

13

adam.smith 05.06.14 at 4:58 pm

@4 – that was exactly my response. I was hoping it was going to be more original, but alas, I guess it’s pretty obvious.

@8 – yes he did. (In this case I don’t actually think the problem is econ 101, though, but the fact that the study he cites – which is perfectly plausible – has little to do with the question discusses, as he somewhat recognizes)

14

anon 05.06.14 at 5:03 pm

15

Tom Hurka 05.06.14 at 5:03 pm

This reminds me of the documentary film Festival Express, about the moving (on a train) rock festival of that name that played Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary in 1970, with all the musicians traveling together between the shows.

The concerts, especially in Toronto, were disrupted by people demanding that the music be provided for free. The documentary shows Jerry Garcia and other members of the Dead explaining to them that musicians have to be paid. Plus ca change …

16

Peter K. 05.06.14 at 5:04 pm

@ 7 Barry, it sounds like he’s being cheeky or contrarian for some reason. The economic policies he favors would help starving artists feed themselves and eek out a living. For instance, unlike Mankiw, Yglesias is in favor of Obamacare. How often over the years have you seen benefits for artists with serious illnesses? Obamacare might help with that.

I would go Godwin’s law on Cowen and argue the reason Piketty, for example, sees inequality as a danger is that at high levels of inequality society go bonkers and, for instance, will blame globalization for what’s wrong. After the high inequality of the Gilded Age, the oligarchs led humanity into depression and war. Then came the Nazis with their views on degenerate art along with much else.

17

Clay Shirky 05.06.14 at 5:06 pm

I’ve yet to read the book (getting it now, on your rec, Henry), so I’ll confine myself to reacting to your writing here, starting with your framing of the question: “If there isn’t an economic model for producing culture in some kind of self-sustaining way, will it get produced?”

To which the answer is that of course it will get produced. Culture always gets produced, by definition. You can’t have a group of humans living together who don’t produce some artifacts and behaviors that constitute their culture, including cultures who not only don’t have professional artists, they don’t have the concept of money.

Since this answer borders on the tautological, I think that this can’t be what you meant, so I will substitute what I think the question behind that observation is (and you’ll tell me if I’m wrong): If the marketplace that forms around cultural production does not produce, on average, a living wage for the producers of that culture, shouldn’t we expect cultural impoverishment to flow outwards from the impoverishment of the individual artists?

Now part of that answer comes down to personal taste — in the same way Katie Roiphe argues that feminism, as practiced, has ruined the novel, as produced, it would be possible to prefer the art of the ’70s to today’s, and to link that to the ways that, say, the Talking Heads or Robert Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman folks could support themselves in a way that isn’t possible today, and that these circumstances led to art you prefer. (Dave Hickey often advances just this argument.) There’s no real counter-argument, given the lack of taste accountants.

But part of that question is purely economic, and from my point of view, understanding the economics of cultural production comes down to a single home truth: more people want to make things than other people want the things those first people have made.

Always. This is always true. The economy where an artist couldn’t make a killing but could make a living has never existed. Being a working artist is such a desirable state that people are willing to endure penury and suffering for a shot at the big time. The hazing rituals of rejection letters, pawned instruments, and shows closing out of town simply reduced the pool of creators to the point where it looked like supply and demand were more in balance than today. This illusion could only be sustained by ignoring the vast majority of people who wanted to do that work but abandoned hope early and left not public trace of their aspirations.

What the internet does is to decouple fame and fortune*, so that the cadre of people who make things no longer need to ask anyone for help or permission before making those self-same things public. And the resulting flood of public work has revealed that there are many more talented people around than were surfaced when highlighting the work of a young artist entailed significant financial risk on the part of the people who could reach an audience. Now, we makers can reach the audience more directly.

90% of what we make is crap, as has been long noted, but the increased volume and increasingly sophisticated filters mean that the good stuff can be plucked from the crap without subjecting the average viewer to the average quality work. (This is also the answer to Freddie’s question as to what will replace the old model, which is “This. You’re living in the replacement of the old model.”)

And the massively increased denominator of available work means the numerator of cultural spending is spread much more thinly. A handful of stars still do well — some, who produce physical objects or live performances, are doing better than ever — but the pool of people who can share our work for no money, or make a little on the side, has increased so vastly that there is no comparison between the pool of people showing their work in public in the 1970s vs. now.

It is a category error to assume that there has always been some moderately-sized group of creators who are talented but not destined for stardom, and in the old days those people did OK while today they are immiserated.

Many of the people lamenting not being able to make a living from their work today would not have been able to under the old system either, but they imagine that they would have been among that system’s rare winners, rather than being part of the far larger group who was dissuaded from their dreams of being paid to create without ever having even been able to show their work in public.

There has never been a normal way in the US to be a self-supporting creator. The consolation prize today is that does not mean also not getting some of the public attention creators typically crave. The economic side-effect of the widely increased scope for that attention is the economic effects you are wondering about.

*http://www.shirky.com/writings/fame_vs_fortune.html

18

engels 05.06.14 at 5:15 pm

I prefer Harry Lime – at least he had charm.

19

Kevin Erickson 05.06.14 at 5:17 pm

@12 Journalism has historically been supported by a mix of advertising and subscription income, whereas sound recordings and films have historically been supported by sales and licenses. We can theorize that the internet inherently drives ad prices down because of the infinite expanse of available ad space, and so there are certain inherent impacts on journalism. But art forms like music? Not so much. I get that there are supply and demand issues, but consumers don’t simply trade one kind of art experience for another based on what’s cheapest.

We simply don’t know what it would have been like for the internet to have (partially) solved thorny problems of distribution without having created new problems of compensation associated with unauthorized file transfer. We don’t know how cool it could have been if we all found around the gatekeepers of broadcast and corporate studios & record labels, but not . In the absence of a control group, we don’t know whether indie artists’ lives would still suck. I also think that the file-swapping problem is as much an issue of social norms as of better copyright enforcement–and better copyright enforcement, incidentally, is not the same as copyright maximalism; we could certainly have shorter copyright terms along with a more functional DMCA, for example.

Taylor’s book, at the very least, is a step toward better social norms, puncturing free culture illusions. That said, much more robust state funding for the arts is part of what Taylor ultimately prescribes, so full agreement there.

20

bianca steele 05.06.14 at 5:19 pm

When my brother did a BFA, he took a class on the social and business end of art (he gave me some of his books, I should dig them out). I think some social science course might have been a graduation requirements. My sense is that fine arts graduates have a strong sense of the influence of money and elite status on what they can do (I should dig out my books on postmodernism too). Maybe that’s not the case anymore in the Internet age, whatever that means.

re. Hirst: I saw a small show of his pieces, and was struck by (1) they were actually pretty fascinating and whatever the taste factor re. dead things they were a refreshing change from 10-meter high neon cartoons of the artists’ friends over a background of graffiti’ed London curses, (2) Hirst uses some of his money and influence to shelter and support less high-profile colleagues.

21

bianca steele 05.06.14 at 5:21 pm

sorry, (1) was meant to include either the words “anatomically correct” or “naked”

22

Kevin Erickson 05.06.14 at 5:21 pm

Apologies…sentence should have read: We don’t know how cool it could have been if we all found around the gatekeepers of broadcast and corporate studios & record labels, but not seen the revenue pool dwindle to a trickle.

23

anon/portly 05.06.14 at 5:23 pm

The economics of independent documentary making are even tougher. Documentaries have always been made more for love than money. Their economic prospects – in an economy where online sharing is ubiquitous – are becoming ever worse.

This immediately strikes me as simply a false statement. I would have guessed that the economic prospects of documentaries are becoming ever better, thanks to digital film-making technology reducing costs. Maybe my intuition is wrong, but here is an Economist article that supports it:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2013/08/rise-documentary-film

4 docs released in the UK in 2001, 86 last year! That’s exactly the kind of proliferation I thought I’d witnessed. Is that a false or misleading statistic?

Bands can’t support themselves through selling their music on independent labels. They can tour, but this is both exhausting and not likely to do more than to break even.

And it goes without saying that this phenomena is technology-driven, not inequality-driven. People didn’t quit buying CD’s because they were suddenly impoverished by changes in the global economy.

It music-makers can’t make a living playing live, is that really a problem? Or a sign that they’re in the wrong line of work? And is it really a new problem? Many of my own favorite artists have not been able to make a living (or a very good one) in the music industry, and this goes back a long time – I wish more people liked the obscure stuff, but they don’t. (Thank God for Japan and Europe).

In 1974 the major labels dominated music and there really weren’t that many bands out there. Nowadays there are literally thousands of Neutral Milk Hotels to choose from – of course it’s harder to build a following. (Plus of course rap and country are now the popular stuff). It’s kind of strange that at once we have this “bands can’t support themselves” idea coexisting with the obvious fact of a massive proliferation of bands. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing Astra Taylor doesn’t address this point in too head-on a fashion.

24

Henry 05.06.14 at 5:38 pm

Hi Clay – be warned that you’re one of the people who gets a lot of grief in the book. I still think that the book has a pretty good point. Unlike Taylor, I’m not a member of this crowd – if I’m a producer of culture, I’m an extremely privileged and well protected one. But I know enough people in this world (my cousin used to play in Black Eyes) to be pretty sure that the economy has changed dramatically. It’s substantially harder than it used to be, even ten years ago, to scrape together a living while devoting yourself to art. Taylor’s point is, I think right. If you’re a pure amateur, who wants to do a Youtube video on the side, life is good. If you’re a big star, life is pretty good too. But if you’re a semi-pro, Taylor makes a very good case that your opportunities have shrunk. People on the long end of the tail can get their stuff out. People at the top of the distribution face some losses from copying, but also see benefits from increased star effects across a larger network. It’s people in the middle who are getting squeezed. Same is true for publishing – it’s not so great to be a midlist author these days.

Taylor, obviously, can speak for herself. But my (maybe incorrect) interpretation of her challenge fwiw is that behind many free culture arguments is a belief that Hayekian market processes are the best way to make cultural choices. And there may, obviously, be something to that – markets have many wonderful features. However, they also have some very obvious downsides if they are not constrained and supplemented to provide some modicum of secure living conditions. My version of Taylor’s argument would be that the free culture model can work really, really well – in a world where there’s some kind of basic income scheme or a reasonable substitute for same. You might reply that free culture people don’t rule this out, and you’d be right. But it would be equally fair to say that this is not exactly a prominent point that they repeatedly stress in argument. Or shorter me (and maybe Taylor): if you really want to make a strong argument for the radical benefits of free culture, you have to commit yourself – publicly and explicitly – to equally radical changes in our economic and political arrangements.

25

bob mcmanus 05.06.14 at 6:01 pm

In 1974 the major labels dominated music and there really weren’t that many bands out there.

1965-1970: Nuggets, Rubble, Pebbles series. There were a dozen bands for every one that could pay for their instruments. The big difference is that though Perry Leopold and Jesus Sixto Rodriguez could get recorded, nobody ever heard their work. Now everybody can hear the niche artist’s work, so the artists don’t see themselves as utterly non-commercial.

Shirky at 17 nails it all.

Socialism and massive redistribution would help a lot, it was the great compression that made living easy enough to give minimal support (including recording access) to fringe and long-tail artists.

26

Clay Shirky 05.06.14 at 6:14 pm

Henry @24, thanks, and I’d understood that warning implicitly. I am almost always a target in these debates (and not wrongly.)

And you’re right about the guaranteed minimum income argument (which, aesthetic production aside, is my preferred candidate for the oxymoronic state of attainable utopia.)

I will decline to link my support for a basic income with my support for free culture, however, on two grounds. First, it enrages me when other people say “I support these present, tractable changes because they are compatible with some distant alternate reality.” (See @geo1’s argument that more study of the novel is compatible with the US as a social democracy, or tenured faculty’s insistence that our privileges must be preserved, so that on the happy day when contingent faculty are all put on the tenure track, those privileges will be theirs as well.)

The second, and more important point, though, is that I think that more people making and showing things to other people is per se good, whatever it’s effect on the market for cultural production.

This is the core of my reaction to Lanier, Packer, and the others (including, from the sound of it, Taylor) concentrating on the plight of the mid-list creator requires reducing the freedom of amateurs and audiences to find one another. (Packer is the clearest on this, noting that if the masses are allowed to buy ‘dreck’ from Amazon, the publishers will no longer have enough surplus to support authors who sell a few thousand copies.

And this is true. This complaint is correct. But if you want to increase the support of mid-list creators as creators (rather than as citizens, as basic income would do), then you have to reduce the amount of competition from amateurs, and you have to reduce freedom of choice from the public.

Since neither the amateurs not the public are generally in favor of these changes, the authors in question often take various harms — Google controls too much of the web; Facebook should not own the social graph; people steal movies — and suggest that the problem with the current system are a set of bad actors distorting some world in which one can set out to create things and, if you succeed in creating something people like, that can be your living.

I do not believe in that world. When you say “It’s substantially harder than it used to be, even ten years ago, to scrape together a living while devoting yourself to art”, I don’t actually believe that this is the case. The people we used to think of as the “middle” of some artistic pack (mid-list artists, session folks who did some regional touring) were in fact so far to the left-hand end of the ower-pay aw-lay distribution (Hi, Cosma) that they were closer, in position, to the superstars than the dropouts.

What’s changed is that the dropouts are no longer invisible, and their very visibility makes the old mid-list a harder place to be, for sure, but it also reveals that place as an artifact of scarce distribution channels, rather than representing any sort of large, stable category of creators.

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bob mcmanus 05.06.14 at 6:43 pm

There might be another question, leaving socialism aside, as to why the top of the food chain grabs such a disproportionate amount of the sales. As usual, rather than blame the producers and distributors, I tend to ask why are you all going to see Captain America instead of staying home and watching Ida?

Perhaps just as some of us, oh the ones into Tibetan Bell music, can now via the internet find a community of sympathetic enthusiasts, so most of the rest, frightened of the possibility of semi-alienated and isolated consumption practices, deliberately and desperately seek out what everybody else (always some sub-set large than geek and otaku) is watching in order to feel some residual sense of community, in order to not be silent at the watercooler on Monday.

It used to be we all watched Bonanza because we lacked options. Now we (again, for a reasonably large we) watch Mad Men and Orange is the New Black as a way of escaping the oppressive number of options.

28

Trader Joe 05.06.14 at 6:49 pm

I agree with Clay @17, who nailed it quite well.

“Art” whatever the genre is never really free, something subsidizes it either overtly as patronage or indirectly through cross subsidization or via technology/distribution.

The accessibility of music and published materials in particular works as a positive for consumers as well as the artists. It wasn’t so long ago that learning about an interesting Indie band required either hours spent at the certain clubs or music stores that catered to such things (no doubt everyone has fond memories of a favorite) or reading the sort of Indie/underground arts papers that reported the comings and goings so you could get wind of these groups….and then still more time tracking down a recording (probably a bootleg cassette to decide for yourself if it was any good.

Now 15 productive minutes on U-Tube or topical blogs will provide more new material than you can listen to in hours (whether its any good or not is a matter of opinion).

Whether any of this deserves to be called “great art” is another matter – its cultural production facilitatated by the billions invested (primarily by corporations) in infrastructure and advertising that make all of this bounty available for its “free” direct price tag.

29

Saul DeGraw 05.06.14 at 6:52 pm

Am I mistaking Cowen’s argument? It seems that he is arguing that art revolutionizes through two means:

1. Rich patrons; and/or

2. People who can afford to be independently employed in the arts.

There are exceptions but there has always been a strong amount of truth in number 2. I say this as a former theatre director. The people who generally made it in the arts that I knew generally came from two groups:

1. People rich enough that daily expenses were not a consideration.

2. People who grew up knowing poverty so the Bohemian/hand to mouth lifestyle was nothing new.

People who came from well-off but not independently wealthy lifestyles generally had the hardest time adjusting to the hand and mouth existence of the artistic life. They had parents who supported them emotionally but not enough resources to support them financially in perpetuity. I was in this group and know many others in this group who eventually go to law school and/or stuff like advertising that pays the bills for a decent income.

