Digital technology isn’t driving artists out of business—or is it?

Street musicians in Barcelona, February 2008. (Image by Wamito; public domain, via Wikimedia.)

Street musicians in Barcelona, February 2008. (Image by Wamito; public domain, via Wikimedia.)

Last weekend, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Steven Berlin Johnson that attempted to determine whether digital technology has made things better or worse for creative artists. The hed and dek (this is journalistic lingo for the headline and the summary that appears below it) give you the gist of Johnson’s account: “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” is the hed, and the dek reads, “In the digital economy, it was supposed to be impossible to make money by making art. Instead, creative careers are thriving — but in complicated and unexpected ways.” Johnson directs his attention mainly to the music industry but also considers books, TV, and film, and he draws on a wide range of statistical sources. There are some surprises here. Actors and bookstores, for instance, are both doing better than you might expect. “The number of self-employed actors has grown by 45 percent since 2001,” Johnson reports, and “after hitting a low in 2007, decimated not only by the Internet but also by the rise of big-box chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, indie bookstores have been growing at a steady clip, with their number up 35 percent (from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,227 in 2015).” And he gives a lot of reasons for optimism about musicians as well.

But Johnson’s report has stirred up controversy. One example is a response by Robert Levine that was published a few days later in Billboard. One of Levine’s points is that the occupational statistics about musicians that were cited by Johnson don’t clearly support the conclusion that Johnson draws from them, though Levine admits that they don’t clearly support his views either. Another of his points is that we should be concerned not only with artists themselves but also with “whether creators can sell their work in a fair and functioning market.” Incidentally, Levine’s piece includes a link to a follow-up by Johnson (which I haven’t read) that was posted by the Times the day after his piece appeared in print, responding to another disagreement.

As a skeptic and a perfectionist, I find things to question in both these articles. Levine’s piece, which was undoubtedly written under pressure of time, is simply not as thorough or as carefully constructed as one could wish. As for Johnson’s article, that more people now identify themselves as musicians or actors than did so 10 or 15 years ago doesn’t tell us anything about how well they’re doing. He cites statistics indicating that musicians, writers, and actors have all seen their income increase since roughly 2000, by proportions ranging from 25 to 60 percent, but this doesn’t tell us whether they’ve gotten richer or simply less poor. As Johnson himself says, Baudelaire would’ve called himself a writer, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t destitute. What’s more, if the reported income gains are averages, it would help to know the distribution*. It’s conceivable that, as in the American economy as a whole, a large part of the income among creative artists and a large part of the recent gains are going to a small share of the group.

And, to quibble over words, a decline of global recorded-music sales from $60 billion to $15 billion is undoubtedly an immense contraction, but that may not justify saying, as Johnson does, that “the record industry’s collapse is real and well documented.” If a building collapses, it’s no longer usable as a building; can an industry be said to have collapsed when it’s still earning $15 billion a year? Imposing statements are common in journalism and in ordinary speech—the cod fishery, for instance, is often said to have “collapsed” in 1992 (with a good deal more justification, as the North Atlantic stock was nearly wiped out)—but they’re nonetheless imprecise. You can still buy cod, just as you can still buy CDs.

Nor am I convinced that the economic health of creative artists is the only important question, though I don’t deny that it’s worth considering. For the moment, I’m inclined to think that what really matters is whether more people are now able to participate in the cultural conversation than could do so in the past. This is bigger than the question of how many people are creating and consuming cultural products such as books and records and movies and TV shows, though that’s the main thing. The entire realm of commentary figures into it as well. Johnson’s analysis is a part of this conversation; so is Levine’s rejoinder; even these words of mine, which are intended mainly to call attention to something my readers might otherwise have missed, extends the conversation a bit. To state something that’ll seem obvious as soon as I point it out, all these words are contributing to the cultural conversation by means of the very technology that’s being questioned. (Johnson’s article was also published in print, but that’s not how I read it.) We couldn’t have done this 20 years ago. In this respect, I side with Johnson: there are more opportunities now, and on the whole this is a good thing.

*Say you consult five musicians. One reports a 100 percent rise in income and the others report only a five percent rise. That’s an average gain of 24 percent, but the average doesn’t very well reflect what happened for any of them.

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