The Murder of the Creative Class

Culture Crash by Scott Timberg
Culture Crash by Scott Timberg

I just finished reading Scott Timberg’s new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. You should read it, too, but only if you are ready to use it as a starting point for your own thoughts and experiments in devising a new arts ecosystem; on the other hand, if you are deeply committed to the Cinderella myth of the arts, this book will likely send you into a funk of epic proportions. Reality will do that.

Timberg, who writes the Culture Crash column for ArtsJournal, examines with energetic trepidation the effects of the internet on the ability of creative artists to make a living. Some of his topics are well-known: the collapse of the traditional newspaper, for instance, as well as the devastation of the music industry by Napster, iTunes, Pandora and Spotify. But they are emblematic of a larger problem: “You know how many hits you need on Spotify to make the minimum wage each month?” asks singer and University of Wyoming economics professor Jason Shogren. The answer: “More than four million.” Timberg points at “tech-savvy cellist Zoe Keating,” who self-releases her music and has 1.2 million Twitter followers, 2 million YouTube views, and is in 400,000 Spotify streams. She earned $3,000 last year from those venues.

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Other subjects are less obvious, but just as powerful. It isn’t just that Amazon is destroying independent bookstores and iTunes is eliminating record stores, but that they are eliminating the clerks who worked there, often artists themselves, who served as unofficial curators of culture. Timberg speaks with great fondness for the “self-made savants” whose knowledge and passion for a genre inspired customers to explore something beyond the mainstream. “I got to know a guy names Charles Hauther, a science fiction enthusiast at Skylight Books in Los Angeles whose tireless passion for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest helped make this unwieldy tome, for a while, the store’s bestseller.”  Indeed, this is also the effect of the elimination of culture critics from newspapers and magazines, who in better times served to broaden awareness beyond the realm of the blockbuster.

For Timberg, the “better times” for American culture were the 1950s and 1960s, when middlebrow culture was on the rise and critics like Dwight McDonald, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and many others provided an intelligent lens through which to view culture. In addition to the effects of mainstream criticism at that time, Timberg also looks at the positive effects of institutions that have been weakened over the past 20 years – record labels, publishers, newspapers – whose willingness to support young artists in their early years provided a cushion that allowed artists to focus more of their time on their art. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone look back with fondness at the 1950s, but as someone who shares Timberg’s appreciation for the critics of that time, especially those at the Partisan Review, I must say I find it refreshing.

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The facts are hard to dispute – just look at this graph by economist Michael Mandel, which shows the precipitous decline in performing arts employment from 2006 – 2011. I don’t know the current numbers, but I have a hard time imagining that things are getting much better..

(Click to enlarge.)
(Click to enlarge.)

Timberg sees the current arts ecosystem as winner-take-all, reflecting the larger economy in its centralization of wealth in the hands of an increasingly smaller number of people. The closer you are to the server, the more money there is to be made — and by server, I don’t mean wait staff. Despite all the promise of the “long tail,” musician David Lowery, who himself is a former quantitative analyst, writes “Of the 75,000 albums released in 2010 only…1,000 sold more than 10,000 copies…the point where independent artists begin to go into the black on professional album production, marketing and promotion.” Nobody ever said you could actually make a living at the end of the long tail, just that it was great for the consumer.

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All of this is worsened by the driving of artists from the major cities by rents that make it impossible to survive. The wealthy have increasingly invaded urban real estate markets, driving up prices and rents with their fat wallets and desire to be part of a dynamic urban scene – a scene which, ironically, is being undermined by their very presence.

Again, none of this is new. What makes it worthwhile is to find it all pulled together in one place, and seen as a system rather than isolated circumstances.

Timberg’s last paragraph in the book’s epilogue wistfully dreams of a world that seems wonderful, but increasingly impossible. “What I’d like to see,” Timberg writes, is

A world in which people who aren’t poets read poetry and draw sustenance and wisdom from it. In which non-dancers attend dance concerts, and folks who are neither professional musicians nor foreign business men go to jazz shows. In which a growing, rather than shrinking, number of people read and discuss novels, and can hear about authors and ideas in the press. Where adults, and not just children, learn to play instruments, supporting music schools and the musicians who teach there. Every decent-sized city would have an array of book and record stores and performance venues, as well as a good newspaper that could afford arts coverage and assertive watchdog journalism. In which ambitious, hard-working students could attend a good college, study something meaningful, and become the kind of adult who pays for culture and cares about its future. It means people who buy art or books or publications taking the effects of their purchases seriously as they do their locally sourced greens or shade-grown coffee beans. It means cities where non-famous artists and other talented members of the creative class can support themselves if they work hard enough. It means a world, in short, very different from the world we have now, and even more different than the one we’re headed toward.

I couldn’t agree more.

But then, in the last two sentences, Timberg makes a major mistake. “Without wishing and passion,” he concludes, “we’ll certainly never get there. With nerve and follow-through and some luck, we just might.”

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support local artistsAnd with those two lines, we are right back in Tinkerbell-land: if we just believe hard enough, maybe things will get better.

No they won’t.

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The internet is here to stay, and the fifties ain’t coming back. Mass distribution of the arts, which started with the birth of movies and the development of radio and television, will only get faster and cheaper. Nobody cares about the starving artist, and they never did – at least as long as there are a few superstars pumping out generic, uninspired hits that marketers convince the public is worth their time and money (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?). It is long past time for artists to look out for themselves.

The only way this artistic dystopia changes is if artists and academics begin to “think different,” to adopt Apple’s phrase. To think about economics, about business models, about new ways to distribute works and buy artists the times to create it.

After I put down Timberg’s book, I started reading Donella H. Meadows’ Thinking in Systems: A Primer, which begins with a story that seemed to connect to everything I had just read. Meadows writes:

Early on in teaching ab out systems, I often bring out a Slinky…. I perch the Slinky on one upturned palm. With the fingers of the other hand, I grasp it firmly from the top, partway down its coils. Then I pull the bottom hand away. The lower end of the Slinky drops, bounces back up again, yo-yo’s up and down, suspended from my fingers above.


“What made the Slinky bounce up and down like that?” I ask students


“Your hand. You took away your hand,” they say.


So I pick up the box the Slinky came in and hold it the same way, poised on a flattened palm, held from above by the fingers of the other hand. With as much dramatic flourish as I can muster, I pull the lower hand away.


Nothing happens. The box just hangs there, of course.


“Now once again. What made the Slinky bounce up and down?”


The answer clearly lies within the Slinky itself. The hands that manipulate it suppress or release some behavior that is latent within the structure of the spring.


That is the central insight of systems theory.


Once we see the relationship between structure and behavior, we can begin to understand how systems work, and what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns.

Timberg’s book is focused on the hand that was pulled away; we need to focus on the Slinky.

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