Creative Apocalypse: Canceled or Delayed?

The surprising effect of digital distribution on creators

September 14, 2015

An intriguing piece by Steven Johnson takes us back to July 2000, when Napster seemed to threaten the livelihood of musicians and all their related fields. Since then, digital distribution of music has grown, not shrunk. So how are musicians doing?

The surprising answer, argues Johnson, is that they are doing pretty well. Musicians are definitely not making as much from Spotify and Pandora as they made from CDs. On the other hand, they are making quite a bit more on live performances. There seem to be, in fact, more musicians making a living at it now than there were 14 years ago.

There’s been a shift in the world of film, too. But once again, the frequency of quality films, the sales figures for them, and the spate of new directors demonstrate that while things have certainly changed, visual culture is strong. Thriving.

Books are a little murkier. But we all—publishers, authors, librarians, and readers—are thrilled to learn that bookstores, particularly the indies, have bounced back since the recession. Here too the shift has been away from more rigid, even corporate models of creation and distribution and into more homegrown, self-employed efforts. More correctly, there are now two book markets: the corporate blockbuster and everything else.

What I admire about Johnson’s piece is that he realizes, at this point in history, that all the usual data points, the traditional measures of success, don’t quite track what’s really going on. Some may quibble with his methodology (although frankly, I found his use of Occupational Employment Statistics inspired). But measurements don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be reasonable. And we can make better ones as we better understand just what we’re looking for.

So Johnson’s core finding is that the culture industry, that the creator, is doing pretty well. That’s good news, even reassuring. But what are the causes?

He offers several hypotheses:

  1. People still pay for culture: “American households in 2013 spent 4.9 percent of their income on entertainment, the exact same percentage they spent in 2000,” Johnson writes.
  1. There are more ways to buy content and more platforms to distribute it: smartphones, tablets, embedded links, PayPal, etc.
  1. There are more ways to get paid for content. For example, Johnson describes the licensing for songs in the final credits of a movie—a totally new source of revenue.
  1. It’s just easier to get in the door. Can’t afford studio space? Record it yourself. Can’t afford Hollywood film crews and cameras? Shoot it from your phone, then pick up Apple’s Final Cut Pro X for $299. Can’t get an agent or publisher to thumb through your manuscript? Self-publish. The barriers to getting started have fallen. While of course that’s no guarantee of success, works can get to market faster, perhaps increasing the likelihood of capturing attention. Don’t have a big bank or venture capitalist in your pocket? Kickstarter.

Disruption is still here, still permeating the very walls and foundations of our cultural infrastructure. But as Johnson notes, there is a reassuring steadiness about the rise of creators and the continuing consumer interest in paying for new content.