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.