Sunday, August 23, 2015

Artists in the Digital Age

Steven Johnson takes a look at the economics of art in the digital age, which many people predicted would lead to an artistic apocalypse. He starts with the incomes of artists:
The closest data set we have to a bird’s-eye view of the culture industry can be found in the Occupational Employment Statistics, an enormous compendium of data assembled by the Labor Department that provides employment and income estimates. Broken down by general sector and by specific professions, the O.E.S. lets you see both the forest and the trees: You can track employment data for the Farming, Fishing and Forestry Occupations (Group 45-0000), or you can zoom in all the way to the Fallers (Group 45-4021) who are actually cutting down the trees. The best approximation of the creative-class group as a whole is Group 27-0000, or Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media Occupations. It’s a broader definition than we’re looking for — I think we can all agree that professional athletes are doing just fine, thank you very much — but it gives us a place to start.

The first thing that jumps out at you, looking at Group 27-0000, is how stable it has been over the past decade and a half. In 1999, the national economy supported 1.5 million jobs in that category; by 2014, the number had grown to nearly 1.8 million. This means the creative class modestly outperformed the rest of the economy, making up 1.2 percent of the job market in 2001 compared with 1.3 percent in 2014. Annual income for Group 27-0000 grew by 40 percent, slightly more than the O.E.S. average of 38 percent. . . .
OES data doesn't track self-employed people, so for that you have to use a different statistical set, the Economic Census:
If anything, the numbers from the self-­employed world are even more promising. From 2002 to 2012, the number of businesses that identify as or employ ‘‘independent artists, writers and performers’’ (which also includes some athletes) grew by almost 40 percent, while the total revenue generated by this group grew by 60 percent, far exceeding the rate of inflation.
So far as we can tell from the employment and income statistics, artists are doing ok. Johnson's overall conclusion:
Why have the more pessimistic predictions not come to pass? One incontrovertible reason is that — contrary to the justifiable fears of a decade ago — people will still pay for creative works. The Napsterization of culture turned out to be less of a threat to prices than it initially appeared. Consumers spend less for recorded music, but more for live. Most American households pay for television content, a revenue stream that for all practical purposes didn’t exist 40 years ago. Average movie-­ticket prices continue to rise. For interesting reasons, book piracy hasn’t taken off the way it did with music. And a whole new creative industry — video games — has arisen to become as lucrative as Hollywood. American households in 2013 spent 4.9 percent of their income on entertainment, the exact same percentage they spent in 2000.
This doesn't mean there haven't been casualties. The music industry has been hit hard, with many jobs lost; revenue from sales of recorded music has fallen by 75%. But if you ask me, the record companies brought that on themselves by forcing people to pay $18 for a cd with one decent song. After a decade of pressure from fans who just wanted to buy that one song, they brought ought cd singles that sold for $8. People felt robbed, and responded accordingly. I worry a little that similar feelings about cable companies might lead to a similar reaction, and it is the high price of cable that has ultimately supported the great creativity of TV in recent years. So cable companies need to get their act together.

That, it seems to be, is the real underlying point. Entertainment monopolies have been smashed, so if you want to make it in the arts, you have to deliver what people want to pay for. So far, that is working out fine for artists and great for the rest of us.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

The printing press was supposed to ruin literature. It didn't.
The newspaper was supposed to ruin literature. It didn't.
The pencil was supposed to ruin literature. It didn't.
Radio was supposed to ruin literature. It didn't.
Cinema was supposed to ruin literature. It didn't.
Television was supposed to ruin literature. It didn't.

The piano, the pipe organ, Jazz, the electric guitar, Hip Hop, synthesizers, and a bunch more were all supposed to ruin music. They didn't.

Woodblock printing was supposed to ruin art. It didn't.
Acrylic paint was supposed to ruin art. It didn't.
Digital imaging was supposed to ruin art. It didn't.

Napoleon Bonaparte called the steam engine nonsense. It wasn't.
Bicycles were supposed to corrupt the youth. They didn't.
Women were supposed to be overwhelmed by education and suffage. They weren't.
People weren't supposed to survive speeds beyond horse or sail power. They did.
The sound barrier wasn't able to be broken. It was.
Reactionaries were supposed to be able to predict the future. They couldn't.