In the beginning there was music and dancing and theater and painting, and there were listeners and watchers. Those who performed for the king were compensated by the king in forms of currency varied in both treasure and usefulness. Food, clothing, shelter, fame and recognition, and most importantly, projects to accomplish were given to artists in addition to the occasional coin. In such a way, the arts were both reviled and revered, because the king’s wishes became theirs. In the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, artists in the catacombs of Rome noted this in one scene that included this marvelous quote: “We’re artists! We’ll always be slaves to another man’s nickel.”
Patronage for the arts is still practiced today, although little of it goes to the artists themselves. Mostly, the arts have been taken over by corporations whose interests rarely match those of their “employed” artists, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of music. Music today has betrayed itself by chasing wealth as its sole reward, and this is not only tragic but sad.
And we just assume that this is the way it’s supposed to be.
The Shirky Principle – that institutions will always try to maintain the problem for which they are the solution – when applied to the music industry is what led to its disruption by the digital age. Scarcity is the problem, and when consumers got tired of paying $20 or more for a CD with one hit, technology did something about it. Enter our dear friends at the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) who went to extreme lengths to halt the will of the people 15 years ago by actually suing its customers. This foolishness led to change, but the desire to protect “the industry” hasn’t given up. There’s still way too much money at stake, and music, unfortunately, is the ultimate loser.
Like the rest of the corporate owned and managed arts, profit is the bottom line in music, not expression of the arts. Originality is sacrificed in the name of repetition, copying, and the production of a sure thing. After all, the shareholders demand manageable growth, so their servants have no choice but to give it to them. Is this the meaning of the arts? I don’t think so. With the arts, as in life itself, one cannot serve two masters.
At the other end of the spectrum is YouTube. I won’t argue that YouTube isn’t part of an enormous corporation, but that’s not the point. I want to talk for a bit about what YouTube has done for the art of music, not the industry. The RIAA, after all, is now threatening lawsuits against YouTube in yet another grasping at straws in the name getting compensation for artists. Bullshit. The RIAA is many things, but it is NOT an advocate for artists, except where in so doing lines the pockets of its masters.
Meanwhile, there’s an awakening among artists everywhere that the web can be exploited to provide a distribution vehicle that can be used to create ancillary revenue streams. As I’ve written previously, YouTubeRed is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it’s YouTube’s way of creating a micropayment system for those artists whose music is actually played, whether sponsored by corporations or otherwise. This is a certain harbinger for the healthy future of all of the arts, because the output of artists cannot be treated like manufactured products anymore. The arts belong to everybody, and if we enjoy them, it’s our responsibility to pay for them in one way or another.
We’re at the dawn of a great awakening of right brain output, and this pleases me. Industrial age mass marketing was not kind to those wishing to distribute their creative wares, and we’re experiencing the fruit of that today.
The squeeze by consumers has uncovered certain ugly realities:
- Wall art is mass produced, because it’s cheaper than originals (and no mall carries original work anyway).
- Music is entirely hit-based and celebrity-based.
- Repetition is the lifeblood of arts-related industries but the destroyer of the arts themselves.
- Hollywood only repeats successful formulas.
- Publishers will only publish that which they know will sell.
- All of the arts are based on the bottom line, because the arts are “owned” and operated by corporations.
- As a result, the commercial expectations of artists are entirely wealth-based and unrealistic.
The web, however, has disrupted everything by making everybody’s art available to anybody. Remember, the network views middlemen as a mistake and routes around them. Therefore, you cannot superimpose laws created for the one-to-many world of mass media over the infrastructure of the network. It simply doesn’t work, because scarcity doesn’t (can’t) scale when everybody’s connected. It certainly carries a different value than it does in a disconnected marketplace, and all industries will be forced to deal with this at some point in the not-too-distant future. I understand the desperate nature of disrupted industries, but that does not justify throwing existing laws at the problem, and this includes copyright. We’re going to need visionaries in both the public and private sectors that don’t have institutional corporations in mind as benefactors, but instead, the artists themselves.
The arts are for everyone. As James Allen wrote in his wonderful little book As A Man Thinketh, “The dreamers are the saviors of the world,” and I take this seriously. The prophets of old were among the most sensitive of all humans, for their connection to the world beyond was far outside the norm. So, too, the artists of today prophesy with their work, and we need to pay attention. The problem is that prophecy doesn’t necessarily sell, and that’s our horrific loss. Bob Dylan is a rare example of both, but even at the height of his popularity, his music was an acquired taste. Of course, this was when the message of much of the music world was more important than a song’s ability to recruit wallets. Again, our culture has suffered, because we cannot hear today’s silenced messengers.
Of course, change always takes time, especially with lawyers reproducing like rabbits and for whom “the law” is natural essence of their sustenance. I’m also one of the old guys, so I probably won’t see it in my lifetime.
Nevertheless, let me encourage anyone who works for or benefits from the arts to set your minds on change and help move the rock collectively forward. Not only is it in your best interests, but it’s best for all of our progeny.