There are a lot of artists who can basically afford to be paid little or nothing because of their family fortunes.

30

John B 05.06.14 at 6:53 pm

Popular artists may not get paid well but still gain some prestige and notoriety. So one model of economic support for the arts that is fairly common, at least in Washington, DC, is for artists to marry someone with a boring but lucrative job. I don’t know if this is increasing, but I’d expect that over the long run inequality and the increased importance of inherited wealth would lead people to weigh money more heavily in marriage decisions. If that did happen in the arts, I wonder how it would influence artists’ work?

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Harold 05.06.14 at 6:56 pm

“Always. This is always true. The economy where an artist couldn’t make a killing but could make a living has never existed. ”

As an unqualified statement this strikes me as sheer nonsense, or rather dogma. What era is Mr. Shirky talking about? What in heaven’s name does he mean by “an artist”?

32

clew 05.06.14 at 7:11 pm

The model for artistic patronage in the new age of inequality is not some munificent and disinterested Maecenas, but businesses, which want to support cultural products that will enhance their brand. Such patrons will not be particularly interested in risky or controversial work…

I was merely going to say that as most of the Renaissance or Gilded Age patrons quite explicitly wanted their reputations groomed, perhaps Maecenas was an unrealistic standard — and then I looked him up. It seems likely that the `quasi-culture minister to the [first Roman] Emperor’ did some brand management too. In the long run, our descendants will probably admire the best of our ads, having forgotten what they meant.

I admire the applied and decorative arts as well as the fine ones, and the long tail is possibly doing them good — selling piecework online is apparently a bit easier than the street-fair life; one can find the thirty other people in the world who are still experimenting with an old technique; and (with speciation rarity) something returns to popularity and makes someone middle-class.

There are good critiques of this as being economic drag (artisanal work lowers productivity) and creepily antilabor (piecework *voluntarily*?), but the same are true of high art and garage-band striving. We’ve nearly lost the middle class of applied work already (plasterers, cabinetmakers, dressmakers, even skilled repairers); I don’t know if the pundits complained at the time.

33

clew 05.06.14 at 7:22 pm

(And this has reminded me to go hear what’s new at Magnatune, for which I gladly pay. Hey! Something new by Shira Kammen, hurrah!)

34

Francis 05.06.14 at 7:22 pm

On the free culture issue:

Does this mean that the proprietors of Crooked Timber are (like frex the Volokh Conspirators) contemplating going to a pay-for-access model?

Because I enjoy an extraordinary amount of free culture from the parade of websites I visit on a daily basis instead of doing my job. But to be absolutely honest, the moment this site went behind a paywall I would stop coming.

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Barry 05.06.14 at 7:43 pm

Saul: “People who grew up knowing poverty so the Bohemian/hand to mouth lifestyle was nothing new.”

Adding on to Harold’s comment, and riffing off of a comment on a previous thread (about the 1960’s), it also depends on the general economy. For example, in the mid/late 90’s, it was probably pretty easy to do things, because jobs were plentiful. If somebody needed a flexible job, employers were probably willing. If somebody needed to float in and out of the paid labor market as needed, they could.

For contrast, it’s less likely now, in the days of ‘just in time’ scheduling, and massive un- and underemployment.

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Bruce Wilder 05.06.14 at 7:58 pm

I suppose there’s always a question of what qualifies as “art” and whether art for the masses is still art. I’ve seen the ruins of Aphrodisias, I’m sure Renaissance Florence was chock full of terra cotta crap, and I imagine there were more painters’ studios in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam than there were bakeries.

If you are going to try to make a living making stuff, the economics of production, distribution and market are going to afflict you, just like everyone else.

In a digital world, where the costs of copying and communication (and surveillance) are vanishing small, the only remaining constraint is attention. Every one of us only has 24 hours in the day — that bit of egalitarianism is not going to be erased, and allocating our eyeballs increasingly involves substantial economic rents. Attention is the 21st century’s equivalent of the classical economist’s Land: God isn’t making any more of it, and paying more for it doesn’t change that fact.

Who is going to own our “attention” in the brave new r > g world, do you think? And, what kind of horrible crap is going to be fed into the maw of our attention?

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roy belmont 05.06.14 at 7:58 pm

A. Music preceded speech in human cultural evolution. We sang before we uttered complete sentences.
This discussion doesn’t even go back as far as the wheel in its definition of the artist/culture interface.
It’s the severing of that deep connection that derails any but shallow cursory analysis of art and culture.

B. ” One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try to reach the top. … ” if ‘top’ means financial success this is an artistically meaningless complaint.
If ‘top’ means artistic success a lot of respectable artists would say that evaluating success isn’t even possible for artists themselves, let alone for their spectators. Personally I think the conflation of financial attainment with aesthetic achievement is dangerously sleazy, however common it is now, however necessary food and shelter are to the artist.
The fame of Turlo O’Carolan, the Irish harper, his reputation still solid and strong 200+ years after his death, could be seen as success, but that has a lot more to do with the culture in which he lived, that cherished his gift and preserved his work, and its subsequent co-optation by a larger culture hungry for authentic art it’s mostly unable to provide for itself.
And the financial side of his success was more about getting enough to eat and a nice bed for the night than anything else economic.
Yet O’Carolan is arguably one of the most successful musicians of all time.
By musicians’ standards.
-
“Now you don’t talk so loud, now you don’t seem so proud
About havin’ to be scrounging your next meal
How does it feel,
how does it feel? “

In 1965 the exclusive venue of US AM radio, with one or two big channels in/from major urban areas, meant Dylan could get “Like a Rolling Stone” in front of virtually the whole country’s youth.
Yet a decade later that success didn’t seem to have been an unmitigated joy:

“Now everything’s a little upside down,
as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good,
you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom”

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Harold 05.06.14 at 8:03 pm

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and and chance happeneth to all.

39

Consumatopia 05.06.14 at 8:14 pm

@19, Kevin, you’re probably right that the econonics of journalism works differently than everything else. Still, I find it striking how often I hear complaints from creators in other media that fit the supply/demand model–such as game devs complaining about prices on mobile app stores and Steam sales, or musicians complaining about Pandora. You are correct that not all media consumption is open to substitution like that. But much of it clearly is, and I suspect that content most able to avoid becoming substitutable commodities are the biggest blockbusters–content with big advertising budgets behind it, able to convince consumers to demand that and only that movie, song or book–the one that everyone else is talking about and they gotta have.

I realize that it’s also possible to escape substitution by appealing to such a narrow niche that there simply aren’t any substitute products. I’m less optimistic than I used to be about what percentage of potential buyers actually belong to any such narrow niche large enough to sustain an artist interested in catering to it.

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Consumatopia 05.06.14 at 8:25 pm

Since this answer borders on the tautological, I think that this can’t be what you meant, so I will substitute what I think the question behind that observation is (and you’ll tell me if I’m wrong): If the marketplace that forms around cultural production does not produce, on average, a living wage for the producers of that culture, shouldn’t we expect cultural impoverishment to flow outwards from the impoverishment of the individual artists?

There is a closely related argument that’s a bit stronger, in my view: he who pays the piper calls the tune. If producers of culture make their living selling culture to the public, that gives the listening and buying public a voice in culture. If, instead, art is driven by patronage and amateurs with enough free time and privilege to spend time creating without payment, that art will reflect a very different set of values than art intended to appeal to a buying public.

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Plume 05.06.14 at 8:28 pm

I’m about 42 pages into a great book related to the topic above:

9.5 Theses on Art and Class, by Ben Davis (2013). A collection of essays in which Davis, formerly the executive editor of Artinfo, talks about Art the way too few critics do these days. You can read the central thesis online here:

Ben Davis

42

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.06.14 at 8:30 pm

Inequality doesn’t help anybody except the people who have the most and want even more.

Charter schools, war, our prison industrial complex, NAFTA, the TPP. It’s all the same shit.

This is just the kind of bullshit one can expect from Matty Y.
~

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ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 05.06.14 at 8:32 pm

P.S. “download your attachment.”

Hey, what if my attachment is trying to avoid seeing me?

Here.
~

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Metatone 05.06.14 at 8:35 pm

I think it is clear in the comments, but still hasn’t penetrated general discourse on this issue that disentangling the effects of technology from the state of the economy and (in many countries) social democracy is difficult, yet key.

It’s clear for instance that in the UK changes in the service economy (often connected to EU enlargement) and in the rules around unemployment benefit have basically cut away the ways young working class artists would support themselves on the way to making money from their art. As a result, we just see many fewer of them making it to that level – fewer enough that our arts and music landscape is noticeably more “posh” than 20 years ago.

My understanding is that in the USA it’s much more about the service economy and less about social democracy, but similar changes are visible in some arts sectors.

This is all happening at the same time as technology – and so it’s easy to get things mixed up.

At the same time, it’s clear that many don’t subscribe to any approximation of the “10,000 hours” (or similar) argument and thus don’t really see any value in what might be termed “journeymen” artists…

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JW Mason 05.06.14 at 8:37 pm

These communities are suffering badly in the modern economy. Their members never expected to be rich, but would very reasonably like to be modestly self supporting. That’s no longer an option for most of them

I would like to see some empirical support for this claim. Is it the case that there are fewer people supporting themselves as musicians, compared with whatever past period “no longer” refers to? Frankly I am skeptical.

Documentaries have always been made more for love than money. Their economic prospects – in an economy where online sharing is ubiquitous – are becoming ever worse.

Again: citation needed. How do you know they’re not becoming better?

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Ed Herdman 05.06.14 at 8:37 pm

Speaking of things that enrage us, I think the “high art / low art” distinction was (and always has been) political and marketing posturing by the “we want to be rich and famous” crowd, but the professional / amateur distinction is highly useful. Still, there are lots of artistic media which are now highly accessible to the amateur thanks to technological change, so that the distinction starts to wear out a little in some areas.

I think it might help to suss out some of the models of art people have had:
– Expensive art (a traveling band; are some features of this format superfluous to the art? I don’t ask that question)
– Frugal art (composing tracks on your computer – heck, on your tablet or phone, even)

Pretty much everybody has pointed out that it’s easier to do cheap art than expensive art, and competition for resources is going to be a given for the expensive art forms – if we assume that there are no more resources, or more realistically if there isn’t any appetite for spending resources (which is still turning out to be less true than it would have appeared on first glance, especially if your model is of highly contentious high-profile award and grant battles – crumbs to artists). While I couldn’t see a national “brass instrument for every household” program taking off soon, I could see a society wondering what to do to keep its people productive deciding to focus some resources into supporting private arts, or more likely this happening on a smaller scale. And arguably communal resources already make this happen; for hardware hackers you have “hackerspaces,” and similar things happen for at least some kinds of art.

The space on stage at one concert is always going to be limited, but it doesn’t have to be the same rotation of bands taking up every high-profile concert every time. Nor do we have to agree with the elevation and amplification of status of some lucky few as the premier artists, while everybody else toils in obscurity.

I want to pick on Barry’s “the ’90s” comment a bit. I don’t know if more people were able to do high-cost art back then (leaving aside kinds of art that are much cheaper to do today – which is many or even most kinds, actually), but I do know that pretty much everybody had a lot fewer chances to find out about opportunities to watch or do art back then. It’s hard to say how much crowd-funding is a response to the 2008 crisis (or isn’t), but in the ’90s it would have been basically “who do you know?” Well, these days you know pretty much everybody.

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Main Street Muse 05.06.14 at 8:42 pm

From the OP: “Their members never expected to be rich, but would very reasonably like to be modestly self supporting.”

WHEN has documentary filmmaking been a viable career? Maybe the folks at Kartemquin in Chicago are doing well now, but it was a slog to get there; Ken Burns has a great model; Barbara Kopple has done pretty well – but for most documentarians, it’s not really a steady job.

Those who are arguing that today’s alarming shift in greater inequality is somehow “good for the arts” are propagandists for inequality. And they seem focused on painting, which is but one art form.

YouTube/Google DO allow some monetization of creative pieces that in pre-internet days would have never seen the light of day. Some of it should not see the light of day, but for whatever reason, it catches fire. (Kony 2012 is an example – but they had built an extensive social media network prior to that video.)

Art is never self-funded. Hemingway married women with money in order to get his writing career off the ground. Jane Austen made hardly a penny on her writing in her lifetime – and she had the regent supporting her! After Austen’s father died and before her brother started supporting her, life was a little dicey for the Austen women. Literature is one area supported not by the wealthy, but by the rank and file readers who buy the books. I guess Yglesias, et all can ignore that particular art form.

Music has been transformed by the internet. In the early days of radio and records, the profits went to the corporations, not to the Chuck Barrys. Now, someone like Macklemore has a bit more control over his fate – his overnight success was many years in the making. But he didn’t rely on corporate radio or big promoters to reach the public. He relied on YouTube (whose tag is Broadcast Yourself). See Rolling Stone for more on Macklemore’s “Cinderella Story” http://rol.st/Yqzz3J

The great robber barons of today and yesterday built empires on the backs of all those consumers who paid for their Big Macs and CDOs and gas and cheap cotton shirts, etc. So in the end, the people putting up all that money for the art consumed by rich people are the consumers who spend at WalMart and buy BP gas and got screwed by the banks backwards and forwards.

[Here’s a link to a fascinating story about Steppenwolf Theatre’s business model – one that relied on talent to build word-of-mouth to build ticket sales that led to the need for capital campaigns… http://bit.ly/1j9Wlue

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Main Street Muse 05.06.14 at 8:44 pm

Barry @7 points out the incredible damage wrought by Mankiw’s leadership of economics at Harvard and therefore the world. Thank you Barry, for stating this fact. HOW AND WHY has Mankiw grown to such power?!! Someone please explain…

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Main Street Muse 05.06.14 at 8:50 pm

To Engels – I love The Third Man! Thanks for posting… need to introduce my children to that movie.

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geo 05.06.14 at 8:58 pm

Great post, Henry. The Taylor book sounds terrific.

Clay@26: “First, it enrages me when other people say “I support these present, tractable changes because they are compatible with some distant alternate reality.” (See @geo1′s argument that more study of the novel is compatible with the US as a social democracy, or tenured faculty’s insistence that our privileges must be preserved, so that on the happy day when contingent faculty are all put on the tenure track, those privileges will be theirs as well.)”

Not sure I understand the first sentence. What exactly are those other people saying?

Also not sure what the first of my misguided arguments is supposed to be. Is more study of the novel incompatible with the US as a social democracy?

As for the second: I don’t recall arguing that ” tenured faculty’s … privileges must be preserved” tout court. Which privileges are we talking about?

Also, when you say @17 that “being a working artist is such a desirable state that people are willing to endure penury and suffering for a shot at the big time,” there’s an ambiguity about the last phrase. If you mean that people are willing to persevere because they might possibly make a pile of money, which is what they really want in life, that’s one thing. If you mean that people are willing to persevere because they might possibly have the talent to realize their vision, which is what they really want in life, that’s something else. I don’t mean to idealize: of course people have overlapping motives. No doubt most great artists would have liked to be rich; no doubt a few of them cared more about getting rich than about the satisfactions of making art. But on the whole, a passion for the intrinsic satisfactions of artistic mastery is a more reliable engine for producing great art than a passion for making a killing in the literary or art market.

