2015-08-20

Music Is Dead And People Just Don't Get It

Tyler Cowen links to this New York Times article about musicians' rising incomes, called "The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't." Author Steven Johnson suggests that all the fears of new technology devastating the livelihood of musical artists were unfounded.

Johnson introduces his thesis as follows, but predictably, I already think he's on the wrong track (emphasis mine).
The world of professional creativity, the critics fear, will soon be swallowed by the profusion of amateurs, or the collapse of prices in an age of infinite and instant reproduction will cheapen art so that no one will be able to quit their day jobs to make it — or both. 
The trouble with this argument is that it has been based largely on anecdote, on depressing stories about moderately successful bands that are still sharing an apartment or filmmakers who can’t get their pictures made because they refuse to pander to a teenage sensibility. When we do see hard data about the state of the culture business, it usually tracks broad industry trends or the successes and failures of individual entertainment companies. That data isn’t entirely irrelevant, of course; it’s useful to know whether the music industry is making more or less money than it did before Ulrich delivered his anti-­Napster testimony. But ultimately, those statistics only hint at the most important question. 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.
Johnson is right about what "the dystopian scenario" is, but I'll get to that in a moment. Right now, I'd like to challenge his assertion that "As a society, what we most want to ensure is that artists can prosper." I'm not so sure that's true.

And I'm not just being cynical about society, I'm suggesting that whether or not artists "prosper" is entirely irrelevant to societies wants or needs. But that's not unique to artists, it's a fact of every other occupation out there. Society doesn't want artists, or doctors, or lawyers, or garbage men to "prosper." People in various professions prosper because they give society what it wants. In the case of doctors, society wants to be healed. Society would be thrilled if medical technology could be delivered robotically at a cost of zero dollars and all doctors had to seek other kinds of employment. That would be huge!

Analogously, society doesn't want artists to prosper, society wants art. Whether or not the artist prospers is beside the point. Many great artists throughout history have died as paupers and society didn't care. What society cares about is the output, the art. That's the end goal.

That is, by the way, why the "dystopian scenario" isn't about the death of business, but rather the death of the artistic media, the output. So Johnson contradicts himself here.

By The Numbers

To bolster his case, Johnson cites income data on performers and artists. He points out the following:
  • The Occupational Employment Statistics show* a >20% growth in the category that includes artists and performers (compared to a >14% growth in US population).
  • "Annual income for [this occupational group] grew by 40 percent, slightly more than the O.E.S. average of 38 percent."
  • A consulting agency used the US Economics Census to conclude* that there was a 40 percent increase in the size of self-employed performers, whose income grew by 60 percent during the ten-year time-frame between 2002 and 2012.
Johnson then concludes that, while musicians and artists in aggregate have experienced income growth that merely kept pace with inflation, they haven't seen a decrease in income, and meanwhile the number of people employed in those fields has increased, and the incomes of the self-employed artists are estimated to have increased sharply.

It sure looks like a good case for artists and musicians. More people in those fields are making as much money or more than ever before. 

But remember: Johnson isn't arguing against the claim that nobody makes money in music and art anymore. No, he's arguing against the "distopian scenario" that movies and music are dying.

Quality, Not Quantity

On the question of quality, Johnson is a lot lazier. I, personally, would have preferred that he tackle things from the angle of aesthetics, but that's a tall order in this philosophy-deprived world. Still, Johnson doesn't even give us a cursory "there's no accounting for taste," but rather dismisses the mere possibility that quality has decreased, at least for one medium (emphasis mine):
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. I think we can take it as a given that television is exempt from this concern: Shows like ‘‘Game Of Thrones,’’ ‘‘Orange Is The New Black,’’ ‘‘Breaking Bad’’ and so on confirm that we are living through a golden age of TV narrative. But are the other forms thriving artistically to the same degree?
I guess if you don't think Breaking Bad is one of the greatest artistic narratives in television history, then you're just denying reality. The sad thing here is that these series are, essentially, R-rated soap operas. They're certainly glitzy, but their only real attraction is (a) sex and (b) end-of-episode cliffhangers. The action is slow, and the plots are relatively predictable, right up until the end of each episode, at which point, there is a surprise twist that seems interesting enough to make you want to watch the next episode.

