Data and How Artists Make a Living

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In the Aug. 23, 2015 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson’s cover story, “The New Making It” (entitled “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” online), proposes that creative workers are slightly better off today than in 1999, when Napster first hit the scene. Basing his analysis on data from the Labor Department and other sources, Johnson concludes that well-known predictions of the death of creative artists and the collapse of creative industries due to changes wrought by the digital revolution have not panned out.

As Nate Silver points out in “The Signal and the Noise,” his discussion of data and prediction, data’s value is lessened without an underlying story of what that data tells and how it impacts us. Predictably, a debate about Johnson’s use of data and his analysis has arisen, which only indirectly addresses the real underlying story he told — that artists today are making a living, but by differently approaching how they structure and build that living.

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Four years ago, while dean of an arts college, I spoke with a graduating senior dance class about the state of the industry these young dancers were about to enter. Before the class, the professor pleaded with me not to be too negative and pessimistic. I told him I had no reason to be pessimistic or negative and would be upbeat and positive. My message that day, and the one that continues to be the main message of the changes in our industries, was that if these young dancers were expecting to build their career as my contemporaries had (come to New York, be accepted to a company, spend their career at that company, maybe start a company of their own), they were in for disappointment. That way of building a career has slipped off the stage. But, if they were open to new ways of making and presenting dance, were open to digital technology, and were open to working with other artists from different disciplines, they had a rich field on which to play and to make a living. I believed it then and I believe it now, and the sidebar descriptions of young artists making a living in Johnson’s article seem to bear this out.

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But this does not mean that all is rosy for artists making a living today, and Johnson’s article doesn’t go far enough in the data it presents to fully understand or appreciate that fact. There is little doubt that the methods of creating, marketing, distributing and consuming cultural products have changed in the past 20 years due to disruptions caused by digital technology. Previously, artists had a realistic possibility to create valuable content and live off the exploitation of that content. Today, with the value of content being driven towards zero, it is rare to make a living solely from such exploitation and artists have had to evolve how they sustain themselves.

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Additionally, in most cases, artists have also had to pick up the work of building and maintaining a career that others (agents, publishers, record companies) used to do; and all of this has a cost. While Johnson states that the aggregate amount of money being made by those in the music industry is flat, after inflation, in the past 10 to 15 years, he does not reference the increased costs that today’s artists have in simply producing and exploiting their art. Put together, artists face the challenge of their creations’ diminished worth while their cost to exploit the value of their work has increased. Anecdotal discussions with a number of my own colleagues bear this out. They all tell of generating comparable revenue streams today but also of increased expenses. To really see how artists are faring, one would need to undertake an analysis of their net earnings, which Johnson and his critics do not do.

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In a previous post, I looked at this issue in the music industry, reporting on a band that has successfully exploited the expanded live performance opportunities that Johnson suggests have helped to replace a loss in recording sales. The band, offering a complete analysis of the “business” of their tour, was happy with the results, though they did not make money. Playing 24 shows in 28 days, on a net income basis, the band lost $11,819, with total tour income of $135,983 and total expenses of $147,802. While hardly the income generator one might hope for, the band reports being satisfied because they looked at the tour as a net positive — part of a holistic approach to their branding and careers. The point of my earlier post was that this attitude and expectation differs from those of artists of an earlier generation and how artists previously made a living, and I suspect here that Johnson and I would agree. But based on how the music industry has evolved, this new spirit of exploitation is a realistic evolution for artists to continue in making a living. Similar stories could be told of other creative industries as well.

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Johnson and his critics report on the dilemma faced by artists who do not alter their expectations and seek to continue to make a living exactly as they have in the past. (Why this expectation continues to exist is a topic worthy of its own post, but is beyond the scope of this note.) The real story, though, of the digital revolution is that artists, as they have always done, adapt and modify their practice to continue expressing themselves in a way that is appropriate to the economic and social environment in which they live.

In addition, the real story is not the data on which the public dialogue seems to focus, but rather the perspective working artists take on the changed environment in which we live. What is missing in looking at this data is a deep analysis of whether artists are able to make a reasonable living on a net income basis and how today compares to the past.

It has never been easy for an artist to make a living, though artists throughout the ages have shown tremendous resilience and have always found ways to sustain themselves and express their inner artistic voice. The main framing narrative of the late 20th century — art for art’s sake and the deification of self-expression — only flourished beginning in the middle of the 19th century. Under this framework, many artists developed an economic belief that such self-expression entitled them to a living, an assumption reinforced by the funding possibilities then available.

Consciously or not, artists place the intentionality of their self-expression on a spectrum that ranges from pure self-expression to pure service of others. Those working at the self-expression end of the spectrum will naturally adopt a more passive approach to exploitation and rely on outsiders finding value in the work they do. As the economic basis of our cultural industries and the ways and places people find value in the arts have evolved, those artists holding on to such expectations from earlier times are bound to be disappointed and will, naturally, see the world in darker hues. Furthermore, in a new world where an artist must take a more active and creative role in designing his or her career, artists adhering to a past ethos will naturally believe such new ways of working diminish the value of their work and will drive artists away from the creative work they want to do.

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Regardless of the economic environment in which artists live, there have always been artists who have found ways to create their art and express themselves in ways that speak to large parts of society. In some cases, they have made a living from their art and in others they have not. Over time, it is also true that the relationship between artists and their art, and the economic framework in which culture exists, has continually evolved. In our current environment where everything is commercialized, artists are not immune from having to consider the economic impact of the work they do if they desire to make a living from their work. For some artists, however, trained in an ethos that predates our current century and the economic and industrial changes it has wrought, this new reality is a tough pill to swallow.

The debate that Johnson’s article engendered exemplifies the shifted landscape and the difficulty some have to adjusting to the changed realities of our creative industries. But, in the end, if artists want to make a living from their art, they have no choice but to engage with the current economic industrial realities and consider their intentionality in how and what they create. This, and not whether the data or its analysis is correct, is the real story underlying Johnson’s article.