THE BASIC ISSUES
This is a book about art and money and the relationship between the two and how that relationship is changing and in turn changing art. It is a book about how artists—musicians, writers, visual artists, creators of film and television—are making a living, or struggling to, in the twenty-first-century economy.
A few vignettes:
Matthue Roth is a Hasidic Jewish memoirist, young adult novelist, children’s book author, short story writer, slam poet, video game designer, blogger, zinester, columnist, and screenwriter who once dated a non-Jewish sex worker, performed on Broadway with Def Poetry Jam, and became the only male member of Sister Spit, a feminist spoken-word collective in San Francisco, where he’d make Shabbos dinner for the riot grrrls. His books carry titles like Yom Kippur a Go-Go, Never Mind the Goldbergs, and My First Kafka (one of the children’s books). A sweet, almost childlike man, Roth composes in little notebooks during his hour-long commute between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and four children. If he gets an idea on the Sabbath (and he gets ideas all the time), he has to wait until dark to write it down.
Most of what Roth does earns little or no money. When he sold his first novel for $10,000 in 2004, the sum was roughly twice as much as he had made the year before. In 2016, after working for a Jewish website producing video content, an EdTech company creating video games, and Sesame Workshop writing science-related sketches, Roth responded to a blind posting on the Facebook page of a small New York–area game-writers group. It turned out to be for a job at Google. As a creative writer. His first position there was as a member of the “personality team” for Google Assistant, writing lines of dialogue and devising “Easter eggs”—surprise bonuses and jokes.
“Once I got the Google job, a lot of my friends were like, ‘Oh, you’ve hit easy street,’” Roth told me, “and I thought I had for about a week and a half.” But the job turned out to be contract work, with no benefits: good money for his young, single coworkers, less so for someone whose family spends about $30,000 a year on health insurance. His position was renewable for three to six months at a time, limited by state law to a total of two years. When we spoke, he was up to a year and a half. He was also facing down another benchmark. “Almost thirty-nine and a half,” he replied when I asked for his age. “I’m getting less young every day.” Roth went on to compare himself to the “Ocean of Notions,” the storyteller in Salman Rushdie’s children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, whose “idea spigot runs dry” one day. “I’m scared shitless that my brain’s going to turn off or that I’m going to get too afraid to constantly come up with new and exciting ideas,” he said—and thus that, on the brink of midlife, he will become unemployable as a creative person.
Lily Kolodny (not her real name) is, by any reasonable standard, a successful young illustrator. Her charmingly childlike style has won her commissions from Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and many other well-known publishers and publications. “My friends would always say to me, ‘You’re so lucky, you’ve found the thing that you’re supposed to be doing,’” she told me. “And when I do feel talented, and I feel like I’m in the flow, I’m like, I know how to do this. I should be doing this.”
At the same time, Kolodny is consumed by financial anxiety. “I’ve always just survived,” she said. “I don’t have any savings, really.” When I asked her what her “nut” was—the number, in dollars, that she felt that she needed to get to each year—she said, “I don’t have a number, but that’s because I’ve been postponing the idea of having a number. It’s been hard for me to visualize the future.” Things had actually been looking up for her a bit around the time we spoke. In recent months, she had engaged in “conscience-free eating out” on several occasions, and had “bought a few things,” and was no longer constantly checking her bank account to see if the rent would clear. She was also working with an agent on a project that she hoped would bring her career to the next level, an “impressionistic semi-fictional illustrated memoir,” as she described it. “I’ve thought of it as my get-rich-quick scheme,” she said. “But it’s not very quick,” she laughed, “it’s very slow.
“For me, that’s the golden egg,” Kolodny explained. “If that crashes and burns, then I have to assess everything.” And what would that assessment look like? What else could she do instead? Plan B would be teaching, ideally art but anything, if necessary. Plan C would be any job at all. “Everyone I know,” she said, “if they’re not in a nine-to-five job, or they’re not a trustafarian, they’re a yoga teacher, or an Uber driver, or a nanny.” It would be hard for her, after all these years, “to turn to something like that, that’s so disconnected from my trade.” But Kolodny, who was thirty-four at the time we spoke, also knew that she was reaching a decision point. “It’s not sustainable,” she said about her situation, “especially if I want to have a kid. Well, actually, if I want to have a kid—I do want to have a kid.”