Of course, that last assertion presupposes that there’s a difference between profitable art and valuable art, which in turn means that market relations shouldn’t wholly regulate art. Would you agree that someone who aspires to be the next … oh, I don’t know … Tolstoy or Proust is more deserving of public (or private) support and encouragement than someone who aspires to be the next Agatha Christie or Jacqueline Susann?

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Ze Kraggash 05.06.14 at 9:01 pm

“The mechanism, basically, is that art-buying is mostly done by very rich people so when very rich people get richer, the price of art gets bid up.”

Hmm. Enlightened Holy Roman emperors of the 18th c. probably did have decent taste in arts, I’ll buy that. But the very rich these days? The Donald? Thanks, but no thanks.

52

JW Mason 05.06.14 at 9:02 pm

According to the BLS, in 1988 there were 54,000 people in the US who described their occupation as musician or singer, or 0.053% of total US employment. In 2013, there were 62,000 people in those occupations, or 0.047% of total US employment. Is that a catastrophic decline? I don’t know, maybe it is. But maybe this is not the right number. I know many people who have satisfying work as musicians, that they get paid for but is not their main source of income. Is this group bigger or smaller than it was 25 years ago? I have no idea. Do you, Henry?

I am also struck by the way the alternatives here are posed as either IP or advertising. Genuinely public culture is not even conceivable. That’s how ideology works, I guess.

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clew 05.06.14 at 9:05 pm

The Assignation

Fame singing in the highways, and trifling as she sang, with sordid adventurers, passed the poet by.

And still the poet made for her little chaplets of song, to deck her forehead in the courts of Time: and still she wore instead the worthless garlands, that boisterous citizens flung to her in the ways, made out of perishable things.

And after a while whenever these garlands died the poet came to her with his chaplets of song; and still she laughed at him and wore the worthless wreaths, though they always died at evening.

And one day in his bitterness the poet rebuked her, and said to her: “Lovely Fame, even in the highways and the byways you have not foreborne to laugh and shout and jest with worthless men, and I have toiled for you and dreamed of you and you mock me and pass me by.”

And Fame turned her back on him and walked away, but in departing she looked over her shoulder and smiled at him as she had not smiled before, and, almost speaking in a whisper, said:

“I will meet you in the graveyard at the back of the Workhouse in a hundred years.”

(Dunsany, _Fifty-one Tales_)

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Main Street Muse 05.06.14 at 9:09 pm

“Genuinely public culture is not even conceivable.”

What does this mean? Movies are public culture – but they are commercially and collaboratively produced. Are they not “public culture” as a result? Are graffiti and street music the only public culture we have?

Here’s a nanny whose photography is now in the public sphere – but in Vivian Maier’s lifetime, she never made a penny on her art: http://bit.ly/1iUHBQJ – Is this public culture?

55

engels 05.06.14 at 9:20 pm

You’re conflating two questions: does inequality help artists and does inequality help art. As per Neville Morley’s comment, Damien Hirst etc provides your answer.

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Ed Herdman 05.06.14 at 9:28 pm

@ JW: I hear you, and I noticed that concern about ‘advertising fees’ mentioned earlier, which I why I posed an alternative; though I tried to avoid that distinction even in my earliest post.

@ Ze Kraggash: You’re not familiar with the Tate Modern, are you? Heck, how affordable were the late works of Thomas Kinkade? (Very affordable, at least in prints: Average people have terrible taste, too.) I’ll even admit that it’s mysterious to me how the classical eras of High Church art managed to be so good – at the same time it’s mysterious why they shouldn’t be in disrepute as stale. Remember the Spanish lady who turned Jesus into a monkey? The original of that painting is quite good in classical terms, but also considered unoriginal and unmemorable – many people don’t have any idea how much like the modern corporate-funded art world old church art was, and arguably worse in that you had to hew much more closely to acceptable cliches (in this case, the Ecce Homo), which were not just well-worn but literally centuries old.

@ Main Street Muse: What are these morose ruminations that “art is never self-funded” supposed to do for us in an era of crowdfunding? We don’t have a silver bullet and the old “get lucky and latch onto the money spigot” model is still with us – but it’s clearly wrong to look to these funding schemes as the future.

Even before any of us were alive, there were other models like JW Mason mentions – like the Public Works culture funded by the Roosevelt Administration. Lots of people learned to do great art through that, and kept doing it through their lives – even as the will and conditions dissipated, that era has had a lasting legacy. Just as importantly, it’s not at all inconceivable to think that there will never again be a political and economic argument for public culture.

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Ed Herdman 05.06.14 at 9:35 pm

re: Main Street Muse and engels above:

I think the questions being conflated (if engels is responding to MSM) are, again, “how does art get around” versus “how is art funded?” I very much like the idea that an amateur like Vivian Maier can make good art – and technology can assist with that.

However, it seems to me the unspoken argument is that more expensive forms of art aren’t worth paying for or doing, because we have all this amateur ‘public culture’ (supposedly). While I’m fine with settling for amateur status in what little poor art I do, and happy for the people who do make their way in traditional, “sustainable” artforms, I don’t think we need to hold this status quo up as an argument that we shouldn’t demand more out of our public allocation of the people’s taxes, or that we should abandon public funding of more expensive artforms.

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The Raven 05.06.14 at 9:41 pm

Kraw…I’ve written fairly extensively on this topic in other forums. I suppose I ought to gather up my croaks and make an article out of them, instead of just kibitzing. In any event, I will be reading Taylor’s book as soon as a copy comes in at my local library.

My general take on this, like that of many other creative people and participants in the process, is that a micropay model is still a good one, but one that is going to take many years to realize—the public must first be persuaded that it is worth having.

59

engels 05.06.14 at 9:41 pm

Sorry- was responding to the OP.

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Ed Herdman 05.06.14 at 9:48 pm

@ engels: Got it. Actually, I think there’s a lot of questions being tangled together, not necessarily by the OP but by many of the commenters. It’s surprising that e.g. so few realized JW Mason’s objection before.

@ The Raven: Aren’t most forms of popular (Internet-based, discounting the governmental-based ones) micropay models based on the concept of limiting the public’s veto power over a project? You find a way to mobilize and gather the people who are interested in a project, even if it is wedged extremely tightly in a niche; even if there are only a few people who follow that model, it might be enough to do the art.

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Luc 05.06.14 at 10:04 pm

You could just as easily connect art to big government.

From Bach, state employed, to Picasso’s Guernica, state commisioned, there’s probably more art connected to government (and related public organisations) than to private buyers.

And whatever i’ve seen of Damien Hirst (a bunch of pills in Munich i believe) it must have been in a public museum.

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TM 05.06.14 at 10:05 pm

In addition to my Ceterum Censeo at 10, what makes these posts so frustrating is the habit of sweeping pontificating with little or no empirical support. What this betrays is a fundamental lack of interest in the real world in favor of cheap talking points.

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clew 05.06.14 at 10:06 pm

it’s mysterious to me how the classical eras of High Church art managed to be so good

Lots of practice? Some of them had two vocations for it (art and faith)? Without a cultural imperative to novelty/originality, they could improve incrementally, and thoroughly fill in the `good parts’ of their, er, solution space?

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bob mcmanus 05.06.14 at 10:06 pm

or that we should abandon public funding of more expensive artforms.

Trust this fan of international indie and arthouse cinema.

1) There is more good stuff being made than David Bordwell can keep up with, including controversial and edgy stuff.

2) It is getting funded by gov’ts, foundations, individual benefactors…hell, I have seen movies open with 15 acknowledgements.

3) It isn’t getting distributed for shit. It’s horrible how many terrific films of all kinds and genres get one or two festival showings, a very limited DVD printing, and disappear.

4) IMDB now forces autocomplete on me, to push my searches to popular products. And I am obviously sophisticated. The problem is the capitalists at the top of the food chain. Screw their rights.

Would you agree that someone who aspires to be the next … oh, I don’t know … Tolstoy or Proust is more deserving of public (or private) support and encouragement than someone who aspires to be the next Agatha Christie or Jacqueline Susann?

No. I might have agreed in the 70s, but not anymore. Absolutely not. Stross and Stephenson are probably more valuable than art writers. This is not a call for “diversity” in the usual sense, nor a claim that the market will determine value, but just experience telling me I don’t know where future lasting aesthetic greatness will come from or what it will look like. Maybe a claymation zombie film.

And we have enough already.

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burritoboy 05.06.14 at 10:07 pm

“many people don’t have any idea how much like the modern corporate-funded art world old church art was, and arguably worse in that you had to hew much more closely to acceptable cliches (in this case, the Ecce Homo), which were not just well-worn but literally centuries old.”

Errr, the Ecce Homo is a depiction of one of the most profound and saddest moments in Christ’s life. It’s a genuinely dramatic and moving scene, and is written to be such, with as much artistry as the author of John’s Gospel could muster (and that author was a talented artist in his own right). There’s no reason to suspect that the artists of the time didn’t believe that the subject wasn’t worthwhile and important.

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Stephenson quoter-kun 05.06.14 at 10:59 pm

Metatone @44

As a result, we just see many fewer of them making it to that level – fewer enough that our arts and music landscape is noticeably more “posh” than 20 years ago.

If only this was a week earlier, I could have pointed out that 20 years ago Pink Floyd were top of the album charts. As it is, I’ll have to make do with Blur’s Parklife.

I think this is a good point though. Technology can make it cheaper to produce and disseminate cultural goods, but can it reduce the amount of time and effort required? Assuming it can’t, then we’re stuck in a world where only rich kids can afford to take the time to get good enough at playing music.

The legend of punk suggests that “being good at music” isn’t the only criteria for musical success, and hip-hop’s emphasis on vocals and mixes eliminates instruments. It’s a stretch, but could this be seen as technology lowering the barrier to entry? Pretty much anyone can rap badly or play bad punk music, but most people can’t do a bad version of Mumford and Sons (because you can’t make it any worse, clearly…).

Since this is a thread about technology and nobody has yet informed you all of what the computer programmers have to say on the matter, I think it’s intriguing that software development is almost entirely about lowering barriers to entry. This might seem laughable given that programming is notoriously fiddly, but the bulk of all open source software is devoted to the task of making it easier for some future person to do something without needing to understand precisely how it’s done. Most software is much more of a “remix” than most music, and the software community is constantly expanding the repertoire of stuff that can be incorporated, gratis, into any developer’s next composition. I am perhaps overly inclined to wax lyrical on the joys of software development, having recently discovered Clojure, but I really am struck by how much easier it is to do things than it used to be.

The difference for software is that the increase in cultural units available for remix and composition is matched by unmet, pent-up (and increasing) demand for far more complex and personalised compositions. Our capacity to consume more software is not even close to being reached yet, but our capacity to further consume music, movies and books is pretty limited – global population, literacy and electricity supply growth notwithstanding.

Does this suggest that whilst technology that enables greater collaboration, sharing, recombination and reuse for computer software is a good thing, the same technology as applied to music, movies and books might not be? I think that might be a misunderstanding. A lot of what is required for producing cultural works is accidental complexity. Movies require locations, extras, lighting, effects – many of these are really only incidental to the story being told, or the performance being given, but there’s no way to make a movie without them. Technology could certainly help here. It’s not impossible to imagine future photo-realistic video game engines that make it possible to create entire movies by feeding a script into a computer – now that really would start lowering the cost. The same might apply to music in some sense – what if you could hum a tune and have the computer transform that into a track?

Now, you might reasonably observe that there’s not much art in humming a tune or writing a story that your computer turns into a movie. And you would be right, to a degree. But does this have any bearing on the reasons why people consume popular art? We already know that the most popular songs, movies or books are not necessarily the “best” ones, judging by sheer artistic merit, where merit has some relationship to time and effort required to create something, or to learn the skills necessary to do so. But if merit is expensive, and thus available only to the wealthy, should we really care if merit is devalued? If we accept a distinction between art-for-art’s-sake and popular culture, then precisely how the popular culture is created matters much less than how open that culture is to contribution from all members of society. And the best guarantor of access is for it to be cheap and widespread.

Having made this argument, I’m not sure that I believe it. Something is nagging at me, a sense that if we did just give everyone magic movie-making powers, we wouldn’t necessarily get a flourishing of social engagement or great culture. I don’t know what we would get, but it could end up being pretty bad. I suspect that this is my paternalist side thinking “you can’t have a culture based on everyone just doing what they feel like with no structure!”, because that way of thinking is pretty in-grained, to the point where it’s hard to ignore, and maybe everything would be OK. Perhaps we might get to find out in 30 years or so!

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Kindred Winecoff 05.06.14 at 11:03 pm

Haven’t read all the comments here and don’t have time to do so at the moment, so I apologize if this has already been covered…

… but Steve Albini has a quite different view. In his mind the major media conglomerates of the past were far worse than Google or Youtube or Spotify:

“Record labels, which used to have complete control, are essentially irrelevant ,” he says. “The process of a band exposing itself to the world is extremely democratic and there are no barriers. Music is no longer a commodity, it’s an environment, or atmospheric element. Consumers have much more choice and you see people indulging in the specificity of their tastes dramatically more. They only bother with music they like. …

“On balance, the things that have happened because of the internet have been tremendously good for bands and audiences, but really bad for businesses that are not part of that network, the people who are siphoning money out. I don’t give a fuck about those people.””

http://qz.com/202194/steve-albini-the-problem-with-music-has-been-solved-by-the-internet/

I suspect, though I do not know, that there are more “people who are able to piece together some kind of a living centered on making good art, but who do stuff that is unlikely ever to be enormously commercially popular” than ever. At least in the U.S., and at least since the age of recordable media. That seems like a relevant piece of data. If anyone has pointers to sources for it I would be appreciative.

Yes it requires live performance — or patronage, via Kickstarter or something else — but it always did, as Albini described in “The Problem with Music”. Now the process is less controlled by music conglomerates colluding with mass media outlets and venues. I can see how this would be good for consumers and producers on balance, while still being destabilizing in some significant ways.

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LFC 05.06.14 at 11:04 pm

MSM @48
Barry @7 points out the incredible damage wrought by Mankiw’s leadership of economics at Harvard and therefore the world. Thank you Barry, for stating this fact. HOW AND WHY has Mankiw grown to such power?!! Someone please explain…

what the fu*k?? Mankiw is one of a quite large number of tenured ec profs at Harvard. He’s well-known because he has a textbook (and a blog) and presides over the intro course, but that hardly equates to his “leadership of economics in the world,” which is a ridiculously, imo, inflated claim.

Lots of people have taken the intro harvard ec course over the years, just as lots of people have taken an equivalent course elsewhere. The fact that the instructors may be rt-wing economists doesn’t mean their students nec. come out of the course parroting rt-wing slogans or thinking like a neoliberal, free-market economist. I took Ec 10 in the late 70s when it was presided over by Martin Feldstein and used the Samuelson textbk. The course had basically zero impact on my political views. (I was reading vol 1 of Capital at the same time, which made for an interesting juxtaposition.)

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Clay Shirky 05.06.14 at 11:23 pm

Stephenson @66:

But if merit is expensive, and thus available only to the wealthy, should we really care if merit is devalued?

I think this is the right question, with one caveat, which is that the notion of merit is itself tied up in interpretive communities, and is difficult to imagine outside a particular culture. (Stanley Fish and Pierre Bordieu walk into a bar…) You can see the difficulty of imagining merit outside of our own culture in this observation about the gap between movie critics and the general public: http://priceonomics.com/why-movie-critics-hate-tyler-perry/

There are certain art forms that can’t last without certain organizational (and therefore economic) forms. Blockbuster movies are one such category, and whenever I hear the people in Hollywood saying “If we don’t have enough scarcity in the visual form, we won’t be able to afford $200M of helicopter explosions!”, I always hear in my head a Pharaoh exclaiming that without indentured servitude, we couldn’t build pyramids.

True in both cases, in other words, but not the dispositive argument it is presented as.

