Jon Collins is a technology industry analyst, researching the impact of emerging technologies on business, society and culture.
“There’s been a lot of recent talk about how music, publishing, film and other creative industries are staring into the abyss. I’m not qualified to talk as a film maker musician – but I have written several, non-best-selling books and while I’m no Shakespeare, a good portion of my income comes from writing.
So I do have a somewhat-vested interest in what is going on. I also spend much of my day job helping companies benefit from emerging technologies, which has a certain relevance. But, from where I’m sitting, I’m not sure that things are as bad as they appear.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Just like everybody else, creative types have to be able to buy food and need a place to lay their heads. If they don’t, they will cease to be creative. It’s all very Maslow.
As a side debate, it could be argued that several layers of the pyramid need to be in place before artists can perform – while a counterpoint might be that some of the best creativity comes from stress, deprivation etc, I’m not really sure that society should go out of its way to create these conditions.
So, people need to eat. Might it also be true that the amount of creativity possible is proportionate to the amount of money available? This certainly seems to be the hypothesis behind arts funding bodies such as the UK Arts Council, and indeed plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth occurs, if funding is reduced. No doubt there are areas of the arts that are of public benefit, and which could not be funded any other way – one need look no further than the Angel of the North for proof.
At the same time – and let’s limit the discussion to relatively affluent Western democracies for the time being – people have money to spend on what might be labelled ‘leisure’.
This is a big bag, including entertainment, hobbies, a cheeky latte when out shopping and so on – but it’s worth considering it as a single source of cash. Figures vary by country but according to 2013 figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the minimum income standard (just shy of £17,000 per year) incorporates about 50 pounds per adult per week for ‘social and cultural participation’.
Given that the national average salary is over £26,000, this suggests some flexibility in terms of what people spend on leisure. Rents, food costs, care costs all play a part – this isn’t intended to be a treatise on how people have to spend their money, nor does it take into account the very real sensations of financial pressure being experienced by many.
However, the baseline figure of the UK adult spending 50 quid a week on leisure (or a total pot of £2billion) is significantly underestimating – in fact some £200 billion was spent on leisure activities in the UK, in 2004.
The insurmountable fact is that consumer spend on creativity is coming from the same wallet as other leisure and non-essentials. A family could choose to take the kids for a pizza or to see a live show, or to buy a fluffy tortoise or a book as a birthday present. Some prefer expensive holidays while others follow their favourite bands. And, frankly, they spend a lot of money doing it.
While this is quite a preamble, it is also a necessary one. People want, and are prepared to pay, to be entertained; creative people need to be paid for this to happen. In the ideal, completely frictionless world, monies would pass directly between creators and consumers according to a real-time value judgement about how the quality of the entertainment.
We see it today with savvy street artists who ask people to fold the money before they drop it in the hat and, as we do so, we witness a most ancient form of transaction taking place. “What you did was of value, and I will therefore return some of that value to you,” says the consumer to the entertainer, who then looks to negotiate the terms.
Everything else is in the hands of whatever intermediaries exist, and how good they are at extracting money from the pipe. Services exist in abundance, some of which appear to be of value but it can be difficult to tell. There are engineers to pay, stage sets to build, print layouts to set, even buildings to fund.
Equally, projects need to be managed, up-front finance has to be found and the resulting works have to be marketed and advertised. Technology plays an intrinsic part, just as it has done since our forebears stretched skins over pots and hit them with sticks, or lit bonfires on hilltops – and that, too, comes at a cost.
What we term ‘the industry’ is a relatively recent phenomenon however, representing a formalisation of management structures, manufacturing processes and business models which have taken on an importance in their own right.
Some might say we are still in the grips of the industrial revolution, with Henry T Ford’s efficiency-driven approaches driving how we operate. Others might comment that corporations have become too powerful, that money and power have gone to the heads of the few, to the detriment of the many. Both are probably right, but we are where we are.
Meanwhile, technology has taken a decidedly curious turn. Whatever we know about the information revolution, what’s sure is that nobody planned it – neither Alan Turing and his cohorts, nor Gordon Moore, nor Tim Berners-Lee had a clear idea of where their creations would take us.
