The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t

The New York Times Magazine:

Thanks to its legal troubles, Napster itself ended up being much less important as a business than as an omen, a preview of coming destructions. Its short, troubled life signaled a fundamental rearrangement in the way we discover, consume and (most importantly) pay for creative work. In the 15 years since, many artists and commentators have come to believe that (this) promised apocalypse is now upon us — that the digital economy, in which information not only wants to be free but for all practical purposes is free, ultimately means that ‘‘the diverse voices of the artists will disappear,’’ because musicians and writers and filmmakers can no longer make a living.

It seems logical to critics that we will end up in a world in which no one has an economic incentive to follow creative passions. The thrust of this argument is simple and bleak: that the digital economy creates a kind of structural impossibility that art will make money in the future. The world of professional creativity, the critics fear, will soon be swallowed by the profusion of amateurs, or the collapse of prices in an age of infinite and instant reproduction will cheapen art so that no one will be able to quit their day jobs to make it — or both.

(The artists') financial fate turns out to be much harder to measure, but I endeavored to try. Taking 1999 as my starting point — the year both Napster and Google took off — I plumbed as many data sources as I could to answer this one question: How is today’s creative class faring compared with its predecessor a decade and a half ago? The answer isn’t simple, and the data provides ammunition for conflicting points of view. It turns out that (pessimists were) incontrovertibly correct on one point: Napster did pose a grave threat to the economic value that consumers placed on recorded music. And yet the creative apocalypse (we were) warned of has failed to arrive. Writers, performers, directors and even musicians report their economic fortunes to be similar to those of their counterparts 15 years ago, and in many cases they have improved. Against all odds, the voices of the artists seem to be louder than ever.

This article is a must-read, and not just for its refreshingly optimistic tone about the economic changes in our creative culture. I had to hold back on quoting more from it above as almost every paragraph is fascinating. The author looks at not just the music industry but also the state of film and literature and determines what those in the trenches have suspected: things aren't necessarily rosy for the legacy media companies, but are looking good for individual creators who know how to ride the landscape. Gee, it's almost like someone out there has been purposefully controlling the narrative, pushing 'doom and gloom' stories for all artists who embrace this democratization through technology.

Also touched on in the article is how there are now so many more opportunities for musicians and content creators to make income on their work. Chris Anderson's 'Long Tail' may not have fully realized, but indeed there are multiple avenues of artist income available now that didn't exist even 15 years ago. On top of this, the crumbling of the traditional distribution model – which is the source of anxiety for all these big media companies – and the dramatically reduced costs for creating new media open up unlimited possibilities. It's the punk rock dream come true.

Related, and also recommended, is this latest episode of the Mac Power Users podcast where the hosts chat with songwriter Jonathan Mann about how he makes a living by recording a song a day. Most of the podcast is a lot of technical talk, but the really interesting section starts around 1:08:00 where Mann gets into the business of what he does. Basically none of this would have been possible for him a couple years ago.

Update: The Future Of Music Coalition has some crticisms, and I have a few more thoughts.