Maybe it’s the Joinery’s Fund:It success yesterday morning, maybe it’s because yesterday was Budget day in the UK. Maybe it’s Amanda Palmer’s TED talk and the reaction to it. Maybe it’s the post-SXSW feeling in the air, maybe it’s the closure of the Boston Phoenix, maybe it’s the death of another great musician who couldn’t afford proper healthcare in America. Whatever the reason, the question of money and the value of the arts is very much of the moment. Last night I read this piece by Elmo Keep, which elucidates much of the argument against free culture. There might be some slightly questionable points in there but overall the message is sound and clear: You cannot expect to get quality culture (music, film, art, food, urban landscape, whatever) for free. Where the money is going to come from to keep these things going as we’re used to is a very big question.
Some maths: An average copy of a CD direct from a band will cost about the same amount as two pints in a pub. An LP might be three pints. A paid download will probably be no more than one. A newspaper will probably cost no more than a cup of coffee. Add a danish on top if you’d like to stretch to the average monthly magazine (with exceptions like the good ship T.D. of course). Entry to the average local gig will set you back little more than a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream and a small-to-medium international artist won’t cost much more than having a pizza delivered.
People spout this stuff all the time, you get tired of hearing it, the effect wears off. But it is all true. Reading the comments on the Keep piece, it’s striking how some people rush to defend the way things are now. It’s not particularly surprising in some cases (I mean we all get whatever we want when we want it how we want it now now now now) but the clichés just keep coming.
“Now any “amature” artist can afford to self publish music with an ease that would make any band from the 70’s choke with envy.”
“Gone are the days of buying a $20 album and finding only 1 decent song on it.”
“Simply, the record industry gouged customers for years and they are serving their 13 year penance.”
The music industry (and I use this in the widest possible sense, including people who have very little at all to do with “the music industry”) has become a perfect model of late capitalism, mirroring society around it to a tee. There is no money at the bottom now, in music and in society more generally. This is due to the devaluation of work, all kinds of work. People get paid less to do more in almost every industry. What is valued now, by people of all classes apparently, is access. It’s basic Marxist thinking but this skewering of “work value” versus “access value” has a serious knock-on affect on where money ends up. There’s a good chance your internet connection costs about €40/month. Maybe television on top of that. Laptops and computers are necessary sure, but multi-terabyte hard-drives to store your content? Phones cost a lot of money too, but maybe you need that for work. None of this money goes anywhere near the people who create the content that we all enjoy, be it music, art, film, tv, journalism, writing, anything. But what are we going to do?
In the end, given that most people get paid less now for more work with less chance of professional progress, there isn’t going to be much money left over for the buying of music, art, newspapers, magazines, etc. Not when you can get all that on your phone or on your laptop for nothing. Or what seems like nothing. This is a problem that on many levels goes beyond the fault of the individual, who is almost certainly under more financial pressure than ever, but personal responsibility is still important. How we all act, what we chose to do with our money, is important.
The standard argument in recent times has been that live music will make up the difference for smaller artists. This simply isn’t true, for a couple of reasons. There are now thousands of musicians on tour all the time. They have to stay on the road if they are going to stay doing music all the time. This means there are more gigs all the time. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, anyone in a city will have multiple gig options. (This isn’t true outside of cities though, another issue of contraction and centralisation.) The ultimate effect of this is increased competition, lower audience numbers, lower door prices and lower fees for bands in every city they come to. In this country it’s already exceedingly difficult (read: expensive) to get a full band over so we have more solo artists and DJs coming this way. Venue rents go up, numbers go down, venues charge more and get more conservative in their booking, because they need numbers. There are some genuinely great bookers in Dublin who do stunning work but its not getting easier for them.
You also have to feel for those poor souls who make music that isn’t particularly suited to the live environment, those who are uncomfortable with public performance, those who are physically or mentally unable to tour. Those who make quiet music, those who can’t bring their bands with them, who don’t like sleeping on floors, who don’t like eating shit food, who get travel sickness, those who have families. Those who don’t have PR people working to maximize audiences in each town, who don’t have people plugging radio stations to get their songs played, who can’t negotiate for hotel rooms, who don’t have someone else to drive them or help carry their gear after a show. This is most people.
