Musicians and the Digital Age
How a New York Times magazine story did a disservice to creative artists
Volume 115, No. 10October, 2015
Near the end of the summer, the New York Times Magazine published an article called “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” by Steven Johnson. The article was disappointing to working artists in many different ways and we are grateful for the chance to publish a rebuttal here.
We’re the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization supporting a musical ecosystem where artists flourish and are compensated fairly and transparently for their work. We work with musicians, composers and industry stakeholders to identify solutions to shared challenges. We promote strategies, policies, technologies and educational initiatives that always put artists first while recognizing the role music fans play in shaping the future. We work to ensure that diversity, equality and creativity drives artist engagement with the global music community, and that these values are reflected in laws, licenses, and policies that govern any industry that uses music as raw material for its business. Local 802 has been a supporter of us, and we support the union’s mission to help musicians achieve fair wages and working conditions.
Now onto the article in question. To their credit, the New York Times and Steve Johnson reached out to us prior to publishing their piece. We like to help out with this sort of thing, because we know that music business structures and practices can be quite complicated, and think it’s important that journalists get the facts and context as correct as possible.
Alas, what ended up running was rather disappointing. The Times magazine chose to publish without substantive change most of the things that we told them were either: a) not accurate or b) not verifiable because there is no industry consensus and the “facts” could really go either way.
The article frames itself as a data-driven response to concerns about the plight of creative workers in the digital age. But Johnson’s grasp of the limitations of the data he cites seems tenuous, and he ends up relying on some very dubious and all-too-familiar assumptions. In its sweeping dismissal of artists’ various concerns, the article reads as an exercise in manipulation.
Over the course of 15 years of research into the musician community, one of our core takeaways has been that there’s really no such thing as an “average musician,” even if it can be enlightening to highlight mean values from a group of respondents in a survey or study. Musicians are a highly specialized group, with a diverse range of business models. Performers and composers work at different scales in different contexts with different professional and creative goals. Qualitative and quantitative data around economics for artists thus resists simplified narratives.
Yet simplified narratives are what Johnson offers. He suggests there are more musicians and composers now than ever before, citing government datasets: “In 1999 there were nearly 53,000 Americans who considered their primary occupation to be that of a musician, a music director or a composer; in 2014 more than 60,000 people were employed writing, singing, or playing music. That’s a rise of 15 percent.” But he doesn’t mention that changing definitions mean that only the second figure includes primary and secondary school band and choir directors; without them, the total would have gone down. He makes similar mistakes when looking at wage data. Educators are certainly an important part of the music ecosystem, but probably not the best proxy for say, a professional songwriter or a classical composer, let alone for the plight of musicians generally.
Johnson cites another government dataset: from 2002 to 2012, the number of businesses that identify as or employ ‘‘independent artists, writers and performers’’ (which also includes some athletes) grew by almost 40 percent, while the total revenue generated by this group grew by 60 percent, far exceeding the rate of inflation. But he omits that this same study found that the number of paid employees working in that category declined from 58,828 to 41,117, a decrease of 28 percent. And this doesn’t begin to address the definitional questions of who counts as a musician.
Johnson cites growth in gross concert revenues as evidence that live performance income is filling in for lost recording revenues. But here again, he fails to investigate how complete this dataset is, ignoring that it consists of voluntary submissions from concert promoters and thus misses much of the live music market. Overall growth could be attributed to rising ticket prices, more shows, or simply more venues reporting that did not report before. That amounts to a weak case for the democratization of live revenue.
That weakness is compounded by the fact that gross revenue numbers in any part of an industry tell you nothing about what ends up in individual musicians’ pockets. As ticket prices climb, so do production costs and audience expectations. Sometimes, even well-attended tours lose money. And, unlike revenue streams derived from making recordings or compositions, touring costs aren’t very scalable. The more shows you play, the more money you have to spend.
Are musicians making more or less from touring? In 2012, we asked musicians whether their gross revenue from touring was up or down over the past five years. It was an even split. For 28 percent, their income from live performance has gone up. For 20 percent, it has stayed the same, and for 28 percent it has gone down.
Johnson concedes that growth in live music doesn’t help musicians who don’t tour, but he reduces this question to artists’ personal preferences, a matter of whether they “like” being on the road. Some artists’ ability to tour is limited by health, age, and whether they have kids. Some, like professional songwriters, session players, etc, are just working in a different part of the industry.
There’s a more fundamental problem with Johnson’s framing, in that he conflates all contemporary critiques of aspects of the digital economy into one unified techno-dystopian line of argument to position himself against. But today’s debate isn’t just about whether art will make money, but whose art, what kind of art, how much of the money generated by art ends up with artists, and what they’ll have to endure to get it. It’s about how much agency artists get in defining the terms of the digital landscape.
Our problem with Johnson’s article isn’t that he fails to conform to some doom-and-gloom scenario for artists working today. Indeed, there are a lot of new opportunities worth celebrating, even as we understand that not all musicians have access to these new revenues streams, and new streams may not produce meaningful income for those who participate in them. Most frustrating to us is that Johnson reinforces a false binary between pro-technology optimistic futurism and anti-technology digital pessimism.
If you want to know how musicians are faring, you have to ask musicians, preferably a whole lot of them. You’ll get different answers from different musicians, and they’ll all be correct in terms of their own experiences. But your overall understanding will better reflect the complexity of the landscape.
For much more, see our web site at www.FutureOfMusic.org, including a response from Steven Johnson himself.
Kevin Erickson is the communications and outreach manager for the Future of Music Coalition. Reach him at Kevin@FutureOfMusic.org.