If you inhabit any corner of the creative world or entertainment industry, it’s likely you’ve come across reaction to The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t, a New York Times Magazine article dismissing the notion that creators have been negatively impacted by digital trends like piracy.
The crux of the article is that although some creative revenue streams have dried up, others have taken their place and creators have as much, if not more opportunity in the post-millennium world as they did before everyone moved online. In the author’s eyes, the fact that artists are still making music, filming in studios and writing books without sleeping under a bridge is sufficient evidence to support this belief.
While the piece is a welcome analysis of the issues facing musicians, movie makers, and other creative talent trying to survive in the digital world, it falls short on a number of key points.
Firstly, we have to ask ourselves how creators are making ends meet.
If everyone calling themselves a musician were able to dedicate a majority of their time to, well, making music, it might be fair to say there has been a positive outcome for these artists. Unfortunately, as the article itself highlights, the struggle to earn a living wage as a musician means teaching, editing or producing for others, and often working a second job that has nothing to do with music. That makes many of the 45 percent more musicians that the writer identifies in 2014, compared to 2001, part-timers at best, forced into hobbyists at worst.
How much of an artist’s working week should be devoted to music to be classed a musician by trade is debatable, but it’s true in every case that when they are not spending time on the music they want to make, they are not making the most of their talent. Culturally and creatively, we suffer when our artists are not supported enough to reach their highest potential.
The point leads on to another assertion used to argue against a creative apocalypse, but which in reality strongly supports one having occurred. This is the idea that all creators must now become some kind of digital polymath to live a relatively comfortable life as a musician, filmmaker, or writer.
Although the means of production and marketing are much more accessible in the digital era, it would be a mistake to think that every creator should immediately have a firm grasp of their operation and take advantage of the hundreds of tools that have become available since the turn of the century.
Even with a basic understanding, these new responsibilities add up to tens of hours a week spent producing content, promoting and seeking publicity. To undertake all of this alone or even across several members of a band or creative team, is another new responsibility that leaves less time, if any, for actually creating the work in the first place.
The anecdotal impact of piracy and copyright infringement is quickly dismissed in this piece, favoring industry-spanning stats and some broad strokes analysis across diverse creative sectors, including publishing, movies, television, and music. Data should always play a central role in analysis of this type, but in this instance it speaks more to the lingering fanbase of legacy artists and a small section of superstar acts, rather than the creative sector across America as a whole.
That’s where the anecdotes come in, where we can see artists struggling because the income they once counted on to fuel their creative talent has been stolen away by unlicensed distribution online. Piracy, for all those who would dismiss it as a non-factor, is alive, thriving, and wreaking havoc with the livelihoods of small to mid-level creators.
This isn’t to say that creators are unable to succeed in the digital economy; far from it. The copyright economy, as we’re more than pleased to point out, is a major contributor to the national GDP, to the tune of $1.1 trillion every year. It employs 5.5 million at all levels of the creative sector and continues to ride out unfavorable economic conditions, against all the odds. Clearly, creators are able to make the system work in its current form and have been adapting to make the most of digital distribution.
But none of this changes the fact that devaluing the work they produce by permitting piracy and weakening creative rights online is hurting our ability to create. If a filmmaker is spending all of her spare time, in between second jobs and personal life, creating something she loves, it is soul destroying to see it ripped off and offered for nothing on some low quality, malware-ridden piracy site. Moreover, should she have to live with the knowledge that the site’s owner has taken her work for free, but gets to make money from the advertising or subscription revenue they receive on the back of that content?
A “creative apocalypse” has not occurred, this much of the NYT article is true. What has happened is that the creative environment is evolving for artists and it requires them to do much more to get their work out into the world, while offering little guarantee that it will be protected when it gets there.
In terms of that evolution, we are still very early in the process. Unfortunately what we can see are shrinking revenues and less incentive for creators to explore their talent, whether due to restrictions of time, finance, or simply revulsion at the idea that their work will be abused the second it hits the Internet.
With strong copyright laws and engaged players in the technology sector, however, we can begin to create an environment that not only turns the tide on this gradual creative erosion, but has the New York Times writing articles about a “Creative Renaissance” in years to come.