One year ago this month I published a post on the effects of the Internet on jobs, especially in artistic fields. Using books from 2013 and 2014 I assessed the situation, concluding it didn’t look good. I maintained that although online outlets had created more places for performers and writers to sell their work they rarely provided significant money, that online publicity was mostly illusory, and that pay for most creators was low or nonexistent with life-supporting earnings going to fewer and fewer people.
I hadn’t seen much in the past year to contradict any of that, so was surprised to see an article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” by Steven Johnson, making a case that such “careers are thriving.” So what points did this piece make?
First, the article was actually consistent with some of my perceptions. Johnson acknowledged that the music industry had gone through a “financial Armageddon” with its sales dropping 75%, from $60 billion to $15 billion, since 1999. He wrote that more and more content providers, especially musicians, writers, and actors, were self-employed, and that “most full-time artists barely make enough money to pay the bills.”
Second, it named developments new to me. According to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Employment Statistics, the number of those working for others in the Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media Occupations category increased, from 1.5 million to 1.8 million, between 1999 and 2014. Those performing or writing music as their main job rose a similar percentage, from 53,000 to 60,000. While recording revenue has crashed, live music has done the opposite, with its worldwide sales tripling from $10 billion in 1999 to $30 billion 15 years later. As a result of the latter, as hit singles, on which most artists earned little, once served as promotion for albums or CDs, recorded music is now serving as a way to get people interested in buying concert tickets.
Third, Johnson pointed out that both availability and cost of first-rate professional music production have given it to artists and companies which could never before have afforded it. Software has made sound quality costing millions of dollars a generation or two ago available for thousands or even hundreds. Top quality books can be designed and printed by many independent publishers much smaller than Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins. Correspondingly for TV and movies, truly professional-quality filming can be and has been done, astonishingly, with smartphones.
Fourth, the explosion of advertising, which I also named a year ago, has brought demand for many more creative artists. As well, the growth of cable radio and the profusion of cable TV channels, both of which unlike their predecessors are funded directly by consumers, provide more markets for creative work. Other outlets once suspected to be in danger, specifically movies and independent bookstores, have held on, at the middle financial levels as well as at the top.
What, then, sheds doubt on paid artistic workers still being in healthy demand? For one thing, the data Johnson used ends at 2014, and these positions may have been damaged since. For another, the growth in self-employment in these fields hardly means those in them are paid well – indeed, most or at least many are not earning enough in them to survive. The use of “average,” or mean, income conceals concentration at the top, so increases tell us little about how most are doing.
One conclusion pointed to by both the New York Times article and what I and others wrote earlier in the decade is that people involved with writing, music, acting, and other creative fields need to realize the economics of their businesses have changed. It is no longer sufficient for financial success, or even financial survival, to simply excel at performing; as Johnson put it, “the new environment may well select for artists who are particularly adept at inventing new career paths rather than single-mindedly focusing on their craft.” The good news is that, given this technology-driven transition, these jobs will not go away.
A long time ago I predicted that in-person activities, in this computer age, would come to be valued much higher than electronic ones, and that is exactly what is taking place now. I cannot take much credit for being prophetic, as I expected it to happen ten years ago. However, led by the creative fields, that shift in beliefs may finally be appearing.