Martin Bradstreet was twenty-nine when he got to live out his musical dreams. Bradstreet, who grew up in Australia and lives in Montréal, was the founder of the rock band Alexei Martov. (Their music can best be described as loud.) The band built a following around Montréal with shows that they promoted on Facebook. Then, in 2015, Bradstreet decided to put together a tour. For a musician like him, he told me, that’s what success is: “touring around in a van, playing songs you worked on with your friends,” expressing something meaningful to total strangers.
So Bradstreet got online, searched for bands that were similar to his, and looked at tour schedules, hundreds of them, to identify the venues where those bands had played. Then he went on Indie on the Move, a database of venues, for contact information. Places are more likely to book you, he said, if you approach them with a full program already lined up—meaning you plus a couple of local acts—so he’d look up, say, eighty bands in Louisville and listen to their music to find the most compatible ones to reach out to. Then, he said, “you’ve got to work out how to promote a show in a city you’ve never been to, at a venue you’ve never played at, with bands you don’t know,” which he did, in part, by getting the venues to give him their media contacts so he could approach the latter directly.
Yes, Bradstreet agreed, it’s a lot of work, but thanks to the Internet, all you need to tour is work. You’re going to lose money at first, he explained, but money wasn’t the point for him. (Bradstreet was supporting himself on his savings from online poker and, as he put it, “other investments.”) He would have liked to get to the next level—a publicist, a booking agent, a record deal—but, he said, “there are a lot of really talented me’s out there.” By the time we spoke, Bradstreet had moved on to other pursuits. “It does seem like playing music for a living would be a nice thing to have done,” he said, growing wistful, “but it’s tough to fit everything together especially in modern life as you get older.” Still, he had no regrets. Of the tour’s roughly fifty shows, he said, “half are amongst the best hundred nights of my life.”
Micah Van Hove is a self-taught independent filmmaker from Ojai, California. Van Hove did not go to film school or even college. His work, he told me, has been “entirely enabled by the Internet” and what he’s been able to learn there. For him, if television is like fiction, film is like poetry. “It’s about communicating as much as possible in the least amount of time,” he said. “There are just certain moments in life that seem to be all-encompassing, or the smallness of something hints at the infinite sprawl of the human experience, and I’ve always been interested in those moments, because they happen at the weirdest, most random times.”
He learned, he told me, by doing, by “falling face first into it.” On the first day of shooting his first short, he brought his camera but forgot the lens. His first feature, which he financed on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, and made for about $40,000, a “micro-budget” sum, took five years. Van Hove, who grew up poor, had been crashing with friends for most of the previous decade and often still found himself sleeping on floors. He would have been happy to live with his mother, but she was worse off than he was. “It depends on what you can sacrifice,” he said. “I can sacrifice having a roof over my head. Most people can’t give that up, and it cripples them.”
When we spoke, Van Hove was just completing his second feature, having been up doing edits until 5:00 a.m. the night before. He was planning to submit the film to as many festivals as he could afford the entrance fees for, maybe ten to twenty. “I’m on the precipice of seeing if everything I’ve learned is going to work,” he said. Yet he felt ready to take the next step—writing a solid script and piecing together some real financing, on the order of $500,000—“and people can sense when you’re ready.” What keeps him going? I asked. “I’m about to be thirty,” he said. “I made a decision nine years ago that I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life. I went all in, and I’m all in.” Now it was about discovering what he had to contribute. “Because I do see it as a lineage,” he said. “We observe the art that came before us, and we secrete it in our own way as a way to talk about the world and shape the world.”