Also, to Harald, a way up there @31, what I mean by “an artist” is “anyone who thinks of themselves as making anything their culture calls art.” This includes bed linens in some cultures and in others not, so there’s no real external definition.

And as a general statement, it was an observation that since the number of people who would like to be supported to make things is larger than any society is able to support, there are always losers. The fantasy that there should be some “normal” way to do the right things and end up with a career as a creator of novel cultural artifacts isn’t something that happens in ordinary society.

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Freddie deBoer 05.06.14 at 11:25 pm

I for one am shocked that Clay Shirky has an answer that is evangelist, teleological, and non-falsifiable. Shocked!

In unrelated news, everyone desperately needs to read this from the creator of the Borg Complex. Especially Clay Shirky.

http://thefrailestthing.com/2014/03/30/10-points-of-unsolicited-advice-for-technology-writers/

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Main Street Muse 05.06.14 at 11:30 pm

LFC – Mankiw advised Romney during his presidential bid and teaches (and reaches) larges numbers of economics students at Harvard. His textbook is used by many students in many universities outside of Harvard. In 2008, more than 25% of Harvard grads slipped into the current that took them straight to Wall Street. And the other Ivies had large percentages of students heading to Wall Street. Though my post was tongue-in-cheek, he is, alas, a significant influence in the world of economics, which is an awful thing to contemplate. The world is very different than today than the 1970s.

I do not understand WHY Mankiw is read as widely as he is. His “Defending the One Percent” was horribly written and poorly argued. “Imagine a society with perfect economic equality. Then, one day, this egalitarian utopia is disturbed by an entrepreneur with an idea for a new product….” Like nails on a blackboard.

FYI – Mankiw also dances… http://bit.ly/SRh07f

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Harold 05.06.14 at 11:31 pm

How patronage worked for German painter, Caspar David Friedrich (from wikipedia): “The artist found support from two sources in Russia. In 1820, Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich, at the behest of his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, visited Friedrich’s studio and returned to Saint Petersburg with a number of his paintings. The exchange marked the beginning of a patronage that continued for many years.[37] Not long thereafter, the poet Vasily Zhukovsky, tutor to Alexander II, met Friedrich in 1821 and found in him a kindred spirit. For decades Zhukovsky helped Friedrich both by purchasing his work himself and by recommending his art to the royal family; his assistance toward the end of Friedrich’s career proved invaluable to the ailing and impoverished artist. Zhukovsky remarked that his friend’s paintings ‘please us by their precision, each of them awakening a memory in our mind.’[38]“

Friedrich (who became obsessed with death) also made some money by drawing sketches for funerary monuments.

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Harold 05.06.14 at 11:32 pm

Adam Gopnik: When you read the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop today, you are startled to realize that, in their day, Lowell was a god and Bishop still very much of an aspirant, a judgment that has almost been turned on its head now. The forces that propelled the change come mostly from below. No one biography, no one critical text, no one “reading,” and certainly no one publisher altered the view; readers altered it by reading and then talking to one another. It was the suffrage of ordinary readers that rediscovered Barbara Pym and remade Trollop a classic along side of Dickens. The literary marketplace turns profit; the community of readers makes reputations. (And guarantees the value of literary estates.) A study of the literary marketplace is essential in order to be honest about the development of the taste of a community of readers, but it can’t replace it. –Adam Gopnik, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” The New Yorker, April 21, 2014, a book review of Lawrence Buell’s, “The Dream of the Great American Novel (Harvard University Press, 2014).

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UserGoogol 05.07.14 at 12:07 am

Stephenson quoter-kun@66: I don’t think that art for art’s sake and popular culture really splits that way. It’s art for art’s sake, not art for the artist’s sake. Whether the artist put quite a lot of effort into the work or none at all seems irrelevant to appreciation of something as a work of fine art. (Although background of the origin can be a nice thing to have all the same.) Art should be judged on its own merits.

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Kevin Erickson 05.07.14 at 12:12 am

Every time this issue set comes up, someone brings up the “old model” vs “the new model” in order to point out “hey the old system was bad too!” There’s an unfortunate tendency to talk about the past primarily to dismiss present concerns.

With music, at least, folks who’ve studied the history of independent music know that the “old model” vs “new model” paradigm is a fairly ahistorical way of viewing things, mistaking a commercially dominant business model for the only one and erasing the historical diversity of business models and scales of operation. Dating back to the 40s at least, there was no old model, and now there is no “new” model. Instead, there have always been a multitude of models and scales and artists pick the model that makes the most sense for them. (It’s worth remembering, for example, that most working musicians have always been obscure by the standards of mass culture–obscurity alone certainly hasn’t been a barrier to making a living.)

Certainly some historic barriers and bottlenecks around distribution have been overcome–Taylor is certainly more than willing to acknowledge this; I read her as trying to leapfrog us past useless “internet good” v “internet bad” foolishness. Meanwhile, we’ve also see more consolidation in media ownership, radio playlists getting less diverse, etc.

My sense is that competition from “amateurs” is generally a red herring rather than an serious factor. This seems fairly clear when you examine actual data on listenership. When you talk to an indie artist who ten years ago had about the same size fanbase he has today but who now struggles because of the loss of recorded music income, he certainly doesn’t mention “amateurs” as a factor. Maybe he’s figured out a streamlined and more profitable means of touring (although, whoops, that meant laying off his entire backing band). And now he has to tour 180 days a year instead of 90. Perhaps it works, but it means being an absent father to his kids 50% of the time instead of 25%. People can argue as Shirky seems to that this phenomenon isn’t real, but it requires denying the lived experience of a whole lot of my peers!

Frankly, the distance between a musician making her living by creating work about her life and identity and politics and a musican creating work about how great it is to eat at Chipotle or whatever is so vast that to reduce that gulf to a question of “personal taste” seems like a serious analytical error.

@67-I have a lot of respect for Albini’s work as an engineer and there’s some grains of truth amid that minefield of falsely totalizing claims. But to be clear, he’s a guy who has decreed that music that uses drum machines is beneath his consideration , so it’s fair to say that his perspective, while sometimes interesting, generally reflects a quite narrow set of aesthetic and subcultural biases. And he seems eager to overlook that Comcast, Verizon, Apple etc are corporations as much as Geffen. Nor does he seem concerned that the majors’ influence over industry-wide business models has by no means abided.

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Kevin Erickson 05.07.14 at 12:20 am

D’oh! Abated, not abided!

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LFC 05.07.14 at 12:50 am

Re a couple of the comments above that touch on govt support for the arts: I’d note that some ‘culture’ is also funded directly by public donations, at least in the U.S. Thinking of, e.g., (so-called) non-commercial classical radio stations: because they depend partly on donations from the listening public (as do other ‘public’ radio stations), they — or at least the stations I’m familiar with — give listeners what some marketing survey has apparently told them listeners want.

I.e., they define classical music as running roughly from Vivaldi to Rachmaninoff or thereabouts, ignoring most music written in the 20th cent, not to mention contemporary classical music. Also, and in interesting contrast to some nationalist bias elsewhere, relatively little American classical music is played: e.g., Ives, Barber, Piston, even Thomson, not to mention more recent American composers, are, istm, almost never heard on the classical stations. Playing Dvorak’s New World Symphony over and over is not an adequate substitute; not that it’s not a good piece, but the same warhorses are played over and over. I can’t really even listen to the New World Symphony any more.

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clew 05.07.14 at 1:13 am

LFC: The classical music station in — oh, I won’t name the city, but it isn’t small — once spent an afternoon on `third movements of your favorite symphonies!’. Just the third movements. Met their advertising-time goals, I guess, and seemed like a good idea on paper?

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Ed Herdman 05.07.14 at 1:16 am

@ 65 (and clew at 63, for that matter)
Excuse me if I seem dismissive of the great art of Christian iconography. Yet for people who have a special religious connection with this art, should it not also be the case that many other forms of art are just as worthy of consideration? No, mere self-awareness about the human condition should make abundantly clear that the traditional form of the Ecce Homo is accidental to a celebration of the life of Christ. Even if you believe that the scene itself is special through all history, and that its traditional depiction is also special (in this day and age of blond, blue-eyed hypercubed Salvador Dali Jesuses?), where is the sense of the all-encompassing nature of the divine, which should be found in all things?

The fact remains that there was very little choice in the subject matter for the artists – for one reason or another – and so the original artist’s voice found original expression in ways that were highly constrained by today’s standards. (Of course some of this was an accident of history and not a conspiracy: This whole discussion would be far different if the Internet wasn’t around and all folk art was doomed to limited distribution and obscurity.)

Other religions have had similar experiences, and I don’t know about the folk-art fringes of Christian art at the time. I can give an example which shows that the tendency of many to specially exalt Christian art, and its various offshoots (especially in painting), actually is quite limiting and may even do the subject a disservice.

Buddhists, at least, have not been blind to the cost of “quality” art. Take the monk Enki, for example. At a time when Chinese and Indian iconography was the standard, and production of this ponderous, “paramount” artform was effectively constrained by its huge costs to capital cities, this monk purposely traveled through the rocky, obscure, and underserved corners and mountain passages of Japan to tend to the people, write poems, and make small sculptures for the people.

For a long stretch of his life he probably carved a dozen pieces of wood per day – sometimes all small figures, and sometimes large interconnected pieces. Strikingly, Enki’s economy of gesture (literally, a few well-placed ax strikes) still makes great and moving art. The Christian art we’re all familiar with tends to be painstaking and demanding to make. Enki’s reputation has been made in part because his sparse work’s qualities seem typically Japanese to his postwar admirers – its broad reflections on emotion tailored for the person or community requesting the piece, ensuring its broad appeal; its dismissal of the lazy dichotomies between nature and artifice, and rough and finished; its bold lines.

But it’s also clear here that Enki willingly turned away, despite being obviously a craftsman of great talent, from the seemingly sure and safe path towards a kind of immortality. Long after many famous statues have been melted down for cannonballs, collections of Enki’s daily dozens still are found in little corners of secluded temples, and still appreciated.

You could insist that artists today have too much freedom, if you like. The fact also remains that we simply don’t know what artistic expression many of those artists would have found if they could have found expression outside the stultifying and inherently exclusive genre of church art – not to mention the many who simply couldn’t fit in.

Who is doing their religious service better – Enki’s lifelong, conscious journey to take carvings to the people, or the reverence of a Christian painter in following the traditional forms of his Church’s art? I hope you will join me in refusing this distinction. To do that, however, requires admitting that one has to make choices in art. If expressing creation’s variety is a virtue, however, there certainly is as much to be valued in the choice to do art as Enki did, rather than to do it in the European model. Maybe this is just a historical accident: In much of Europe, conditions favored the people’s being able to see artworks. In Enki’s Japan (and indeed the pre-modernist Japan before the ~1910s and the arrival of mass media publications), the art had to go to the people. But today, it seems to me downright parochial to insist that the Ecce Homo is exceptional beyond all (or even a majority) of other art forms.

@ Clay Shirky:

Funny, but your example of the Pharaohs and indentured servants (slaves, you mean) probably has more to do with Hollywood blockbusters – like the Ten Commandments. While the pyramids and temple complexes were certainly not “mass culture” in the sense that it didn’t allow just anybody to contribute artistic ideas, it was still a civilization that found a way to make art into a way of life for its people – as far as I know the consensus is now that those massive building projects kept people occupied during the seasonal floods. It was often Hollywood directors who didn’t care if the extras were dying.

The scenes of arbitrary toil and abuse of the workers seen in those films probably are just as accurate in depicting the treatment of the workers. As usual, the directors and owners didn’t realize they were aiming their barbs at themselves.

@ Kindred, 67
That kind of works for art, but there are still lots of kinds of art that we should care about which still cost money to make – possibly more than can be recouped easily. But that’s still essentially my view, quite a bit of the time.

@ bob mcmanus:
Also just wanted to acknowledge your great reply. Yeah, I agree with you on this.

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The Raven 05.07.14 at 1:22 am

Kindred Winecoff@67: the John McDuling article you link is exceptionally wrong-headed. The old music business was a disaster for most artists, no question about it, and technical changes have improved the ability of musicians to make recordings. The thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the dominance of national and international distribution by oligopoly. Instead of Atlantic, Columbia, and so on, we have Apple, Amazon, and so on. And, just as the old labels controlled pricing, and smaller artists had little ability to respond, the big internet distributors control pricing (ever read an Amazon publishing contract? oh, man. Useful rule for artists and consumers: if the contract is more than one page of reasonably-sized print long, it’s suspicious. If it’s more than five pages long, the people who wrote it have something to hide. Last time I looked Amazon’s contract was 38 pages long.) Some artists have, by dint of long, hard work, managed to make it as independents, but this is in no way easy. With the loss of net neutrality, even that will become harder.

What publishers, music labels, producers, and so on do—the key thing that all these businesses do that is of value—is assume financial risk. We are losing that and without that—without advances, funding for all the things that are done before distribution or some alternate method of funding—I don’t see how most artists can do without a day job. For most time-based art, matters are even worse: actors need to be paid, venues need to be reserved, and so on: these people need deep-pocketed funders, or have to be prepared to scrape by for years. And, yes, some artists become rich and famous early in their careers. But it’s not something to count on, and much of the most popular art is not of lasting value.

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clark 05.07.14 at 1:42 am

Until a better solution comes along, I humbly submit the Have/Give Licensing model.

We can’t stop file sharing, shouldn’t try (poor children should have all the music and stories they want, and we don’t want cops and lawsuits everywhere), but we can ask those who share to donate if they can.

If the artists buy in, perhaps the population will.

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Kevin Erickson 05.07.14 at 1:49 am

@52 the BLS numbers aren’t a particularly useful data set because by definition, they don’t include self-employed musicians. There is probably no reliable way to measure the real size of the musician population.

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engels 05.07.14 at 2:06 am

We can’t stop file sharing, shouldn’t try (poor children should have all the music and stories they want, and we don’t want cops and lawsuits everywhere)

Do ‘poor children’ do a lot of file sharing? E.g. according to this page, 70% of people in social housing aren’t online…

http://www.21stcenturychallenges.org/60-seconds/what-is-the-digital-divide/

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ckc (not kc) 05.07.14 at 2:17 am

But if merit is expensive, and thus available only to the wealthy, should we really care if merit is devalued?

Does “expensive” mean “of value”? If your meal ticket is devalued to the point that you go hungry, you might care.

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Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 05.07.14 at 2:28 am

Kevin Erickson, what caused the loss of recorded music income? Are people copying indie albums? Are people listening on Pandora and spotify instead of buying CDs? Are people buying 1 single on iTunes? Did there used to be cross-subidy from other artists on the label?

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robotslave 05.07.14 at 2:56 am

Missing from this debate is the fact that art is itself a form of capital, from which rents can be readily extracted.

Keep your eye on who ends up owning that capital (and collecting its returns) in the various schemes under discussion, not just on the labor income of those who produce it.

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Ciian 05.07.14 at 3:28 am

Nobody’s mentioned poetry, or Jazz. Hard to make money at either, but hardly the fault of new technologies. And has anyone ever made money from documentaries? Harder now of course because so many more are being made thanks to the invention of the Sony VX1000 (and successors). Is cheaper video production technology a bad thing?

The affect of the internet on musical sales is very hard to separate from other factors such as demographics (teenagers and 20 somethings buy the most music, and there are now less of them), the CD bubble bursting (there was a huge surge in sales of older material caused by the creation of the CD in the 80s that was always going to be temporary) and simply changes in taste (has anyone considered that maybe indie musicians are finding it harder to make a living because indie rock has become less popular). Add to that the surge in video games (expensive), and it seems inevitable that music sales would have always declined.

