We came across an article in the New York Times magazine this week which, while it mostly focuses on media such as television and music, seems to be a bellwether for the creative industry as a whole. We’ve grown accustomed in recent years to assume the worst about job growth in the creative field, but Steven Johnson’s article, “The Creative Apocalypse that Wasn’t” tempers that cynicism with some promising statistics. Some people have a bone to pick with Johnson’s reporting, but we’ll dive into that in a moment.
Above image: New York Times illustration by Andrew Rae.
Johnson opens with a scene I remember well: Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich prophesying doom before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1999 about the evils of music piracy. If the file-sharing program Napster wasn’t destroyed and its creators “thrown in prison,” then the music industry would go down in flames. Sixteen years later, Ulrich’s testimony is still the least metal thing to have happened in the genre’s history. Also, according to Johnson, the creative armageddon the corporatist dad-rocker predicted never came to pass. True, the business side of the recording industry tanked, but that’s been met with an increase in live performance revenue, a decrease in the cost to produce a musical work and greater exposure for artists. When the Internet closes a door it opens a window, it seems.
We’re different in the contemporary ceramic art field because (at least for the time being) you can’t download a George Ohr vessel and print it out in your home. Our field is tied to unique, physical objects that aren’t as subject to the whims of a digital marketplace. Our point of interest in Johnson’s piece is this statistic he cited from the Labor Department.
“The best approximation of the creative-class group as a whole is (Occupational Employment Statistics) Group 27-0000, or Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media Occupations. It’s a broader definition than we’re looking for — I think we can all agree that professional athletes are doing just fine, thank you very much — but it gives us a place to start.
“The first thing that jumps out at you, looking at Group 27-0000, is how stable it has been over the past decade and a half. In 1999, the national economy supported 1.5 million jobs in that category; by 2014, the number had grown to nearly 1.8 million. This means the creative class modestly outperformed the rest of the economy, making up 1.2 percent of the job market in 2001 compared with 1.3 percent in 2014. Annual income for Group 27-0000 grew by 40 percent, slightly more than the O.E.S. average of 38 percent. From that macro viewpoint, it hardly seems as though the creative economy is in dust-bowl territory. If anything, the market looks as if it is rewarding creative work, not undermining it, compared with the pre-Napster era.“
The emphasis above is ours.
Johnson’s piece, of course, rankled people who have devoted a lot of time to pondering this issue. The Future of Music Coalition penned a lengthy response to the article on their website, basically saying that statistics about wages do not take into account the widely varying amounts of success that people employed in the industry experience. Not everyone can be Kanye West but throwing a few people of his stature into the numbers paints a different picture than the reality faced by typical artists.
To get to the reality of the situation, they say, you need to talk to artists. This is anecdotal evidence, but let’s read what a few of the artists had to say in the article’s comments.
…There are so many musicians out there who make a living by doing side jobs like waitressing. Some of them make YouTube instrument lessons like the article mentioned, but that would be equating teaching to the actual making of the art. They are two different things, and professional musicians consider the act of teaching instrument lessons on YouTube no different than waitressing or driving a taxi.
Musicians have a love-hate relationship with record label companies. While those companies take a large chunk of money from musicians, they also help them with logistics such as album cover design, marketing, advertising, etc. Nowadays musicians must find people to do all those things for them and also pay out of their own pockets. So, even if they do generate slightly higher revenue than before, they also have more expenses to cover.
And from Martha McSweeney:
This article is way off base and doesn’t take into account the realities of what it takes to sell yourself as an artist in the current free-for-all environment of art making. I’m a “successful” writer for a major metropolitan newspaper who also started an LLC to produce an independent web series that got picked up by a large Internet studio. In addition, I tour and play music in an indie rock band with a publishing contract. I’m married to a Grammy-winning producer and musician. Unfortunately, we know a few things about how hard it is to be a part of the creative classes. In the 1980s my husband and I would have been a power couple, today we can barely make ends meet, no matter how creative we get when it comes to making our work available for consumption. That’s not to say that the big studio systems of yore had it right, just that the indie art culture that Mr. Johnson claims is flourishing with the help of digital technology, is merely squatting online, hoping to go viral.
The outcry was such that the paper responded to it in two separate posts, essentially standing by Johnson’s reporting. The disagreement seems to lie where statistics fail to paint an accurate picture of someone’s lived experience, so we’d like to hear what our readers think. Have you thrived in the digital age? Have you benefited? Has it become harder now that you have to self-promote and compete with everyone else for recognition?
Let us know in the comments!
Bill Rodgers is the General Editor of CFile and the digital creative economy is the reason he’s not living under a bridge.