The other great proposed saviour is synchronisation, where an artist’s work is used to promote a brand. As Tom Waits put it, this is a “virus”. Such use devalues the artist’s work every single time and it furthers conservative, market-researched “art” rather than adventurous work. It’s not you they want, it’s your audience. SXSW is the obvious example of how accepted this has become, even among the so-called alternative crowd. The backlash against it in the last week shows that we have maybe reached a tipping point with this.
As the closure of the Boston Phoenix this week made obvious, there is little room now for the underdog in the publishing world. In fairness, the fact that not even the Guardian makes any money off print shows that there almost is no publishing world any more. Established print media outlets have inevitably spent large amounts of money on their digital platforms, some to greater effect than others, because they know that people will read their news for free on their phones/tablets/laptops rather than buy a paper. They already control distribution, they have brand recognition and they still fail over and over again. Some succeed and they enjoy massive market share online same as they do/did in print.
Even though the cost of publishing online is lower, it is not free. Writers, editors, sub-editors, designers, sales people, tech people, everyone has to be paid. Fewer and fewer are. Expecting people to produce quality content – whether news, features or criticism – without being properly paid is foolish and short sighted. It doesn’t have to be this way though, as publications like The Magazine and Maura Magazine are attempting to prove. As closed-off as their platform is (limited to iOS in both cases), they are working in a brand new area for publishing, one that might have real legs. If their example goes unheeded or undeveloped, soon only those who can live without being paid (the already wealthy) or those who can somehow work two demanding jobs will be able to work in journalism or publishing. This Onion article yesterday delivered a well-timed sting.
The same is true for music and musicians, because as much as making music has become much cheaper, it is not free and certainly not if you want to do it well. It is virtuous to do these creative things for free, sure, but it is not realistic. Passion doesn’t pay the rent. The capitalist argument would be that these things have no market value, but they continue to have immense personal value to people, which only highlights how completely limited capitalist thought is when dealing with art. Work versus access. Priorities.
As long as things continue in this way, creative, non-commercial people will continue to be marginalized, impoverished, competitive with each other and under-pressure to simplify, accelerate and give, give, give. The truly frustrating thing is that the tools to affect change are there, we just have to figure out how to de-Darwinize them. On social media (the apparently democratized means of distribution), the strong still rule the weak. It takes less effort to click “like” or “reblog” than to create your own content, and buying space in millions of Twitter and Facebook timelines is easy if you have the money. Original creators get lost and go uncredited, which makes us homogeneous and indistinct. The constant filtering required – by us and increasingly by scripts and algorithms – to keep digital life relevant to one’s own interests means we are getting less likely to stumble across something that is unexpected. This isolates us.
We need to figure out how to use these tools to support each others’ good work, whatever that work might be. Unions began as a way to gain fair rights for workers in factories and artistic unions need to happen to take back some power from the ever-more dominant big media. They need to be physical – going to each others shows, buying each others work, telling other people to do so, getting each other work – and they need to be digital, using our own channels to disseminate information that is useful to all. Knowledge groups, maker groups, critical groups, cross-platform/cross-media groups. Strength in numbers. We need look no further than Popical Island for a positive example of this. Whether you’re into the music or not, the spirit of togetherness is inspiring and shows what people can achieve when they think about what their goals really are. Sharing space and sharing skills, they’ve become a vital part of the Irish music underground (and increasingly less underground – two Choice Prize nominations) in a very short space of time.
Activity is the key. Concentrated, engaged, informed, shared activity. On your terms, our terms. The means to make, package and sell your work how ever you like, for whatever price you like (even nothing) are there. Pooling independent resources, developing creative, alternative ecosystems, this is what we need to do. Talk to everyone, learn what everyone else knows, teach them what you know. Whether you want to publish a magazine, release an album, shoot a film or display a sculpture, it is more important than ever to help others when you want help yourself. We’re all going down together.