Cory Doctorow joined us today to answer questions about how creative work and copyright work in the digital age. Among them was a particular interestingly question in an increasingly gig-dependent economy: Can artists still make a living from their art? And, if so, how?
Top image: Cory Doctorow Portrait by Jonathan Worth
It's always been a tricky problem, explains Doctorow, and, even before the Internet, the medium has always influenced which art (and artists) make it through:
It's always been all but impossible for individuals to earn a living from the arts!
Nearly everyone who ever set out to earn a living from the arts lost money in the bargain. Of those who made money, almost all made very little. Of those who made a lot of money, most stopped making money quickly.
Success in the arts has always been a six-sigma event, a huge rarity. It's only because we apply survivor-bias to our perception of the arts (only considering the successes, because by definition we never even hear about the failures) that we think of the arts as a business, instead of lotto.
Every single person who's ever pursued a career in the arts without a plan B was doing something insanely risky, and most of them had a diastrous outcome as a result.
When we try to defend certain kinds of professional artists, we always end up doing so at the cost of other artists. For example, before the advent of the record and the radio, it was inconceivable to ponder a musical performer who loved to perform, whose performances would please millions, but who didn't want to perform in front of an audience. This was as weird an idea as a notional champion swimmer who just didn't like water.
The live performers hated and feared the radio/record performers. ASCAP boycotted radio for years (opening the way for "hillbilly" and "race" music to rise to prominence in America).
Today, the people who succeeded at recording careers rebel at the idea of being live performers.
But the technical reality that changed how the tiny minority of successful artists got their income has a much wider effect than artists' income — radio didn't mostly affect music, it changed every fact about the world. The Internet, too.
The biggest challenge to the incomes of the tiny minority of artists who do succeed today is the fact that there is a highly concentrated entertainment industry (five publishers, four labels, five studios) and they have incrediby abusive, one-sided standard contracts.
The real fix for this is to eliminate the de facto subsidies to giant multinational corporations (lobbying priveleges, legalized tax-cheating, etc). (This would also fix pretty much everything else!).
But in the meantime, we can encourage the 'competitor of last resort' - the Internet and all the services that allow artists to opt out of the big five/four and go on their own. That means not imposing enormous copyright liabilities on them (to found Youtube today, you don't just need a garage full of hard-drives, you also need a $300M Content ID system, which means we aren't going to see a lot of Youtube competitors any time soon).
The existence of an alternative to the big companies puts a floor on the worst offer they can make to artists — it has to be better than the best deal we can get for ourselves, outside of their walls.
You can read the full Q&A — where Doctorow talks about his new book Information Doesn't Want To Be Free, and also debunks some of the copyright urban legends that have sprung up, right here.