Technology has caused some changes that have hurt musicians, but some were simply technical. Turns out people would rather spend 99C on the song they like, than buy the whole album. This has had a pretty significant affect on revenue. Technology has also helped musicians. It is way way cheaper to record now than it was in the 80s, or 90s. You can build a high quality home studio now – not an option in the 80s.

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bad Jim 05.07.14 at 4:51 am

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven made hardly any money from their published works. They’d typically sell a piece to a publisher for a nominal sum and never saw royalties. That’s why they tended to favor performing or producing. Brahms probably made a tidy sum from sales of the “Hungarian Dances”, and Dvorak did well with his “Slavonic Dances”, due to the enormous market for music that amateurs could play at home, but a symphony was only worth a few hundred dollars.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the occasional musician could become well to do from royalties alone. Scott Joplin apparently did rather well. Some artists did well with recordings, but probably more were shafted. There was also an uneasy tension between the ability of recordings to promote or to displace performance, the latter having always been the main source of income for most musicians.

Many years ago I attended a solo piano recital by Philip Glass which was followed by a Q&A. He was asked “Why haven’t you published this music?” and replied, “People, this is how I make a living.”

Writing is different, of course; it’s not the same sort of performance art, although there is a lecture market. There are similarities in that it used not to be particularly remunerative, but became much more so in the twentieth century, but seems to be reverting to its previous state. Even at its height most of its practitioners needed a day job. The free range artist has always been a rare bird.

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bad Jim 05.07.14 at 5:44 am

This might be the right place to mention that religion has probably never been a major source of inspiration for artists. It’s rather that, for a very long time, churches were their major source of income.

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Neville Morley 05.07.14 at 9:35 am

As has been observed several times, the present situation is less a general crisis of all culture in the face of technological (and other) change than a crisis of certain art forms that have done pretty well over a number of decades to the extent that they take this status for granted. The literary novel may indeed be in crisis (cf. article by Will Self in Saturday’s Grauniad, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/02/will-self-novel-dead-literary-fiction), but my sense is that this just puts aspiring literary novelists into the position that poets have occupied for decades; you have to make a living from readings, teaching, lawyer spouse etc. rather than from the poetry itself.

Within the field of music, we can indeed look to jazz – and I’d recommend Scott DeVeaux’s brilliant The Birth of Be-Bop, which offers a fascinating analysis of the processes of transformation in response to technological, social, political, economic and musical developments; a transformation which could indeed be figured as the crisis of a form of cultural production (the big band) that had previously offered a fair number of musicians a solid living and made some a lot of money, but which now is more often figured as the triumph of new, superior forms (the small combo) better able to take advantage of new conditions.

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UserGoogol 05.07.14 at 12:31 pm

The Raven@80: Music doesn’t seem like it would be that impacted by a lack of net neutrality. The idea is that ISPs will slow down connections unless websites can negotiate a “fast-lane,” but music really doesn’t require very much bandwidth. If entry-level artists can’t even get 192kbps, we’re in deeper trouble than we thought. Net neutrality is more important to high-bandwidth uses like video.

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Random Lurker 05.07.14 at 1:42 pm

@UserGoogol 6

“It probably varies from medium to medium. The webcomic industry is pretty lightly dependent on big tech companies, and tons of people have managed to make a living there.”

As someone that is currently publishing a webcomic*, I find this unlikely – maybe you know of the 10 who made it, and not of the 9990 who didn’t.

I basically agree with Clay Shirky @17.

I think that it is quite natural that art is performed mostly by amateurs, who up to a few years ago were just not visible. I thinc that this happens because the artistic vocation basically is just a form of narcissism*, people who just would like to be told that they are oh so good etc.

In my opinion, the only problem with the view of “art by amateurs” is that most people do not have the time to pratice art (it takes me roughtly 9 hours of work to produce one page*), so, as many of the problems of the world of today, this could be solved by lowering the standard workweek (instead of having one guy working 10 h/day and another unemployed, have both work 5h/day and they will have time for art, if they desire it).

_____________________
*All this is obviously not an attempt at blogwhoring, no, not at all, however I’ll point out that if you click on my handler you’ll see my super beautiful webcomic. Click on me. If you click on me a lot I’ll have a socialgasm.

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novakant 05.07.14 at 2:01 pm

Thanks a lot for the Taylor interview – especially for highlighting the fact that those who actually produce art have curiously been left out of the discussion or relegated to victim status. I cringe every time some “free/amateur culture”-advocate sheds some crocodile tears for artists not being adequately reimbursed by their label or publishing house, only to then conclude that it’s better if consumers like themselves rip them off by not paying anything at all and, hey, they should just get with the program, work for free, get a day job or go on tour more often. Finally someone with some street cred dares to tell them where they can stick it.

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UserGoogol 05.07.14 at 2:15 pm

10/9990 seems a bit much. (Although “tons” was overselling it too, and “making a living” might have been too.) Very few people get to be the giant behemoths of the industry like Penny Arcade and xkcd, but there’s far more than ten people making comics with small little niches. The ratio of success is still pretty low, but 90% of everything is crap and all that.

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David 05.07.14 at 2:22 pm

We could institute a global wealth tax. Or we could raise high the Red Flag and put the Waltons and the Kochs before a peoples’ tribunal.

You know, whichever.

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Kevin Erickson 05.07.14 at 2:37 pm

Consumatopia @39 Pandora doesn’t make sense as a supply/demand example, because it operates under a statutory license. Artists can’t simply withdraw their music from Pandora if they don’t like the rates.

Sam Tobin-Hochstad @85 It’s a complex ecosystem and experiences vary from artist to artist, genre to genre, so it’s difficult to generalize, but if I’m speaking about the independent musicians in my peer group, it’s certainly fair to say the decline in recorded music income is primarily tied to copying and widespread file sharing. Apple’s iTunes store has been helpful for most small-mid-level independent artists; the 99-cent singles marketplace cutting into album sales is less of a factor for these folks than for radio hitmakers. With streaming services too, it depends on the artist, but interactive-on-demand services like Spotify and YouTube seem more likely to cannibalize sales than non-interactive services like Pandora that imitate radio. And it’s also true that advances typically aren’t what they used to be–though they tended to be modest on the independent side in the first place; indie labels historically provided a smaller advance but a bigger cut of revenues, or used a profit-split model (50% was the gold standard), meaning you earned more per unit and it took fewer sales to be sustainable.

Of course, there are musicians (salaried classical players, wedding bands, touring sidemen, for example) whose income hasn’t been directly dependent on sound recordings and so are not impacted in the same way.

@87 Indie denotes a business model, not a genre; that’s what we’re talking about here. Nonetheless, I don’t see any evidence that what-I-guess-we-can-go-ahead-and-call-indie-rock is less popular than it was 10 years ago. Were that the case, I wouldn’t expect bland mid-tempo indie-rock imitations with little glockenspiels and wooooah-oh choruses to be soundtracking so many commercials, or festivals like Coachella exhibiting such growth, etc.

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TM 05.07.14 at 2:47 pm

LFC 77: The US public radio stations (usually NPR affiliates) that know do not actually contribute to artistic production. My classical radio station plays classical CDs all day long, and in the evening they play Jazz CDs. None of that directly benefits cultural production itself (I’m not sure, maybe there is a tiny royalty for playing the records). I always wonder during their interminable fundraisers why it costs so much money just to play records. In contrast, the genuinely public broadcasters that exist in many countries (e. g. Germany, UK, France) do actually support cultural and artistic production. They fund independent film makers, orchestras, commission radio plays, cover non-famous artists that would otherwise not get coverage, often provide a public forum to the local and regional cultural scene. I’m sorry but Americans really need to get out and widen their horizon a bit.

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Kevin Erickson 05.07.14 at 2:59 pm

bad Jim @88 The notion that performance is how most musicians make most of their money is common, but isn’t supported by the data. This survey found that 28% of musicians’ income came from live performance (and that’s gross income, before accounting for the significant expenses associated with touring.)

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Harold 05.07.14 at 3:13 pm

Thank you, TM.

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Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 05.07.14 at 3:29 pm

Kevin Erickson @ 96, thanks for the information. One more question — are people copying your friends music, or are people listening to less indie music because they can get Miley Cyrus/Mumford and Sons/etc for free (via filesharing)?

I was in college in the heyday of filesharing, and my sense was that people ended up with huge collections, almost all of which had been “popular” at some point. But that’s entirely anecdotal.

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Josh G. 05.07.14 at 3:37 pm

It seems to me that a universal basic income would make a huge difference here. If every U.S. citizen was entitled to, say, $17K-$20K (adjusted for inflation and increasing productivity/automation of society) per year no matter what, then artists would have a much easier time making ends meet. Even a relatively modest amount of ‘top-up’ earnings, from personal performances or selling art on Etsy or whatever, would be enough to avoid poverty.

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LFC 05.07.14 at 4:14 pm

TM @97
In contrast, the genuinely public broadcasters that exist in many countries (e. g. Germany, UK, France) do actually support cultural and artistic production. They fund independent film makers, orchestras, commission radio plays, cover non-famous artists that would otherwise not get coverage, often provide a public forum to the local and regional cultural scene.

The Wash D.C. classical music station, whose programming I was criticizing, does a little bit of covering the “local cultural scene,” inasmuch as it has a weekly broadcast of recordings of live concerts in the area — generally with a substantial time delay (i.e., months). But I wasn’t suggesting that U.S. stations do much to “contribute to cultural production.” I was just using this thread as an excuse to complain about the programming (a direct complaint wd have no more effect than this one, I think).

I’m sorry but Americans really need to get out and widen their horizon a bit.
As a comment directed at my comment, this is a non-sequitur, since I made no comparison, implicit or explicit, betw US and European radio stations. What you say about European stations’ contributions to artistic production doesn’t really surprise me.

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TM 05.07.14 at 4:23 pm

My comment “Americans really need to get out” is aimed at what I perceive as the general America-centrism of the whole “art and inequality” debate, of which we had three threads now, every one of them (ceterum censeo) an unforgivable waste of time. As an example, it has been repeated here ad nauseam that without rich tycoons there would be no classical orchestras (maybe even no libraries) and so on, claims derived from a very selective perception of American culture that betray profound ignorance of the rest of the world.

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Ronan(rf) 05.07.14 at 4:27 pm

Well, in fairness, broadening your ‘own horizons’ from *Germany to countries in it’s general vicinity* isn’t exactely pushing the boat out.

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Stephenson quoter-kun 05.07.14 at 4:35 pm

STH @100

are people listening to less indie music

I appreciate that this is an old fogey rant, but might this have something to do with the fact that musical fashion simply doesn’t move fast enough to create sufficient demand any more? One can understand the excitement around the Beatles, because nobody had ever seen or heard anything like them before*. Subsequent generations of musicians could claim to be the equivalent of the Beatles of X, where X is some sub-genre, or the Beatles from Y, where Y is a place or a social category. That’s still interesting, because it does offer some fundamentally new combination of ideas. It feels a bit like we’re past that now, and the effect is that whilst we continue to have new music, nobody expects to be surprised by it, or for it to matter in anything beyond the most superficial sense.

I had grown up with the idea that the music charts were a cultural institution of genuine importance, worthy of coverage not just on the radio, where you might expect it, but on television and in the newspapers; then, about 15 years ago, everyone just stopped caring. In fact, the period in which people genuinely cared lasted less than a lifetime. If the KLF turned up now, they might be able to get a #1 hit single, but nobody would want to buy a book about how they did it.

I wonder if part of the problem for musicians now is that they’re not just competing with their own generational cohort, they’re competing with past generations too. Around the mid-2000s there was a big post-punk revival, in which various bands tried to recreate the sounds of the early 80s. The thing is, those early 80s bands are still here and still making records. The same is largely true of the indie scene. If you were making disco music in the late 70s, or hair metal in the early 80s, or electronic dance music in the early 90s, you pretty much had the field to yourself. Even obscure acts could carve out a niche, because people wanted more disco/hair metal/dance music than existed at the time. But now? Who really needs another indie band, because they’ve listened to all of the others?

As a counter-argument, I certainly remember people saying similar things 20 years ago – that indie bands of the early 90s were hopelessly derivative, but they seemed to do OK. Maybe there really is a lot of new and creative stuff going on and I just don’t know about it because I don’t care enough to investigate. Perhaps. But I don’t really see why, if I wanted to listen to something that I haven’t heard before, I should pick up something new rather than try to find something old that I just haven’t got around to listening to yet. There’s almost certainly a lot more good old music out there than good new music. It seems that now, the only reason to buy new music is because you care about the artists because your friends do, because you saw them live recently, or because they’re getting press coverage. The decline in the relevance of the charts may be symptomatic of the fact that “new music” no longer correlates so well with “the most interesting music I can find”.

* That’s not to say that they weren’t derivative of others, merely that they were extremely effective at popularising their sound and many of the people they appealed to had never heard that kind of music before

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Random Lurker 05.07.14 at 4:45 pm

@UserGoogol 94
“10/9990 seems a bit much”

The website “The Webcomic list” ( http://www.thewebcomiclist.com/ ) purports to ” monitor over 22700 online comics”. While maybe there are more webcomics than webcomic artists, it is a huge number and it isn’t obvious that they monitor all webcomics.

Could you name 23 webcomic artists that “made it”? I can’t.

(I’m n.5381. Not that bad.)

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Neville Morley 05.07.14 at 4:56 pm

#105: “But I don’t really see why, if I wanted to listen to something that I haven’t heard before, I should pick up something new rather than try to find something old that I just haven’t got around to listening to yet.”

Back in the late 1980s I had a drunken argument in a pub with a Man They Couldn’t Hang on precisely this issue, and he persuaded me (at that point something of a 1960s blues snob) that one should seek out the new precisely because it’s new, as anything else is cultural death and suffocating nostalgia. Admittedly, at various points this has got a bit difficult, as so much new music reminds me of things that were done better several decades ago – but the answer has often been to switch genre, to find things that don’t. Indie may be moribund; various strands of electronica aren’t.

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Neville Morley 05.07.14 at 4:56 pm

#105: “But I don’t really see why, if I wanted to listen to something that I haven’t heard before, I should pick up something new rather than try to find something old that I just haven’t got around to listening to yet.”

Back in the late 1980s I had a drunken argument in a pub with a Man They Couldn’t Hang on precisely this issue, and he persuaded me (at that point something of a 1960s blues snob) that one should seek out the new precisely because it’s new, as anything else is cultural death and suffocating nostalgia. Admittedly, at various points this has got a bit difficult, as so much new music reminds me of things that were done better several decades ago – but the answer has often been to switch genre, to find things that don’t. Indie may be moribund; various strands of electronica aren’t.

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Neville Morley 05.07.14 at 4:57 pm

Sorry, I don’t know why that posted twice; can anyone delete it, and this?

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Harold 05.07.14 at 5:14 pm

Great art is always new.

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The Temporary Name 05.07.14 at 5:17 pm

Like Ulysses.

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Kevin Erickson 05.07.14 at 5:17 pm

@100 It’s hard to say, but I haven’t seen any evidence that people are listening to less independent music than in the 90s; it’s just harder to get them to pay for it. The deck remains stacked against independents in serious ways: broadcast radio is still the number one source of music discovery, and it’s still very homogenous and mostly locked down by the majors.

OTOH, in our present click-bait era with altweeklies on the decline, alternative media is spending more time covering top-40 pop than they used to–and declining page counts and shrinking staffs mean less resources left to cover everything else–and those resources tend to go to the bigger indies who haven’t had to lay off their publicists yet.

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TM 05.07.14 at 6:00 pm

“Well, in fairness, broadening your ‘own horizons’ from *Germany to countries in it’s general vicinity* isn’t exactely pushing the boat out.”

???

