Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The New Economics of Art

William Deresiewicz, last seen on this blog with an unbearably smug and stupid book about higher education, is back with a new book that at least sounds more interesting. In The Death of the Artist he asks,

is the aspiration to become a full-time writer, filmmaker, or musician — no matter how earnestly held — now essentially obsolete?

Well, no, actually. But the landscape certainly is changing. In an interesting review, Robert Diab summarizes the two views of how the Internet landscape is changing art:

From Silicon Valley and its boosters, we hear: “There’s never been a better time to be an artist.” Anyone can easily market their own music, books, or films online, drum up a thousand true fans, and enjoy a decent living. We see proof of this, time and again, in profiles of bold creators who got tired of waiting to be chosen, took to the web, and saw their work go viral.

The artists tell another tale. Yes, you can produce and post your work more easily, but so can everyone else. Every year, every major venue — SoundCloud, Kindle Store, Sundance — is inundated with thousands if not millions of songs, books, and films, but most sink like a stone. Of the 6,000,000 books in the US Kindle Store, the “overwhelming majority” of which are self-published, “68 percent sell fewer than two copies a month.” Only about 2,000 US Kindle Store authors earn more than $25,000 per year. Spotify features roughly 2,000,000 artists worldwide, but less than four percent of them garner 95 percent of the streams. The pie has been “pulverized into a million tiny crumbs.” We may now have “universal access” to the audience, but “at the price of universal impoverishment.”

When he first wrote about this topic, in a 2015 essay, Deresiewicz was noncommital, but he now comes down firmly on the negative side. In the new environment, he argues, 

All but the most popular creators face new and daunting obstacles, pointing to a future in which more artists will do more of their work as part-time amateurs.

Well, here is a topic I know something about, having spent much of the past twenty years laboring as a part-time amateur author, plus my eldest son serves as a recording engineer for several young singers and rappers who post to SoundCloud. And I am not at all convinced that the old model was much better than the current one.

Since 2008, roughly 7,000,000 books have been self-published in the United States. Which is quite an extraordinary number. It is true that almost all of the authors will make very little money from sales, but then hardly any of them would ever have made any money from published work in the past. Unless you consider the effort they put into writing those books and formatting them for Kindle to be "wasted," what harm has been done? We pretend to value creativity for its own sake; aren't we seeing an explosion of creativity?

The economics of art are bad for simple reasons of supply and demand: the supply of would-be artists vastly overshoots the demand for art. No system could square this circle. It is true that the global economy gives a larger share of the rewards to those at the very top, so maybe some people at the 2nd or 5th percentile are doing worse than they once would have. But this makes no difference at all to the regular, middling would-be artist (like me) who would not have made much money under any conceivable system. 

I do think the vast quantity of art out there creates problems. How would you ever find an obscure musician or author who creates stuff that is weird in exactly the way you like? It used to be the role of professional gatekeepers (producers, agents, editors, gallery owners) to seek out the top new talent and promote it. But that meant the taste of those gatekeepers was all important, and if yours was different from theirs you were out of luck. There was no way you could get recordings of offbeat bands or books by unpublished authors. Now you can, but only if you can find them. Maybe there was some value in limiting the universe of available art, to a level that we could conceivably search through, but let's not pretend the selection was ever anything but arbitrary. True, the very top talent made it through, but the very top talent still does. 

This is how I see the change: there used to be systems in place that limited competition in the arts. Publishers and record companies worked with groups of artists they liked and thought would be popular, making some effort to treat them all fairly. All were featured in their quarterly catalogs, made available to record and book stores. Magazine publishers paid by the word or the piece, the same for everyone, partly because they had little idea which pieces were actually driving sales. The important thing was to have a whole group of good contributors to get you sustained quality over time. Of course this wasn't entirely true, and there were always stars who got special treatment, but these systems made an effort to pay good wages to all their regular artists.

Now those systems are collapsing and competition is much more raw. Nobody can protect the merely good from domination by the best. So the best dominate, and the good slide toward poverty.

Of course neither William Deresiewicz nor anybody else has any idea what to do about this. One thing that I would very much like, as a consumer and a would-be author, is search algorithms that actually point you to new work you like. Amazon, YouTube, Google and Goodreads utterly fail to do this, so there is a real market niche somebody should be exploiting, maybe with the help of the new AI.

Otherwise we're sort of on our own. 

And on a personal note, my efforts to publish my historical fantasy novel the old-fashioned way seem to have gone nowhere, so look for it to appear soon in the right-hand column beside my equally unpublished mystery. I am disappointed, yes, but I regret not a minute of the thousand hours and more I put into writing, revising, and trying to sell it, which was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.


David said...

