Are Creators Really Thriving in the Digital Age? Doesn't Look Like It

Television Exploding
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The great thing about looking at data is that it can answer any question you ask. The problem is that it won’t tell you whether it’s the right answer -- or even the right question.

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, author Steven Johnson wrote a piece, "The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t," which ventured to examine the state of creative business in the digital age. Johnson conclusion was that it’s thriving. I have strong feelings on this topic, since I wrote a book that makes the opposite argument. I’d very much like Johnson to be right, since the health of the creative business strongly correlates with my ability to put food on the table. But although I think he’s a smart writer -- we worked together, briefly, years ago -- I think he’s looking at wrong information in the wrong way. He ends up oversimplifying a complicated subject to make a contrarian point.

Johnson’s premise is that the best way to assess the health of the creative businesses isn’t to look at falling sales or struggling companies but how actual creators themselves are faring. It’s a smart, refreshing approach. But his evidence that creators are thriving is far flimsier than it looks.

Johnson starts with Labor Department Occupational Employment Statistics -- "the closest data set we have to a bird’s-eye view of the culture industry." This shows an increase in working musicians. But the numbers he uses count musicians along with music directors and composers -- and numbers of the former have declined while those of the latter have increased, apparently because of a change in how statistics are tabulated. More to the point, it’s hard to tell what this proves since these statistics don’t even presume to measure original creativity -- they include bar bands and wedding singers, which presumably haven’t been affected by Napster.

Johnson also says there are 45 percent more self-employed musicians in 2014 than there were in 2001 -- a far more interesting statistic. But what are they doing? How many are self-employed to create original music, how many are freelance piano instructors, and how many are the same musicians who were laid off from regular jobs during the recession and are no longer reflected in the previous category? To be fair, these statistics don’t prove anything I’ve ever said either -- I don’t think they actually prove much of anything at all. If anything, these statistics offer a bat’s-eye view of the music business.

Johnson also says television, film and book businesses are faring better than the music industry, which is certainly true. The question is why. To him, their relative success suggests the future is brighter than most of us believe. I’d suggest that these industries are doing better because they’ve done a better job of postponing the negative aspects of the digital future. Hollywood has maintained a windowing strategy that lets it sell the same films in different ways to different audiences, even though that’s threatened by piracy. And cable television has become the economic engine of the modern media business because of how it’s packaged and sold. Neither model is exactly popular with Internet users. It’s hard to prove this. But Johnson can’t prove much, either. He backs up his assertions about Hollywood with box office data -- which rarely accounts for more than half of a given film’s revenue -- when the home market has declined far more substantially.

This is like suggesting that the New York Times is thriving because it has so many more readers online. Spoiler alert: It’s not.

Johnson responded to criticism yesterday in an online piece, in which he suggested that “musicians (and other creators) deserve to see an even bigger piece of the pie." I agree. (Writers too, for that matter!) The problem is that the rosy narrative of his magazine piece makes that less likely to happen. He points out, accurately, that the live music business is thriving, although he uses international revenue numbers that distort the picture by including growth in new markets that have emerged in the last 15 years. He also doesn’t mention that most acts lose money on their first tour. Who lends them money until performing becomes profitable? Technology journalists tend to dismiss labels -- and studios and publishers -- because they see them as distributors. But they’re actually investors that aggregate risk, advance payments, and handle marketing and promotions. (Johnson presumably finds these functions valuable, too: His most recent book is published by a division of Penguin Random House.)

The biggest problem with Johnson’s piece is that he’s asking the wrong question. He’s trying to figure out if creators as a group are making more money. There’s considerable evidence they’re not. What we should be looking at instead is whether creators can sell their work in a fair and functioning market that will reward them according to the demand for their work. That’s why we have copyright -- because the best way to find out which artists ought to be creating what is to see who wants it and what they’re willing to pay. This isn’t a perfect system, and it has never worked in isolation -- artists have always gotten money from grants, academics and teaching gigs. But it only works at all if creators have rights to their work -- to sell, license, or even give it away, if that’s what they wish-and on the Internet they sometimes only seem to exist in theory. Johnson says that “we are living through a golden age of TV narrative," and he’s absolutely right. That’s been driven by a functioning market. Musicians deserve the same.