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Ronan(rf) 05.07.14 at 6:21 pm

TM – You’re German, right ? And are accussing every American here of being parochial? And telling them they should expand their horizons ? By seeing how it’s done in Germany and the major European countries ? Which is itself a deep, pathological parochialism on your part, no ? So you’re fighting parochialism with parochialism ? Which is fine, as there’s nothing wrong with being parochial. Though your case might have more merit if you were a fleetfooted, multilingual, internationalist raconteur telling us about your latest travels to a small village in Sichuan province where you came across a regionally idiosyncratic mode of public ownership. But you’re not. You’re telling us about your hometown. Which is fine, but no need to be obnoxious about it..
All of this falls apart (somewhat) if you’re not German though.

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The Temporary Name 05.07.14 at 6:36 pm

Which is itself a deep, pathological parochialism on your part, no?

Regardless of where TM might be from, you are now reading about Germany and America instead of America, and TM reads constantly about America. TM’s horizons, like many of the citizens of this planet, are broadened by default.

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Cian 05.07.14 at 6:49 pm

And it’s also true that advances typically aren’t what they used to be–though they tended to be modest on the independent side in the first place; indie labels historically provided a smaller advance but a bigger cut of revenues, or used a profit-split model (50% was the gold standard), meaning you earned more per unit and it took fewer sales to be sustainable.

50% was the Mute deal, which has always been cited as exceptionally fair (it’s also why they managed to hang on to most of their artists). It certainly wasn’t the norm in the 90s. Lots and lots of indie record labels, including many of the ‘good’ labels were just as unfair (or incompetent) as majors. Also the profit split model depends upon the record making a profit. Hire a good accountant, and that may never happen. Sure there are good record labels, but there have been plenty of awful indies too.

Nonetheless, I don’t see any evidence that what-I-guess-we-can-go-ahead-and-call-indie-rock is less popular than it was 10 years ago. Were that the case, I wouldn’t expect bland mid-tempo indie-rock imitations with little glockenspiels and wooooah-oh choruses to be soundtracking so many commercials, or festivals like Coachella exhibiting such growth, etc.

As opposed to what, Lollapalooza in the 90s? Have you seen how much growth there has been in EDM festivals/clubs? T

I’m not sure what commercials prove about anything. Hip Hop and Country are very popular, but their popularity isn’t exactly reflected in commercials. And just because I vaguely like the music I hear in the background on TV, doesn’t mean I’m going to buy it.

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TM 05.07.14 at 7:57 pm

Ronan, I know America *plus* a few other countries (in particular Canada, Germany, Switzerland), which is far from representative of the diverse world we live in, I grant that, but it is more than knowing *only America*. Also, the point of citing specific examples e. g. from Europe is not to say that everybody should necessarily follow their example. The point is to show that there are other possibilities that parochial Americans are not even aware of. It just gets annoying to read over and over that institutions like theaters, concert halls, libraries, museums, universities MUST be the result of rich philanthropists because this is how it allegedly is in America – and even here it is a very selective view, most such institutions, whoever they are named after, wouldn’t survive without public funding.

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UserGoogol 05.07.14 at 8:05 pm

Random Lurker @ 106: I too would have a hard time thinking of 23 webcomics who have “made it,” but I think the main reason why that is because the field of webcomics is relatively diverse so a lot of the webcomic artists who have “made it” I don’t read. I can get to ten easily but I won’t bother dumping that list here. And without actively following a comic it can be hard to tell the difference between someone who is a full-time artist and someone who is just really devoted to giving their time over to the comic.

And at the denominator side of the ratio, if you look at the total of all webcomics out there, a lot of them are just teenagers who drew something, put it online and lost interest in the field. I guess in a strict sense that still counts, but it doesn’t show how hard it is to get into the industry. The webcomic industry is certainly not a particularly reliable way to make a living, but 99.9% failure might be overselling it.

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Kiwanda 05.07.14 at 9:28 pm

I don’t know if it would really help, but I would like to see a scheme that made it dead easy to make donations to musicians that I listen to. That is, one that takes my spotify/lastftm/pandora/etc data and allows me, with a button click, to donate $X per listen per track directly to the musicians who made that track, after some easy-to-do adjustment per track, or musician.

That is, a voluntary licensing fee scheme that is as easy as possible to use. Here I don’t know what the donation “X” is, but I’d hope that even payments that listeners would regard as negligible would add up to a living wage for music that is not super-popular.

The overhead of such a scheme is likely modest, and would deal with two obstacles to supporting the arts: laziness, and the concern that money is not going to the right place.

More broadly, such a scheme could increase support for blogs and webcomics as well as music, and I’d think other things.

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Phil 05.07.14 at 10:15 pm

This is probably terribly naive, but if you go from a situation in which 10,000 people are regularly charging an audience for their services to one in which 99,500 people are providing those same services free and 500 are charging, it strikes me that at least 9,500 people will have lost out. (‘At least’ because some of the 500 who make it under the new conditions will probably be amateurs who get to turn pro.) A musician friend used to duplicate cassettes and sell them at gigs; he could sell out an edition of 4,000 tapes of live weirdcore improvisation, no bother. He’s making CDs of beautiful melodic compositions now – seriously, it’s radio-friendly stuff – and struggling to sell a quarter of that. For myself I’ve never lived by my Art, but at one time I was making a living writing opinion & humour pieces for IT magazines; they’re all gone now, and if you want opinions you can find them anywhere. Stuff’s free, so nobody pays, so nobody makes a living – ask Gillian Welch. If I wanted to put up some arguments in favour of free culture, “it hasn’t actually changed anything” wouldn’t be my first choice.

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UserGoogol 05.07.14 at 11:28 pm

Random Lurker @ 106 and Me @118: Conveniently enough Wikipedia has a List of professional webcomic artists which lists artists who claim to make a living off their work, and it has over twenty-three entries.

And again, this certainly doesn’t mean webcomics are a particularly realistic way for most people to make a living. But considering that it’s sort of a niche medium to begin with, and considering how many people are perfectly happy staying amateur, and considering that the comic strip industry has kind of always been a bit iffy, the success rate seems decent enough.

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Consumatopia 05.08.14 at 12:21 am

@96, appreciate the correction re:Pandora. I guess I should have pointed to Spotify?

The reason I push back against piracy as the One True and Only Cause of Our Woe isn’t because I don’t think we should do more to stop piracy. I think the movement by industry groups away from absurdly huge lawsuits against arbitrarily chosen college kids and grandmothers to ISP warning letters and throttling is both more humane and more likely to be effective–a higher probability of a smaller punishment tends to be a better deterrent. My objection is that piracy is an incomplete diagnosis that misses the real problem. If we fix piracy and wait for everything to get better and it doesn’t, by the time we realize that it might be too late to do anything else.

To take an example, you’re probably right about social norms and file-swapping @19. But just looking at file-swapping alone, there are limits as to how far social norms can go. File-sharing is wrong. Driving on the wrong side of the road is wrong. Failing to comply with the ACA individual mandate is wrong. But none of these things are categorically wrong–they’re only wrong because we as a society laid down an arbitrary rule that we believe makes everyone better off, but reasonable people can disagree on whether that rule is actually a good one. The other side of the road might make just as much sense!

But if the problem is more than file-sharing, that opens a lot more potential responses. If YouTube and Spotify cannibalize sales, should we have social norms against those services? Or perhaps they’re only acceptable if they’re attached to the kind of scheme Kiwanda just mentioned? Should corporations be shamed for relying on open source software they legally use but aren’t paying for (e.g. OpenSSL AKA the Heartbleed bug)? Should everyone be ‘tithing’ towards the arts and sciences they rely on?

Henry has a good point about the “Hayekian” rhetoric of some in the Free Culture movement, but it seems like some of their foes have a “Randian” viewpoint–that as long as the state enforces property claims, including IP, then everything will work out just fine. I suspect that most of us here object to both views. To put it another way, I just read the sample of Taylor’s book on my Kindle, (I’ll get to the rest later…) and illegal copying seems to be only a part of the problems she’s describing.

I do not mean to deny the lived experience of you or your musician peers, but causality cannot be experienced, it must be inferred. I have no doubt that you would be doing at least somewhat better off were it not for illegal file-sharing. I just question how much better off. If there were more money in music, wouldn’t there be more musicians competing for it? Of course, the competition you face would not be so much from self-described amateurs as a continual influx of failed professionals, each peeling off a portion of attention and sales, insufficient to sustain themselves but enough to entice others to emulate them.

It could well be that a band could suffer from this even if the number of people attending their concerts stays flat or rises. The biggest fans, the ones who appreciate the band enough to seek out concerts, aren’t going to pay any attention to competition–so the band will see the same or bigger crowds on tour. But it wasn’t just the biggest fans buying the albums in the 90s or early 00s–there were plenty of people buying them because it was the best they could find. Now that there’s more out there–not just more new stuff, but the vast catalog of past works as well–they’ll start buying (or stealing) something else, but they were never the ones who were going to attend the band’s concerts anyway. It may be that there are more people illegally downloading the band’s songs than there were buying them pre-Internet, but that’s sort of inevitable when a price falls down to zero–it doesn’t mean that if you ended all the illegal copying you would still have as many people buying the albums as before (though we are in agreement that you would have more than you’re getting now.)

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bad Jim 05.08.14 at 5:49 am

Kevin Erickson, thanks for the link, but it doesn’t really answer the question of how musicians (or artists in general) actually support themselves. I have a perhaps ill-founded impression that a great many of them have day jobs.

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Ed Herdman 05.08.14 at 6:24 am

re: the 9500 who “lose out” -
Transmitting one’s own ideas (as the phrase “memes” suggests) is a kind of genetic boon. So, it sucks that the human condition is that you can’t eat ideas, but on the other hand there’s the comment by George Bernard Shaw about swapping apples (still one apple per person) and swapping ideas (same number of ideas, but now both people have two). There is some kind of real value in swapping ideas, and having one’s ideas survive, and I think it is akin to the value (though the emotional rewards and reflexes are far different!) of having one’s genes survive.

Neither genes or arbitrary ideas survive by themselves.

The wrinkle is that the ability to feed oneself has some kind of relationship with the ability to transfer one’s ideas. For every crowd-funded website propagating memes, there’s a bunch of corporate sites with safe branding. The individual can’t just arbitrarily choose what they’d like to see survive in this competitive culture, though there may be some more room for channel-selection and just general wiggling than we suspect.

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Martin Bento 05.08.14 at 9:26 am

Treating visual art as a stand-in for the arts in general in a discussion of the effects of money, as Cowen and Yglesias seem to be doing, makes no sense. Paintings and sculpture are collectible, which enables speculation. This changes the whole dynamic. The rich person who commissions Terry Riley to write something may get their name mentioned, but the one who buys something by Damien Hirst has a good chance to resell later at a profit. Rich people don’t think of themselves as fools, but they know one another and so are usually willing to bet on a bigger fool. The artists fueling this stand to get rich too, as the wealthy are competing with their money, but only a few of them. Speculators are not just buying what they like but they think other rich people will like in the future. This naturally leads to a superstar system, as everyone is trying to capture, but be one step ahead of, consensus taste (of their peers, not necessarily of the public). This is why Damien Hirst is rich, but Steve Reich and Derek Walcott are not.

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Martin Bento 05.08.14 at 9:38 am

As for the problem of piracy decimating recording sales as a source of income to musicians, let me quote from a comment I made here several years ago.

So much of the vital labor of our time is abstract, yet the market has to restrict distribution to commodify it (with physical goods, natural scarcity constricts distribution, and property rights control this). The product is not scarce, but the labor to produce it still has opportunity and sometimes capital costs. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that Capitalism cannot address this and socialize intellectual production, as we already do to a degree in the academy. Here’s what I propose as applied to music (haven’t thought through newspapers yet):

1. The tax authorities take a trivial amount, say $10 a taxpayer, in to support music. In the US, this would generate about 2.5 billion a year, enough to supply an average of $25,000 to 100,000 artists, for example.

2. Musicians who want to qualify have to register and release all recordings they want considered in freely-copiable form.

3. Taxpayers get to go to a website and allocate their ten dollars. This preserves the market’s ability to conform to taste and reward popularity.

4. Taxpayers who don’t care and don’t allocate get their money put into a fund for “elitist” art: the sort of experimental or classical work that may not attract a huge audience but which society finds worth supporting. No one is compelled to support this stuff, as they could always direct their funds elsewhere.

5. Taxpayers who object could release a recording and allocate the money to themselves. They must actually make a farting noise record or whatever, and direct money to it. Hence, the system is voluntary, not compulsory, but those who opt out have to be public cheapskates.

So, no one is forced to support it, but most will. Artists can get rewarded directly according to their public support. The “cultural elite” can also fund projects that lack popular support, but no one is compelled to pay for this. And the whole program is, strictly speaking, voluntary.

Since I wrote that, Kickstarter has emerged with a purely voluntary model, and a surprising level of success with it. That would be more anarchist than socialist.

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Francis Spufford 05.08.14 at 10:21 am

Throwing in my pennyworth as a producer of mid-list books. I welcome what I take to be Taylor’s emphasis, as reported by Henry, on institutions and the specific decisions they make and powers they take. In the case of books, there has been a phenomenonal downward pressure on writers’ incomes exerted by Amazon alone, thanks to their ability to use their dominant market position to enforce a corporate decision that books should be cheaper, not because Jeff Bezos has an altruistic desire to reduce the cost of culture to the people, but because he welcomes the crushing effect permanently lowered prices have on the viability of all other cultural intermediaries, gatekeepers, distributors. Damaging publishers is a feature, not a bug. In no meaningful sense are Amazon prices ‘market prices’. They are internally planned. Amazon is a price maker, not a price taker. The efficiencies of Amazon’s reach and system probably do increase my sales a bit, but the market for freaky self-willed prose objects such as I like to construct is not terribly elastic, so the principal consequence of Amazon’s dominance is that I get paid less for the same number of sales. Thanks, Jeff.

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Francis Spufford 05.08.14 at 10:28 am

‘Phenomenal’, dammit, not ‘phenomenonal’. Or phenomenononal.

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Metatone 05.08.14 at 10:36 am

I think Francis Spufford points us to something very important.

Many arguments about the effects of internet and other technologies implicitly look forward to a future state where “curation/distribution” is as badly paid as “creation” and yet similarly juiced with improved technological effectiveness. However, at this historical moment, it’s just not the case – we’re handing distributors a lot of power – and some of the abuse isn’t even intended.

Amazon’s search function/website is really great if you know the title or author. It’s really not very good if you don’t. The recommendation engine is subjectively not very good, and objectively tilted towards the top end of the power law distribution – the short head…

And all that is before you get to the price-making.

In less-constrained media – like Youtube, search has broken down completely. Virality still exists, but more and more the “hits” come from cross-promotion – and that cross-promotion costs money…

130

Alex 05.08.14 at 10:44 am

Martin: that’s Dean Baker’s “Artistic Freedom Fund” proposal, although I think the bit where any unallocated money goes to a special elitist weirdo fund is original.

131

Phil 05.08.14 at 11:00 am

Ed Herdman:

There is some kind of real value in swapping ideas, and having one’s ideas survive

I’m much less interested in ideas than I am in craft. 10,000 people scraping a living from playing in bands (or writing newspaper columns, or writing mid-list books) are 10,000 people who can devote their whole working week to getting good at it. (Publishers used to pay first- and second-time novelists advances they knew they wouldn’t get back, because it would keep the writer going until they wrote something that would sell. Look at Jonathan Coe’s back catalogue, to name but one.) Out of 50,000 people doing these things in evenings and weekends, how many are going to have the dedication, the energy and the lack of other commitments to put in the same number of hours?