...which, when you think about it, is exactly how a soap opera works. It works for getting viewers, sure, but let's not kid ourselves. This ain't Tolstoy.

As for movies, Johnson evades the quality question entirely, and chooses instead to focus on the total earnings of films that were made under a certain budget level and received a certain Rotten Tomatoes score. Because the earnings number went up, Johnson concludes that cinematic quality is higher than ever. But that is a complete non sequitur. As one point of countervailing evidence, I'll simply remark that one of the movies Johnson lists as artistically challenging is Zero Dark Thirty - remember that piece of propaganda put out to glorify the assassination of Osama bin Laden? Take that, Citizen Kane!

This Is The End, My Only Friend, The End

More telling than that, however, is the fact that Johnson doesn't even attempt to make a case for the artistic integrity of the music business; not even a cursory paragraph, just nothing. So in lieu of dismantling the argument he obviously knew he couldn't make, I'll simply ask you to engage in a thought experiment for a moment.

What would the "dystopian scenario" look like in the music world? What would "the death of music" actually look like? 

Here's what I think it would look like: I think, rather than a complete absence of music, what you'd see is a situation in which it would be impossible to get away from extremely bad music. Such music would be omnipresent, cheap to produce, and virtually limitless in quantity. As such, it would deliberately eschew harmonic and rhythmic complexity, in favor of tried-and-true compositional elements that could be recycled as many times as possible.

So, for example, instead of the 20-minute-long symphonies, with thematic development that spanned the entire 20 minutes, such as those that used to debut a century ago, we'd see simple building blocks that could be copy-pasted as many times as it took to get to 20 minutes. The pieces would be highly repetitive and whatever thematic development that unfolded over the span of the piece would be that which could be supported by a limited number of building blocks. -- That's techno.

In the dystopian scenario, we'd see a situation in which the performance of a piece takes a back seat to precision. The art involved in the composition of this kind of music wouldn't pertain to elements that challenge a listener artistically, because that would be expensive, time-consuming, and commercially unattractive. Instead, the art involved would pertain to those elements that a modern, technology-savvy society could easily grasp: how precise is the rhythm, how many "wrong" notes are there, can it be replicated on my home copy of GarageBand, etc.? Because performance and musical proficiency are difficult to assess, most critical evaluation of music would focus on either its "X-factor," or its production quality. Not, "Does this concerto move me?" but simply "Was this concerto played on an instrument that was well-recorded by a cool new mic." (A felicitous offshoot of this kind of musical evaluation is that it is well-suited to product-placement. Gotta keep you buying gear so that you can soon make a techno symphony of your own.)

But in the dystopian scenario - the true worst-case - it wouldn't be true that all artists were techno artists. Instead, we'd see a situation in which even the serious artists produce this sort of music and are evaluated on the same level as techno artists. Serious music, whatever it sounded like, would just be another genre, another category of Grammy recipient. In the dystopian case, hackneyed 4-chord country artists would be given the same kind of accolades once reserved for, say, Beethoven.

See, in the real dystopia, music consumers would basically be ambivalent toward, oh, how about Nikki Minaj... between Nikki Minaj and Maurice Ravel. Artists like Minaj would be financially successful, or at least they'd be able to make livings as a rapidly growing new category of artistic entrepreneurs. Those more like Ravel, who rely on a combination of time, effort, originality, and artistic integrity to do what they do, would be about as successful as Nikki Minaj, initially; but then they would realize that they can earn the same amount of money with far less effort by uploading video remakes of video game songs and AutoTuned political speeches set to drum machines to their YouTube account and monetizing it.

Ha ha ha, but that would be ridiculous. That's just the dystopian scenario. That would never happen.

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* Note: I did not personally verify Johnson's data, but elected to take it at face value. Interested persons should verify these data for themselves.