* * *
There are two stories you hear about making a living as an artist in the digital age, and they are diametrically opposed. One comes from Silicon Valley and its boosters in the media. There’s never been a better time to be an artist, it goes. If you’ve got a laptop, you’ve got a recording studio. If you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got a movie camera. GarageBand, Final Cut Pro: all the tools are at your fingertips. And if production is cheap, distribution is free. It’s called the Internet: YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Kindle Direct Publishing. Everyone’s an artist; just tap your creativity and put your stuff out there. Soon, you too can make a living doing what you love, just like all those viral stars you read about.
The other story comes from artists themselves, especially musicians but also writers, filmmakers, people who do comedy. Sure, it goes, you can put your stuff out there, but who is going to pay you for it? Digital content has been demonetized: music is free, writing is free, video is free, even images you put up on Facebook or Instagram are free, because people can (and do) just take them. Everyone is not an artist. Making art takes years of dedication, and that requires a means of support. If things don’t change, a lot of art will cease to be sustainable.
I’m inclined to believe the artists. For one thing, I don’t trust Silicon Valley. They have billions of reasons to promote their particular narrative, and it’s clear by now they’re not the model corporate citizens they like to claim. For another, the data support the artists, who are also, after all, in the best position to know about their own experience.
Still, people are still making art. More people than ever, in fact, as the techies like to point out. So how are they managing to do it? Are the new conditions tolerable? Are they sustainable? Are they more democratic—that “even playing field” the Internet was meant to give us? How are artists adjusting? How are they resisting? How are they thriving, those of them who are? What does it mean, in specific practical terms, to function as an artist in the twenty-first-century economy?
The twenty-first-century economy: that means the Internet and all it’s wrought, for good and ill, but it also means rental costs, for housing and studio space, that are galloping ahead of inflation. It means soaring tuitions for college and art school and, with them, soaring student debt. It means the growth of the gig economy, coupled with the long-term stagnation of wages, especially for the kind of low-end day-job service work that younger artists, in particular, have long resorted to. It means globalization: globalized competition, globalized capital flows. Many of us who are not artists, maybe most of us, are also facing these facts or soon will. Artists were among the first, and they’ve been hit among the worst.
* * *
Being an artist, people might argue, has always been hard. Sort of—that “always” goes back only so far—but for whom, exactly, has it been hard? For younger artists, who are still trying to establish themselves; for artists who aren’t very good, of whom there is never a shortage; for those who are good but who never manage to find an audience, to find success. The difference now is that it’s hard even if you do find success: reach listeners or readers, win the respect of critics and peers, work steadily and full-time in the field. I spoke about these matters with Ian MacKaye, frontman of the hardcore bands Fugazi and Minor Threat and a leading figure in the indie music scene since the early 1980s. “I know plenty of filmmakers,” he said, “who poured their heart and soul and all their money into projects long before the Internet who lost their fucking ass, because not enough people wanted to see their movie.” And that is as it should be. The problem now is that you often lose your fucking ass even if enough people do want to see your movie, read your novel, listen to your music.
Being an artist has always been hard, but there is hard and hard. How hard matters. How hard affects how much you get to do your art, as opposed to grinding at your day job, and therefore how good you become, as well as how much you are able to make. How hard affects who gets to do it in the first place. The less you can earn from your art, the more you must rely on other sources of support, like Mommy and Daddy. The less money there is in the arts overall, the more they become a rich kid’s game. And wealth correlates with race and gender. If you care about diversity, you need to care about economics. The idea that “people will do it anyway”—that if you’re a real artist you’ll make art no matter what—can be the product only of naïveté or ignorance or privilege.
If many of us are oblivious to the plight of artists in the contemporary economy, there is an obvious reason for that. Not only is there a lot of art being made, there is much, much more of it, at lower cost, than ever. For consumers of art, there really hasn’t ever been a better time—at least, not if you equate quantity with quality, or do not worry overmuch about the workers at the other end of the supply chain. First we had fast food, then we had fast fashion (low-cost, disposable clothing made by poorly paid workers in places like Vietnam and Bangladesh), now we have fast art: fast music, fast writing, fast video, photography, design, and illustration, made cheaply and consumed in haste. We can gorge ourselves to our heart’s content. How nourishing these products are and how sustainable the systems that create them are questions that we need to ask ourselves.