132

J Thomas 05.08.14 at 12:46 pm

This is probably terribly naive, but if you go from a situation in which 10,000 people are regularly charging an audience for their services to one in which 99,500 people are providing those same services free and 500 are charging, it strikes me that at least 9,500 people will have lost out.

Yes, it was in theory considerably easier for prostitutes when respectable women refused to do premarital sex.

Any service that people will do for each other for free tends to restrict professions that provide that service for pay. Just the other day I was on the road and needed to change lanes, and somebody just let me come in in front of him, for free. If we arranged a method of payment for that, and nobody does it but the professionals who are on the road to provide that service, those guys get a chance to make a living. But if people went on doing it for free then the professionals couldn’t get by.

I dunno. It’s hard to tell. If 10,000 people can make a living at it, that’s 10,000 people who migh try to get really good. If 100,000 do it for free, most of them can’t take the time to get that good. And how do you choose the rare good free ones from the ones who’re just worth the admission cost? Meanwhile you only have 500 who can afford to spend their lives doing nothing else.

Well, but rich people can spend the time to get really good at music, if they want to. That’s one argument for having rich people. But then, they’re likely to be amateurs since they don’t need to make a living off music, and how do you find them among the horde of mediocre free players?

But then, if we didn’t get exposed to music played really really well, we’d enjoy pretty-good music and think it was great. Maybe what makes great musicians great is public opinion, or great marketing. Maybe the difference between them and the showman who spends years learning to walk on broken glass and pound nails into his nose is that through subtle manipulation or sheer accident they have fallen in with a trend, a whole lot of people like stuff because a whole lot of others do….

Well, but there’s no question that the best-selling musicians in the world so far are the Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin. And all of these became great musicians first and then became popular, they weren’t picked for some other quality and then learned to be the greatest musicians later. So that tends to refute the idea that people are manipulated into liking at few great musicians rather than just appreciating their greatness independent of everything else. Right?

To some extent more artists can survive when the field is broken down into small niches. People who want Irish music will fund at least a few people who play Irish music, not just Madonna.

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novakant 05.08.14 at 1:04 pm

#126

Nothing against taxes funding the arts but your model is horribly complicated and Spotify / Pandora are already functioning along similar lines – with room for improvement of course and the monopoly is worrying, but piracy has gone down as streaming has gone up. I hope it’s only a matter of time until paid legal services will take over and piracy will be regarded as odious rather than hip.

There are great possibilities out there e.g: http://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en

134

Collin Street 05.08.14 at 1:26 pm

Perhaps we could fund art through some sort of employment-based voucher system, where workers got chits that they could exchange for cultural products of their preference, and the cultural producers could trade them onwards or cash them in against government obligations, say.

[but seriously, while this system does have a few reasonably obvious problems, the direct linkage 0f consumption-of-culture to funding-of-culture means we can cut out a fairly hefty bureaucracy, or at least cut it down to some top-up payments for a much narrower selection of artists. Wasn't there a book about this effect, or something?]

135

Trader Joe 05.08.14 at 1:27 pm

@125 Bento and @127 Spurford
Bringing together these two comments – it seems part of the problem is that filesharing and Amazon et al has “taught” people that miniscule amounts – say $1 is the “right” price to pay for literature or music or at least that’s the right price to pay if you’re willing to pay at all (many seem happy with ‘free’).

Just a week or so ago we had +50 posts of outrage that L&W had plans to take down the works of Marx and Engels from a website, enforce their copyright and try to monetize it….the point is the same, once people get used to ‘free’ as the right price for intellectual work, art, music whatever, its a race to the bottom as to who is willing and able to provide their work at that price.

Its nice to suggest that maybe the public should support all of this activity through guaranteed incomes or any other such mechanism. On the other hand, if consumers of art were willing to pay a fair value for good work the same objective would be accomplished. I don’t see either as likely to occur any time soon, so the proverbial ‘starving artists’ will continue to be with us despite a collective view that art and culture are something good which should be widely available and encouraged.

136

Consumatopia 05.08.14 at 1:36 pm

@133, it’s hard for me to imagine that, for example, software piracy could ever be considered odious. Maybe video game piracy, but does anyone really expect us to morally condemn everyone in the world running an illegal copy of Microsoft Windows? Does this odiousness extend to patents as well–if another country ignores our patents laws to produce cheap drugs, am I supposed to think less of them for that?

I have no data, but I strongly suspect that there is a lot of music and art out there that’s created with the help of stolen software. And I don’t really have a problem with that. There is a moral difference between saying that people who can’t pay for entertainment shouldn’t have it, and making the same claim about knowledge or software tools. There’s also a difference between whether our objection to the new state of affairs is “hey! you’re stealing my property!” or “hey! you’re exploiting my labor!”. Music and software piracy are morally equivalent according to the first objection, but not the second.

These arguments spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the music industry, but I don’t think the moral intuitions one gets looking at music can be safely translated into other kinds of IP. Take Phil’s “I’m much less interested in ideas than I am in craft.” If we’re looking at just music, that’s a pretty understandable point of view–it’s probably one I would share. But if I’m looking at, say, non-fiction writing, then I not only disagree with it I find it morally offensive–it’s basically saying that people who aren’t getting paid to write should shut up.

137

novakant 05.08.14 at 2:05 pm

it’s hard for me to imagine that, for example, software piracy could ever be considered odious.

Why? Are software developers supposed to work for free?

At the end of the day someone has to pay people to do stuff – it’s quite simple really.

138

Consumatopia 05.08.14 at 2:27 pm

Are software developers supposed to work for free?

Should people who are poorer than software developers be deprived of software tools and textbooks that would let them compete with richer people? Should they also be deprived of medicine that would save their lives?

At the end of the day someone has to pay people to do stuff – it’s quite simple really.

Find some way to do that that doesn’t involve imposing artificial scarcity on desperate people, or fuck off.

139

Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 05.08.14 at 3:29 pm

Consumatopia,

Does your argument apply to art? Writing? Other things poor people might need?

140

Henry 05.08.14 at 4:01 pm

Consumatopia – calm down please, and start treating your interlocutors with a bit more respect.

141

Consumatopia 05.08.14 at 4:02 pm

Since my argument is that different kinds of intellectual property should be considered differently depending on the context, I guess the answer is “yes”, but probably not in the way that you’re thinking.

142

Consumatopia 05.08.14 at 4:02 pm

You’re right, I’m totally out of line. Sorry.

143

Kevin Erickson 05.08.14 at 4:11 pm

Consumatopia @122 Spotify’s closer to a marketplace, but it’s a heavily distorted one. The terms of the marketplace are basically set by the majors, who’ve set up a pricing scheme that works for them and the superstar scale and 360 deals they choose to operate with, but which makes things more challenging for artists/labels operating at more of a humane scale. This is a very different problem than if the downward pressure on pricing was fundamentally a result of a flood of new market entrants who don’t care about getting paid.

I agree that piracy isn’t the only problem, and I sort of regret that I’ve spent so much time in this thread on it because Taylor’s book goes so many other more interesting places. I think people focus in on it not because of a naive belief that if the government swoops in and enforces copyright better, artists’ problems would disappear, but because much of the left-leaning side of the conversation of the last 15 years has been stubbornly and insularly disconnected from reality on that particular point. It’s hard to have a serious conversation about the music industry without a baseline agreement that the problems created by piracy aren’t imaginary, aren’t simple to fix, and aren’t only hurting “the bad guys”. (And one of those impacts is race-to-the-bottom pricing to “compete with free”: Spotify’s main selling point for artists has been “even if the rates suck, it’s better than piracy.” Which is a debatable proposition, though it’s certainly better for Goldman Sachs!)

(Side note: one of the ways you can tell CT readers are smart: in the comments section of any other website, someone would have immediately brought up Radiohead’s pay-what-you-can experiment from seven years ago as “the obvious solution.” Wish I was exaggerating.)

But yes, there are other problems too, including: ownership consolidation (in the recorded music sector, the music retail sector, the telecom sector, and the broadcasting sector), weak state support for the arts (and what state support there is frequently mistargeted), etc., and part of the problem with the way people talk about the internet is that it allows us to imagine that these problems have magically been bypassed.

Agreed as well that music is often a poor analog for other IP issues. The one insight of Evgeny’s that’s stayed with me is that “the internet” bundles a bunch of technologies and concepts together in a way that doesn’t always encourage analytical clarity. The same is probably true of “intellectual property.” The dynamics associated with music copyrights are often very different (ethically, structurally, technically, and often legally) from other IP issues like access to academic research, prescription drugs, biotechnology patents. Collapsing it all into one category impedes understanding.

144

TM 05.08.14 at 4:12 pm

The debate about how the internet affects the ability of artists to make a living has relevance on a different question nobody has mentioned so far: the decoupling of economic growth from physical resource use. Why? The promise of decoupling (aka “green growth”) in a nutshell is that the economy can continue growing, with all the benevolent effects this growth supposedly has, if we just spend more of our money on “immaterial” goods and services and less of it on the material stuff – cars, appliances and so on. Art and music should be prime candidates for the kind of economic activity we should want to see more. Despite the fact that even art-making requires physical resources and infrastructure, it is true that some of its products can be multiplied and enjoyed by many people with minimal environmental effects – e-books, music download etc.

The reality is that the internet makes the sharing of information, ideas, news, texts, comics, music, pictures, videos … easy and cheap and we do share and enjoy these artifacts to an unprecedented extent but there doesn’t seem to be an increase in the amount of funding that goes to the producers. The internet simply has made so much stuff available for free or almost that in economic terms it has been devalued. The free stuff still contributes to our enjoyment and maybe makes our lives better than they would otherwise be (I don’t know whether that is true on balance, it’s hard to quantify). But for the “green growth” argument, that doesn’t count. It’s not economic growth if it doesn’t contribute to GDP. I think this observation, if I am correct about it, is an important insight. There simply is no evidence that non-material economic growth is or will ever be possible. Herman Daly was right all along that we need to think in terms of human and social development instead of growth. We cannot hope for the invisible hand of the market to allocate more economic resources to cultural endeavors (“knowledge economy” and “experience economy”). It’s not gonna happen. To make it happen, we need mechanisms like minimum income and direct public funding and we need to abandon the growth fetish.

145

clew 05.08.14 at 8:08 pm

TM — Well, my looney fix-everything plan is to provide a minimum income based on annual supportable use of scarce environmental resources (basically energy, land and water). Can you live on less than your share? Trade the excess for lighter-weight pleasures. Want to get rich? figure out how to make good stuff with scarce material goods. (Is there actually enough for everyone to live on right now? How do we handle population growth, especially between countries? Enforceable without Skynet? It is more of a SF novel than a political plan.)

146

Cian 05.08.14 at 9:03 pm

#143 Kevin,
My position on piracy isn’t so much that it isn’t a problem, and more that I really haven’t seen the evidence to suggest it is _the_ problem. I mean people have been pirating music since at least the mid 80s, particularly teenagers. In my experience the people who pirated a lot of music pre-internet tended to be the ones who bought a lot of it because they were fairly obsessive (and this would include loads of musicians incidentally. I’ve been given tapes and CD-Rs by plenty of professional musicians because they thought I might like it). Did the musicians lose out. Perhaps, but copies were often used as a low cost way to either share your tastes with others, or as an easy way to explore new areas you weren’t sure about. Plus people like sharing their enthusiasms, right?

Similarly online piracy is a lot more complex phenomenon than people allow for. There are loads of people with huge collections that they probably never listen to (I’m sure we’ve all met at least one), where there’s almost a mania to have it just in case. There were people downloading stuff out of curiosity, or to explore whole genres that nobody could ever afford to buy, or just to try stuff. Is that a small minority, a large minority or a majority? I have no idea, and the reality is nobody really knows. You can make good guesses about some of it. People probably download hit albums, or movies, because they don’t want to pay for it (though that stuff has always been pirated).

Yes music sales have declined, and yes piracy may have contributed to that, but nobody has a good model for what that contribution is. But decline was inevitable given:
+ An aging population
+ The shift from CDs to individual MP3s
+ The rise of alternative media (principally video games)
+ Economic pressures on incomes (disposable income matters, right)
+ Cultural shifts. Music seems to be less central to teenager/student identity than it once was.

Now we have a new problem, which I acknowledge, which is that Spotify is for most people simply a better model. It’s more convenient (I listen to music on Spotify that I own simply because it’s more accessible), makes it easy to explore new music and to be honest is better value as I simply don’t want to listen to most albums more than a couple of times. Unfortunately for most musicians this means that revenue streams are declining and they now have to deal with a monopoly. This sucks, but it isn’t going to go away. So the problem is how to deal with this sanely. Some musicians will simply refuse to license their music, which is fine, but I (and many others) probably won’t bother listening to them as a result. Not necessarily because of the money, but simply accessibility. Easy always trumps difficult. Always. I hope there are alternatives.

However I think this speaks to what Phil was talking about. This is all neoliberalism, right? Musicians and artists are not alone in this. Hell, it’s becoming harder to make a living as a computer programmer, or a lawyer. Problems of consolidation and power are universal. Weak state support are universal. The problem isn’t one of technology, that’s solvable, it’s the age old problem of power and money.

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Consumatopia 05.08.14 at 10:03 pm

I’ve embarrassed myself enough in this thread, but I do want to admit that Kevin Erickson and Francis Spufford have convinced me that I underestimated the path-dependence of our current situation. The prices that we end up with aren’t somehow natural or inevitable like I assumed in my first post, but have a lot to do with the bargaining power of various large firms, and piracy has a lot to do with the story of which firms became large.

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engels 05.08.14 at 11:46 pm

I strongly suspect that there is a lot of music and art out there that’s created with the help of stolen software.

There’s a good chance some of its already on your PC.

149

engels 05.09.14 at 2:52 am

Driving on the wrong side of the road is wrong. … But … only wrong because we as a society laid down an arbitrary rule that we believe makes everyone better off

I’m not sure that’s a good example. Or do you want to argue that society could have equally reasonably decreed that driving on the wrong side is right?

150

bad Jim 05.09.14 at 6:28 am

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do.

Sorry, but lately when I go to the beach I find myself watching terns.

They plunge dive the way pelicans do, which I find entrancing, heart-stopping, but unlike pelicans they vocalize all the time, and you seldom find them by themselves. When I see one I always look for its mate, since one good tern…

151

Phil 05.09.14 at 8:11 am

Cian – the problem isn’t one of technology, but it is a problem which was created, in its current form, by a particular set of technological advances. I’m not sure why so many people find this so hard to say – the idea that new technology might bring far-reaching benefits is fairly uncontroversial, as is the idea that far-reaching changes generally have bad as well as good effects.

Agreed that it’s ultimately all about power, though – specifically, the power to put a price on the products of someone else’s labour. For as long as there are fixed costs of production, duplication and distribution to recoup, there’s a floor below which the retail price isn’t going to go, and the creators can – at least sometimes – nudge it up a bit to get their share, and create a business culture in which it’s normal for the creators to get their share (this is a local & contingent achievement, as the achievements of labour often are). If initial production’s cheap & duplication and distribution are basically free, the retail price can go as low as the seller wants to put it, and the creator’s margin… what’s that?

See also: MOOCs.

152

Martin Bento 05.09.14 at 8:12 am

Francis, so in the Amazon/Apple fight, are you with Apple? I am, save for the collusion issue. Basically, the Apple position is that generators of content (authors, publishers) should be able to set prices, and Amazon’s is that retailers should. It looks like the law is with Amazon, but if so, might as well give them the monopoly now. With no marginal cost of production, the biggest volume seller will be able to discount everyone else into oblivion. The irony that Apple sets prices on iTunes, but also controls retail prices of its own products, should be lost on no one, but I am with them on this one. In fact, I was considering an ebook publishing venture of my own, but realized that without creator pricing, I would get killed.