Right now it is all anybody can do to keep up. Companies are rising and falling based on rapid success and equally fast collapse, as the products and services go from being essential to superfluous. The demise of the creative industries is being shouted from the rooftops, as wave upon wave of new tech disrupts the existing flow of value between creators and consumers.
As Marillion’s front man Steve Hogarth once said however, “Technology created the music industry, and technology will destroy it.” Just as Napster became the bogeyman just a handful of years ago, right now artists such as Thom Yorke and David Byrne are railing against Spotify, once the anathema of the labels but now their darling thanks to (no doubt) hard-negotiated licensing deals.
Similar debates are taking place in the worlds of publishing, film and indeed sport, understandably as businesses have a responsibility not to blow their shareholder investments by missing the next big thing. It’s all happening too fast, that’s the trouble. Catch one wave and another comes and washes over your head. It’s the third that drowns you or leaves you to be picked up by the next boat along. How Lefsetz.
And how appropriate are Claire Rayner’s words of wisdom. “This too will pass.” Spotify will become a distant memory as we realise that it is no more than a front-end onto what is already available – mac users, try putting the G-Ear front end onto Google’s Play Music app and you will see what I mean.
The debate over whether Spotify is killing existing revenue models will probably continue beyond the company’s acquisition and/or demise.
As a thought experiment, it is worth thinking about how the creative industries might look if they started now. No, not now, what if they started when even the current waves of technology appeared old hat. If 3D printing was installed in every home, if we all had high-resolution wall screens, if network bandwidth really was ubiquitous. What would our children make of that? Possibly, but not definitely, they would look to connect as individuals to individuals, as creative artists to consumers.
Understanding this, we might see a new generation of intermediaries that offer online services, that take a bet on certain individuals and help fund them. We might – no, we will – see skilled people helping engineer, develop backdrops, proof read and illustrate because these skills are essential to the creative process.
We will inevitably have to put up with tryers and hangers-on, money grabbers and incompetent buffoons – these are all parts of the rich tapestry we call humanity, like it or not.
So, how should we read the current runes, on this basis? Should all musicians, writers be business people or intensely good at cultivating relationships? I do hope not. Author Neil Stephenson’s views on email (to paraphrase, “don’t expect me to write back, I’m busy writing”) appear to be superseded by a social media presence, which indicates how things can change – email overload may still exist, but conversation about it is so last decade.
While there is a clear value exchange to be had between creator and consumer, perhaps the most fundamental point we can take away is how easy it is for this to be undermined. Or, to put it more bluntly, for artists to be ripped off.
The creative act is frequently intangible and, potentially after years of practice, quite quick to produce. Kiri Te Kanewa may still be able to knock out an aria at will, but alongside natural talent came a lifetime of honing her art. Whatever comes in the future, it is up to all artists to be vigilant against those who expect the value but don’t appreciate the cost.
Equally however, artists should use their creative currency in whatever way benefits themselves and their careers. Most companies have a marketing budget – essentially, money down the drain in the hope of future sales. No reason exists why musicians, writers and so on are any different – but like businesses, they should ensure that marketing spend remains small relative to sales income.
Quick tip: set an hourly rate, then it becomes very clear how much you are ‘spending’ – “I just gave you 100 quid of my time and experience” is so much more tangible than “I just wrote you a blog” or “I attended your festival”, for example.
In conclusion, while the midst of the maelstrom doesn’t offer the best vantage point for predicting the future, it is premature to suggest the demise of any industry, nor cast the blame towards any one party. The industries that will form on the back of the technology revolution are still nascent, just as those they replace. MySpace didn’t kill music nor offer its salvation, but we only know this from hindsight.
If I were a rich man I would put my money behind bootstrapping a new breed of record labels, of publishers and film studios, of managers and agents that work with technology rather than against it, and which see creative artists as a source of brilliance, and not as (I quote) “assets to be sweated”.
Unfortunately, a significant proportion of those with money appear to be more concerned about protecting the old than creating the new. This is more than a shame; it is a tragedy, as it misses a fundamental opportunity for creators to engage even more directly with real people.
The passive act of social sharing is merely scratching the surface of what is to come, a fact that artists, media brands and other intermediaries alike would do well to acknowledge.”