* * *
How artists get paid (and how much) affects the art they make: the art we get to experience, the art that marks our age and shapes our consciousness. This has always been the case. Art may be timeless, in the sense that it transcends its time, but art, like every other human thing, is also made in time, conditioned by the circumstances under which it is brought into being. People prefer to deny this, but every artist understands it. We get more of what we support, less of what we don’t. Art that is truly original—experimental, revolutionary, new—has always been a marginal affair. In good times for the arts, more of it gets dragged across the line of viability, where it is able to survive—where the artist can stick around and keep doing it—until it can be recognized. In bad times, more of it gets dragged the other way. What kind of art are we giving ourselves in the twenty-first century?
The people who pay for art are the ones who determine, directly or otherwise, what is produced: Renaissance patrons, nineteenth-century bourgeois theatergoers, the mass audiences of the twentieth century, public and private funding bodies, sponsors, collectors, and so forth. The twenty-first-century economy not only has sucked a lot of money out of the arts, it has also moved it around in ways that are unpredictable and not by any means all bad. New financial sources have arisen, most notably crowdfunding sites; old ones are making a comeback, like direct private patronage; existing ones are getting variously stronger, like branded art and other forms of corporate sponsorship, or weaker, like academic employment. All this is also changing what gets made.
My largest interest in this book is to delineate those changes. The Internet allows unmediated access to the audience—and to the artist. If it starves professional production, it fosters the amateur kind. It favors speed, brevity, and repetition; novelty but also recognizability. It puts a premium on flexibility, versatility, and extroversion. All of this (and a great deal more) is changing what we think of art, as well: changing what we think is good, changing what we think is art.
Will art itself survive? I don’t mean creativity, or making stuff—playing music, drawing pictures, telling stories. We have always done those things and always will. I mean a particular notion of art—Art with a capital A—that has existed only since the eighteenth century: art as an autonomous realm of meaning making, not subordinate to the old powers of church and king or the new powers of politics and the market, beholden to no authority, no ideology, and no master. I mean the notion that the artist’s job is not to entertain the audience or flatter its beliefs, not to praise the Lord, the group, or the sports drink, but to speak a new truth. Will that survive?
I talked with the musician Kim Deal, another longtime icon of the indie music scene. (Her bands include the Pixies and the Breeders.) Deal was raised in Dayton, Ohio, and lives there, in her fifties, once again. With no self-pity, she compared herself to the kinds of workers she grew up among in the industrial Midwest—increasingly, the postindustrial Midwest. “I’m an autoworker,” she told me. “I’m a steel man. I’m just another person in the history of the world where their industry has become archaic, and it’s gone.” Except that music isn’t like coal mining, or buggy-whip manufacture. We can live without buggy whips; we’ve found alternatives to coal. Music cannot be replaced. How much time during an average day do you spend consuming art? Not just visual-art art; not just high-art art; all art: narratives in books, narratives on television, jazz on the stereo, songs in your earphones, paintings, sculptures, photographs, concerts, ballet, movies, poetry, plays. Several hours a day, no doubt. Given the way that people listen to music at this point, possibly every waking minute.
Can we live without artists, professional ones? The tech evangelists would have us think so. We’ve returned, they insist, to the golden age of the amateur. Folk production, just like in the good old days. So of all that art that you consume, how much is actually created by amateurs? Other than your roommate’s band, probably not very much. Have you seen your cousin’s improv troupe? Is that the only kind of art you want to have available, not only for the rest of your life but for the rest of foreseeable history? Yes, you’ll have access to everything, but what will you have access to? Someone else’s roommate’s band? Great art, even good art, relies on the existence of individuals who are able to devote the lion’s share of their energy to producing it—in other words, professionals. Amateur creativity is no doubt a wonderful thing for those who engage in it. It should not be confused with the genuine article.
Copyright © 2020 by William Deresiewicz