The predicament of artists in the digital age: It’s a conversation we keep coming back to on this show. With the proliferation of online piracy, streaming, and plummeting album and DVD sales, how are creative types supposed to make a living? Some of them might have a dismal outlook on the matter, but not Steven Johnson.
The New York Times Magazine’s Aug. 23 cover story is Johnson’s expansive look at the health of the creative economy: “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t.” Johnson pored over data from as far back as 1999 to see how the creative economy is really doing in the digital age.
He examined Labor Department and U.S. Census numbers to get a more granular view of how people working in the big four creative industries of music, television, movies and books are faring. He discovered that, over the past 15 years, the creative class has actually grown somewhat, along with their income.
The spreadsheet-weary author Steven Johnson spoke with The Frame’s Oscar Garza.
You write that in order to understand our mounting fears of what was predicted to be a creative apocalypse, we have to go back to an intellectual milestone from Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. Why is that?
Rock 'n’ roll and heavy metal drummers tend to not be associated with intellectual milestones. But there’s this wonderful moment in 2000 when Ulrich testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he was there to testify against Napster. Metallica somewhat famously became Napster’s great antagonist [and] sued them for pirating their music. So he delivers this testimony and the testimony becomes kind of an archetype of an argument that becomes increasingly common after that point. Which is to say: If music becomes more or less free because of online piracy and because of digital network technology, then artists — starting with musicians but then presumably going on to other forms of creative works — are not going to be able to earn a living. And as a society we’re going to suffer. Yeah we’re going to get all this free music, but as a society we’re going to run out of new music because no one is going to be able to make a living making art.
You went through mountains of data on how the creative class is doing and you essentially conclude that this creative apocalypse that Ulrich and others warned of has simply failed to come. How did you arrive at that conclusion?
Well, what I tried to do, which is very unusual for a magazine article, is to write a piece that is entirely free of anecdotes. There are a lot of anecdotal stories about bands that are struggling or a filmmaker who couldn’t get his film made. Individually those stories are unsettling. But I went through a lot of different data points to sort of triangulate as best I could, including these obscure Department of Labor statistics. What actually came out it is, in a funny way, despite all of these changes and despite all the turmoil, the number of people who describe themselves as professional creators has been remarkably stable. It’s grown a little bit relative to the overall job market and population, and overall their income seems to be growing at a nice pace again, exceeding that of the general population... I’m not making a utopian argument here at all, I’m just saying that the floor falling out of the creative economy — that fear — has certainly not happened.
You don’t just cover the creators in the music world, for example, you also look at how filmmakers and TV makers are doing. Do you think that the rise of television is making it better for filmmakers and TV content makers to really make what they want? And how is that affecting the economy?
The kind of high art of television has never been better. That creates work for writers, that creates work for musicians, that creates work for actors and directors and so on. The health of that part of the sector is great and I think that’s a pretty easy argument.
Is there too much television being made? Is there a TV bubble?
One could make the argument that some of these industries actually haven’t had their Napster moment or haven’t had a full reckoning with the technology that’s coming — for instance, cord cutting with television. It may be that the true revolution in TV truly comes when people fully get rid of the idea of a schedule and the idea of having 300 channels. But the interesting thing about television though, [is] if you look back 30 or 40 years ago, most people in America didn’t pay for any part of television. They bought their TV and then they got it over the air and there were ads and the whole thing was free. And now the whole TV business has shifted in the other direction. So now people are paying their cable providers who are paying the networks. And they're specifically subscribing to HBO or their buying things on Apple TV or subscribing to Netflix — they’re paying for a lot of their television. So, actually, TV has gone in the exact opposite direction as music has. And maybe that won’t last, but so far that’s been the story.