This is where I part company with Cory Doctorow, who seems to think “ownership” of digital items should be like “ownership” of physical ones, and therefore adamantly opposes DRM. In the early days of DRM, it created unnecessary problems like making it difficult to back up your material or transfer it to a new device, and these created legitimate objections, but I think those problems are now pretty much solved. Much is made of the fact that if I “own” a physical book, I can resell it, at whatever price I like, or loan it, so why not an ebook? Of course, if I leave a physical book on the bus, it is gone, but if I accidentally delete a book from my tablet, I can download it again. It is just not the same thing.

153

Astra Taylor 05.09.14 at 10:32 am

First, tremendous thanks to Henry for the generous reading and smart reflections. I’m a longtime fan of Crooked Timber, so this is exciting. I’m also sorry to have not weighed in already, but I’m traveling, seriously jetlagged, and have barely been able to skim all these (very smart) comments.

Clay, it’s extremely nice to see you here, thanks for your thoughts. You do get a bit of a drubbing in the book but nothing I’m sure you can’t handle. I hope you find time to read it, as it engages with your work in various ways. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts.

Though Henry has done an excellent job of communicating the book’s character, I do want to underscore that it is not just about the arts or fine art nor is it specifically about the “plight of mid-list creators.” Rather the book looks at our changing media landscape and asks if, on the whole, it is as democratized as Internet optimists claim. My answer is no, but my real aim is to point readers toward some possible paths we might take to make good on the Internet’s tremendous potential and to foster a more deeply democratic culture. Not to spoil the ending, but in a nutshell I argue we can’t expect a combination of technology and free markets to do this for us (duh). Unlike many eminent tech writers, I see the market as the source of many of our problems (instead of vague condemnations of the “old” ways of doing things) while also envisioning a positive role for the state and recognizing the need for public subsidy.

And, to be clear, I argue that the erosion of the middle/mid-list has implications for our culture that go beyond issues of taste. I think this is really about democracy and the erosion/commercial corruption of our public sphere.

Kevin Erickson@75 brings up some essential points.

As Kevin rightly insists, there are no clear “old” and “new” models. As I say in the book’s introduction, continuity is as essential to the story as change, but less emphasized by tech commentators. The old “dinosaurs” — the big three record labels, Disney, Comcast, you name it — have not become extinct but are adapting, and quite well. Many of the problems that plagued the “old” media system have carried over into the digital domain—consolidation, centralization, and commercialism—and will continue to shape it. The “new” model, if it exists, is evolving in predictable ways. Look at net neutrality and the impending threat of two-tier broadband service (an Internet for the 1%), or the way Facebook is increasingly pay-to-promote. Look at how consolidated the digital sphere has become in a relatively short span of time or the pervasiveness and invasiveness of advertising, from sponsored-content to data tracking/mining. In countless ways, money distorts the online cultural playing field and this will only intensify over time unless we collectively figure out ways to put on the breaks. Thus I think the picture Clay paints is over-simplified. Amateurs are not competing on an even playing field, or a playing field where the old guard has been obliterated.

(Related to this, I don’t really follow Clay’s comment @26 about Amazon. Surely we can support the idea of a publishing platform that allows all manner of writers to distribute their work at low or no cost while also being critical of Amazon’s cutthroat business practices—recall the so-called “Gazelle Project,” in which small publishers were the gazelles and Amazon the cheetah—while also being aware that they prominently feature and promote big players who pay up and that they have incentives to elevate Amazon-produced material).

Kevin also hits the nail on the head with this:
“My sense is that competition from “amateurs” is generally a red herring rather than an serious factor. This seems fairly clear when you examine actual data on listenership. When you talk to an indie artist who ten years ago had about the same size fanbase he has today but who now struggles because of the loss of recorded music income, he certainly doesn’t mention “amateurs” as a factor.”

Clay traces the problems Henry summarizes to the increased “visibility” of amateurs allowed by new technologies. Like Kevin, I think Clay’s framing is misleading. This isn’t a pure supply and demand problem. Clay writes “I think that more people making and showing things to other people is per se good, whatever it’s effect on the market for cultural production.” Of course I think more people making and showing things is good too. I know that other tech critics have disagreed on this point (Keen called amateurs monkeys with typewrites, Lanier writes dismissively about the hivemind) – but I do not share their perspective and am in fact quite critical of them. I think the whole framework of amateurs vs. professional is a distraction from the bigger political economic picture. In any case, critiquing aspects of the digital economy is not the same thing as being anti-amateur. Likewise, pointing out worrying trends does not preclude one from recognizing positive attributes of new technologies or acknowledging the ways some things have improved for creators thanks to the Internet (which I love). My book is not nostalgic for some lost glory days because I am not nostalgic.

I also, of course, completely agree people will produce art and culture for nothing—that’s what human beings do!—and I acknowledge as much. But I also think that pointing out that there are some forms of cultural production that require financial support does not negate the fact of our creative natures.

And finally, at least for this already too-long-comment, I do not agree that buttressing the “missing middle” of cultural production would necessarily require “reducing the freedom of amateurs and audiences to find one another.” I see investing in institutions as a necessary counterbalance to a world where more content is going to be produced by the big tech giants (Amazon, Google, Yahoo and more are all getting into content production) and public relations specialists/marketers who are more empowered than ever. We could, as a society, make the choice to invest in robust publicly subsidized non-commercial journalism, meaning there could, hypothetically, be plenty of paid journalists in towns and cities across the country, without squelching the rights of amateurs to express their opinions online. I don’t see it as a zero sum game and in fact I think amateurs—citizens, all of us—would be better off.

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engels 05.09.14 at 10:39 am

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do.

Only if they are 60 degs or greater…

since one good tern…

…deserves an otter?

155

roy belmont 05.09.14 at 7:32 pm

The unquestioning acceptance of music as entertainment commodity, pure and simple start to finish, undergirds this entire discussion.
Something you make that someone else either wants or doesn’t. No different ultimately from shoes or purses.
That’s a completely bogus condition and it’s unraveling, even as the major beneficiaries of that commodification keep the central question off the table.
What is music in our lives?
The default is it’s a luxury, an entertainment, something to amuse, background noise for the real things we do.
A commodity.
Yet every significant cultural moment, except birth itself, has a soundtrack. Because music is a spiritual artifact, not an amusement
Music is not a commodity, it has been commodified.
Just as human beings are not commodities but have been commodified.
Until quite recently that was a consensus accepted thing, and it’s still happening in some of the darker corners of the world. Most of the discussers here strenuously object to that, rightly enough.
But since for all our lives our access to music has been entirely through the channels of commodity, it’s hard to see it any other way. Even though that state of affairs is less than a hundred years old.
That attitude, of commodity and subsequent market control, has led directly to oligarchical dominance, a topic that has, in a larger social context, some serious weight at the moment.
We can all see the changes coming, but it’s the kids who are living them, and they’re struggling to get out from under that dominance.

This guy is 17, and popular:

I won’t compromise
I won’t live a life
On my knees
You
Think
I am nothing
I am nothing
You’ve
Got
Something coming
Something coming
Because

I hear God’s whisper
Calling my name

It’s in the wind
I am the savior
(Bring it again!)

Raury God’s Whisper
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPt0LkdM8Bc

TECH N9NE’s Straight Out The Gate’s is moving it that direction too.
I’s not peripheral, it’s at the heart of things. Back to the real place of music in our lives, central, spiritual, confirming.

156

The Temporary Name 05.09.14 at 8:16 pm

Yet every significant cultural moment, except birth itself, has a soundtrack.

I have, in amongst all the mp3’s of people yelling or crooning or swearing, about a minute of my daughter’s heartbeat recorded in the womb. It’s a wonderful thing to listen to when it pops up.

157

The Temporary Name 05.09.14 at 8:20 pm

Oh, and thanks to Astra for following up.

158

roy belmont 05.09.14 at 9:38 pm

156:
Yeah I thought of stuff like that, and that people are no doubt soundtracking the delivery room now, but decided it was mostly a California-ish newagey thing. Also very recent. And not at all relevant to the point.
The point was really obvious, I thought. Major important celebrations and transitional moments are all traditionally marked with integral music – birthdays, weddings, funerals, graduations, inaugurations, anthems…
Anything that ubiquitous isn’t a marginal component.
It’s central, and it isn’t a commodity.
Otoh women’s bodies, especially their breasts, are commodified, children’s faces and voices are commodified, water, shelter – and stripped of its obfuscation, in many parts of the world, life itself has been reduced to part of a financial transaction.
So music is too. And having nice breasts or a cute voice is still marketable.
But in the same way that most of those commodifications are obscene and anti-human, the commodification of music, its reduction to snack-value, is obscene.
We’re just used to it.
The way we’re used to greedheads selling water back to people they swindled it out of.

It’s sad that people with talent who thought they had a shot at economic survival through that talent are now being disappointed, but it’s not that sad.
Not in light of the collapse of the greed system, the end of a time when everything possible was reduced to a marketable thing.
That collapse is healthy and good, and long overdue.

159

Kevin Erickson 05.10.14 at 5:06 am

One of the points the book makes is that anyone who thinks “the greed system” has collapsed or is collapsing is not paying very close attention.

160

roy belmont 05.10.14 at 5:38 am

All four wheels are through the guardrail, but the vehicle’s still airborne, sure.
So no wreckage. So no provable-in-court collapse.
I’m not unaware that most of the infrastructure’s still intact. Just like the American economy’s still more or less intact.
But if you’re paying “very close attention” you can’t possibly see that lasting much longer.
Wishing will not make it so. And ignorance of reality is no excuse.
There is no longer the slightest possibility of this “greed system” – a better term would be metastasizing selfishness – maintaining anything of its present state. Not even a scaled-down semblance of it.

The wet-dream of the swine at the top is not anything like continued status quo ante, now it’s the defended compound, the drones and the robot armies cleaning up a dystopic mess of starving losers etc etc.
That’s a delusion.
The pig vision is over.
It’s all and only about how we hit. How resilient the kids are, afterward.

I’m not suggesting the imminent demise of human greed, that will require a more conscious active effort than the horrified passive helplessness most of us who are paying “very close attention” now have as default.

Again, I’m sympathetic to broken dreams, I have a few myself.
But any dream that required fitting in to the larger-scale inhuman fantasies of what’s been running things until now wasn’t worth it anyway.

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Martin Bento 05.12.14 at 12:43 pm

Astra, thanks for chiming in. Although I think this comment:

“Clay…it’s nothing I’m sure you can’t handle”

so you’re not *sure* he can’t handle it, but you kind of think maybe he can’t? You’re nicer than that, aren’t you? I think you meant “I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t handle” or “it’s nothing, I’m sure, that you can’t handle”

On more substantive matters.

Novakant, as Kevin and Astra point out, Spotify (and Pandora, Rhapsody, Rdio, et al.) are not really making that much money for artists, so it is not a solution to the problem I was aiming at, at least not yet. But let’s see what a Spotify type solution would look like. I’ll focus on Spotify, because it’s one I use, so I know more about it than some of the others.

According to Spotify’s website, they pay 70% of their revenue to rights holders (artists or labels), yet a stream (instance of a track being played) produces less than a 10th of a cent in such revenue. Why? Well, the bulk of their audience is advertiser-supported (i.e., free), and per-hit advertising revenue on the Internet sucks. Spotify says they need to provide a free service because they are competing with and trying to wean their users from piracy. I find it hard to argue with that. They also say they want over time to move their users to the paid model, also easy to believe as it is clearly in their interest, as well as that of the artists.

If Spotify did transition its users to paid access, could it provide a decent income to mid-level artists? Let’s play with some numbers. Spotify costs $10 a month. If a user plays 2000 tracks a month – and I suspect this is above average, as it is about 130 hours of listening – that’s half a cent per stream. 70% of that is about 5 times what Spotify is paying now. If you have 20,000 fans playing your songs 20 times a week on average – that’s about $1400 a week. For the label, if you are signed, and you get a percentage of that. Still, depending on the size of your band, your arrangement with your label, other expenses, that might be getting viable. And Spotify is internationalizing as quickly as they can, so you have the whole world to draw on to get your 20,000.

So it does sound like something that can work, but it requires people to decide that commercials are annoying enough to pay to avoid, but not so annoying to just go back to piracy. It’s not clear that this sweet spot exists for most folks.

So what if we try to do essentially the same thing on a non-profit or musicians co-op basis?

The fundamental problem Spotify et. al., as well as the record labels, face is that they are asking people to make a moral choice to their benefit while they themselves are for-profit corporations, which are fundamentally amoral entities. It is hard to be guilted into anything by an FPC. A non-profit musician’s cooperative has a much better chance here. After all, the fair trade movement has done surprisingly well, and people don’t feel personally invested in who grows their coffee as they usually do in who makes their music.

OTOH, one advantage an FPC has is that it traditionally can do much better at raising capital – necessary in a field where losing money for several years is a given. Crowdfunding may change this calculus. A lot of it will be artists appealing directly to their fans.

An overall objective, whether the operation is for-profit or not, should be generating a body of work that stays substantially outside the mp3verse. Suppose you make some of your music available only through apps running on iOS, Android, and perhaps some others. To get this particular music, fans would have to use an app; it would not be available on CD or iTunes. On this particular front, the majors have a disadvantage, since they deeply leverage back catalog material, all of which, save real rarities, is well-established in the mp3verse. Only new work has a possibility of staying outside the mp3verse (or newly released, but there probably is not much of that with mass appeal). Whether it will ultimately be possible to keep work from the mp3verse is an open question. Android and iOS have DRM support built in, and both have suffered some defeats. It’s an arms race. However, if the only legitimate venue for a recording is some form of streamed media (whether with one provider or several), then any mp3’s that exist can be presumed pirated. One can bring pressure on ISPs and such much more easily without the ambiguity that people may just be backing up their own CDs.

This, of course, is not ideal either. It means giving up on the CD – if you print it to CD, it could end up as mp3, and, since this can be legitimate and legal in some circumstances, attempts to prevent or sanction it have to look at the specifics of each case, which is deadly to efficient enforcement. It also locks people to streaming media (which can also include downloaded files, of course, but played through an app), which opens the door to all the very legitimate privacy concerns people have. That is another reason to use a musician’s coop people will trust, backed by enforceable guarantees that prevent that trust from simply being monetized through its violation (see Investment Rating Agencies).

But the most serious problem is that what struggling musicians need most is exposure and keeping the music in walled gardens limits this. People will have to navigate this tradeoff. For example, a few songs could be made widely, perhaps even freely, available to try to attract interest in the others. The coop could have a free and paid version as Spotify and others do. The free version, however, would not have full functionality – not all tracks available, and radio format rather than on demand. This is to function as radio traditionally has from the artist standpoint: as a loss leader to attract an audience. One way to compete with Spotify here is to let it be a pure loss: no advertising. It brings in almost no money anyway. It also helps that a huge number of artists can be aggregated into the same service, as at Spotify and others, and paying for the sake of some provides access to all. This means that the marginal cost of any new track or artist to you is still zero. You just have to be dragged across the threshold of paying something.

In any case, I could develop this further, but I don’t even know if anyone is paying attention to this thread anymore, so I’ll set it aside for now.

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roy belmont 05.12.14 at 6:25 pm

Oh I’ll bet someone’s paying attention, Martin.

Bob Dylan:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death

I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain
Whose heaven is like Ironsides
Whose tears are like rain
Who eats but is not satisfied
Who hears but does not see
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass

Bob Dylan I Pity The Poor Immigrant

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Martin Bento 05.12.14 at 10:00 pm

Well, yes, Those Who Are Always Listening are no doubt listening now. Hopefully, someone (besides you) interesting is listening as well.

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roy belmont 05.13.14 at 7:13 am

Martin Bento your parentheses made my evening.

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