walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Steven Johnson piece at NYT, blogging while reading

Read along with me!


For reference purposes, I read and enjoyed Johnson's book, _How Music Got to Be Free_ recently and reviewed it. However, I had some issues with his editorializing (blunt and sometimes very questionable) and those issues turned up even worse in this piece.

First up: his thesis is in the title, so it's not like he's hiding anything.

"The dystopian scenario, after all, isn’t about the death of the record business or Hollywood; it’s about the death of music or movies. As a society, what we most want to ensure is that the artists can prosper — not the record labels or studios or publishing conglomerates, but the writers, musicians, directors and actors themselves."

Basically: screw middle management and every line worker ever. I only care about cultural elites! Look, _I_ don't want to go back to discs either, but this does seem a little calloused. Shouldn't we want to ensure good jobs and a good life for everyone, artistic or hard worker in a factory?

"The best approximation of the creative-class group as a whole is 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."

This is just straight up sexism, and Johnson surely hasn't even realized it. First off, with the exception of a very tiny fraction of the top of the industry, most pro athletes don't make shit. Second, of the top pro athletes who do make money, there's a really crystal clear gender divide. We saw it in action when our women's team won the World Cup -- by a lot -- and they still don't make enough money to live on. (And soccer players in general make little compared to American football players at the top level and we all know how gendered _that_ division is.) Short form: pro athletes are NOT doing just fine, especially women pro athletes.

He does come up with some interesting info, however, suggesting that creative employment (including self-employment) is actually growing faster than the rest of employment, and maybe even growing revenue faster as well.

"And yet collectively, the figures seem to suggest that music, the creative field that has been most threatened by technological change, has become more profitable in the post-­Napster era — not for the music industry, of course, but for musicians themselves."

Yes! That is what we call disintermediation. Does disintermediation as a word appear in the story? NO! No, it does not. WHY DOES IT NOT APPEAR IN THIS STORY! OMGWTFBBQ (I was reminded of this recently and wanted to dredge it back up out of the past.)

"It’s elemental economics: As one good — recorded music — becomes ubiquitous, its price plummets, while another good that is by definition scarce (seeing a musician play a live performance) grows in value."

Part (a) is commodification. Part (a) and Part (b) actually don't have any inherent connection to each other -- it's just that people gotta eat so if they can't make money in commodity hell they will usually go find something to do that WILL make money. So they can eat. Commodification (or any variation on the word commodity) also DO NOT APPEAR IN THIS ARTICLE. Kind of weird and amazing. It's like the author wants to very carefully avoid using any of that nasty technical language associated with what he is describing.

"In the post-­Napster era, there seems to have been a swing back in a more egalitarian direction. According to one source, the top 100 tours of 2000 captured 90 percent of all revenue, while today the top 100 capture only 43 percent."


"The same technological forces that have driven down the price of recorded music have had a similar effect on the cost of making an album in the first place."

Yup. Commodification.

"If you were a television actor looking for work on a multiseason drama or comedy in 2001, there were only a handful of potential employers: the big four networks and HBO and Showtime." Don't you love it when Americans say stuff like this? (<-- Sarcasm.)

"What about the economics of quality? Perhaps there are more musicians than ever, and the writers have collectively gotten a raise, but if the market is only rewarding bubble-­gum pop and ‘‘50 Shades Of Grey’’ sequels, there’s a problem."

Okay, so we are _def_ looking at a classist, sexist pig here. For sure.

Earlier: "Of the big four creative industries (music, television, movies and books), music turns out to be the business that has seen the most conspicuous turmoil: None of the other three has seen anywhere near the cratering of recorded-­music revenues."

Well, I went into a Barnes & Noble a couple days ago to buy my daughter some DVDs and it was like a museum in there. Crosley turntables. Vinyl everywhere. I have to wonder if the book industry hasn't cratered the way the music industry cratered is in part because bookstores did a better job of turning themselves into dry goods merchants than Tower Records managed. We saw a thriving Newbury Comics at the mall the other day, which post-comics was a major retail source for music in New England. It's gone full-merch at this point: t-shirts and plush and goddess knows what, but full of young people browsing. If there is any media for sale in that place any more, you have to wade through the front half of the place to find it -- and that's assuming there is anything back there in the way of media anyway.

There are several paragraphs about TV and movies, but I can't help but feel like he should have at _least_ mentioned the trend to serialization in an effort to ensure Profits. "If Francis Ford Coppola were making his ‘‘Godfather’’ trilogy today, he might well end up at HBO or AMC, with a hundred hours of narrative at his disposal, instead of 10." When you look at the per season or per ep cost of a typical TV series bought via iTunes or Amazon or whatever, and you work that out versus buying even a three movie series covering roughly the same material, the serialization approach is for sure what you want to do. Music and Film appear to be 180 degrees out of sync: music moving _towards_ events and event pricing; film moving _away_ from events and towards serialization.

"But many of the most ardent Kindle converts — and I count myself among them — still enjoy browsing shelves of physical books, picking them up and sitting back on the couch with them."

Book huffers for the win? It was weird being in B&N. I won't go into bookstores any more, because I don't want to be accused of showrooming, so I exclusively shop and buy online. But I sure understand the appeal of being in a bookstore and it is as powerful as it ever was. I just fucking _hate_ holding up a paper book (<-- somethingcatchyorother problems).

The quality argument, in general, is a dippy one. Most enduring "classics" that make it into a canon (not all! Alas) were once popular.

"Virtually no one bought anything on their computer just 20 years ago; the idea of using a phone to buy and read a 700-page book about a blind girl in occupied France would have sounded like a joke even 10 years ago."

Uhhhh. Yeah, okay, I'll just walk away from that now? (It _feels_ like gratuitous ablism. It really does. Yes, I am aware of the book in question.)

In revenue streams, ringtone royalties are mentioned. Goddess, ringtone royalties. The restrictions on legit purchased ringtones are astonishing.

"These sounds could have cost millions to assemble 15 years ago; today, you can have all of them for a few thousand dollars."

Yeah, sure you can. If you're willing to accept the format restrictions that make it really just not that exciting any more.

"Most full-time artists barely make enough money to pay the bills, and so if we have levers to pull that will send more income their way — whether these take the form of government grants, Kickstarter campaigns or higher fees for the music we stream — by all means we should pull those levers."

Again, why should full-time artists be some beneficiary of government (that would be us, the taxpayers, funding it) largesse or consumer support? Ya think most full-time workers in the US aren't in the same situation "barely" making "enough money to pay the bills"? What _is_ so special about these special butterflies?

That said, I completely agree with the underlying thesis of the article. The creative careerists are doing as well or better post digital transition than they were doing pre or during. They do not need our pity or our collective angst.
Tags: politics

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