I'm puzzled and intrigued that you find the suggestion algorithms on YouTube and the like so inadequate. I've actually found that they lead me to stuff I like. YouTube's music algorithm has been especially helpful. I've found several new favorites that way, things I wouldn't have known how to look for on my own. I'm fascinated that someone else's experience would be so different. I've found the same with iTunes (I like horror podcasts and have found several I like through iTunes' recommendations) and Audible.

A notable exception is Amazon. Amazon used to provide recommendations (in those clickable slide shows with arrows at either end, not sure what they're called--is it another type of chiron?) mostly based on the "customers who searched for this item also looked for" or similar model. For some time--not sure how long, six months?--they'be been pursuing a much more commercialized model of these recommendations. And so I get "Sponsored products related to this item" which have nothing to do with me or what I've ever wanted in my life. And my "books you may like" are now only bestsellers (look up any book about history and you get a raft of crude political polemics of the "The Plot to Destroy America" type). I find this deeply annoying.

FWIW, as mostly a consumer and not a producer of artistic and intellectual production, my wish is that we could have, say, a ten-year moratorium on all artistic, intellectual, and cultural production of ANY kind, except bensozia. Then people like me could go a little way to catching up. That for me is the most frustrating thing about the current system. There's TOO MUCH, and there's a lot of it I want to look at, and it just KEEPS GROWING.

Shadow said...

Is your TBR pile growing daily, David? If not for ebooks I'd need a bigger house. I'm at the point where I need a search algorithm with filters to find anything in my TBR.

pootrsox said...

John, I read your mystery novel and thoroughly enjoyed it! I would gladly buy and read a sequel.

David said...


Yes, and it never stops growing. I mean daily. Not helped by the fact that I'm a very, very slow reader. I have 27 different Amazon wishlists, many quite long. And let's not go into all the Word files with reading lists on them. Yes, algorithms and filters are most necessary.

David said...

Also not helped by the fact that, whenever I look over something I have managed to read, I realize how much I missed, how much I've forgotten, and how much I enjoyed the book--and I want to read it again.

G. Verloren said...

We live in a casino economy.

You hear it all the time - anyone can win big! All you have to do is play the game, put in the time, make the investment, and you too cut be rich and successful! If at first you don't succeed, try, try again! The house eagerly awaits your next bet! You're only a loser if you decide not to play the game!

And it's all technically true. Anyone can strike it rich, if they just so happen to get lucky. But the simple fact remains that the entire system is built on the odds being slanted in the house's favor, and on manipulating into playing by paying out just big enough enough and often enough and (most importantly) visibly enough to keep suckering other people into playing.

And yes, "hard work" does technically increase your odds - if you invest a ton of effort into figuring how which slot machines pay out better than others, or if you learn to count cards, or if you figure out how to outbluff and exploit your fellow players in some way or another, you do see a jump in your chances of winning. It's not much of an increase, but it's technically an increase!

But ultimately, the house always wins.

Perhaps a hundred thousand people try to sell their own novels, perhaps a hundred of them become successful authors and strike it rich, but the publishers are the ones walking away with the lion's share of the money each and every time, guaranteed.

And of the remaining 99,900 people who lost their initial bet, most will simply keep on betting, because the publishers make a point of turning their winners into celebrities. Look at those high rollers! Look at the glamorous lives they now lead! Champagne in the VIP lounge, on the house! Free tickets to the finest comedy acts in Las Vegas! A penthouse suite, on us! They were just like you! They too, started out with nothing! You, too, could win big like them! Just keep playing! Don't give up!

It's not sustainable. We can't all win big. In fact, the only way even small numbers of people can win big is if everyone else (except the house, of course) loses.

But it's what people know, and people prefer the comfort of the status quo to the uncertainty of the new and unfamiliar. It's not going to change any time soon.

Realistically, in a world of democratized art, where anyone and everyone can produce culture and content, such art can have little to no monetary value, unless the powers that be carefully restrict and control access to said art, creating artificial scarcity. And that's exactly what happens.

Ideally, art should be free in the future. Anyone who wants to create should be able to create, and anyone who wants to enjoy what someone else created, should be able to do so freely. But that fundamentally requires an entirely different framework of how we distribute wealth and resources.

We produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet. We have the means to distribute said food to people who need it. And yet every single day, there are children who still starve to death anyway. Why?

Because instead of a cooperative system where we produce and share our resources fairly and equitably, we choose to have a competitive system where people fight each other over resources, and individuals are allowed (and actively encouraged) to selfishly amass massive hoards of resources far in excess of what they actually need, and deny those resources to others who do need them on a whim.

Simply put, we prefer the sick thrill of an unjust world where we can elevate ourselves at the expense of others, to the banality of caring for each other in a just and humane world. We're gambling addicts, looking for the thrill and drama of high stakes, obsessing over the rush of hitting the jackpot. We tolerate most people losing just for the chance of winning big.

Simply put, as a species, we continue to fail the prisoner's dilemma, and consequently remain trapped in a prison of our own creation.