The New York Times periodically publishes blog posts and Op-Eds by defenders of the intellectual property regimes that are a blot on our cultural landscape today; these defenders include what I describe as–for lack of a better term–‘the whining artist.’ This category includes all those who, seemingly stunned by the fact that the political economy of the production and distribution of cultural products have irreversibly changed, insist on incessantly bemoaning it and ascribing all sorts of malefactions to its agents, whether human, economic, or material.
In this category we can now include Alina Simone, who in her piece titled ‘The End of Quiet Music‘ displays an acute lack of an ironic and historical sensibility. Roughly, Simone is disappointed: that in the new music economy she had to be ‘entrepreneurial’ and this left her little time for creative production; that seeking patronage is time-consuming and counterproductive to the nurturing of artists (‘ this mechanism naturally winnows out the artists who lack the ability, confidence or desire to publicly solicit donations’); that, wait for it, ‘piracy’ is to blame.
So far, so ‘we’ve heard it before.’ But it gets interesting now:
Late one night, after playing a show, I came home to an e-mail from an editor at a publishing house. He’d heard my music on Pandora and bought my albums at the (now defunct) Virgin Megastore in Union Square. He had a question for me: Would I consider writing a book?
Two years later, my collection of essays was published.
Imagine that: the ‘new economy’–one in which music not belonging to private collections is now streamed–had resulted in another avenue of creative production opening up for her. And her first book is being distributed on Kindle; perhaps it can be downloaded and read anywhere?
Then Ms. Simone publishes a novel, and pretty soon, ‘a university press commissioned another book.’ (She also has a regular gig blogging for The New York Times; a ‘blog’ those online spaces where writers can write and be read; Ms. Simone’s articles do not appear in the print edition.) Ms. Simone is not satisfied though and is still anxious: writers will soon be threatened by this piracy-infused world but they do seem to have it better because there are more avenues for patronage:
[P]ublishing is facing its own pressures, and the day may come when writers have no option but to become entrepreneurs, too. For now the center continues to hold; you can still write for a newspaper instead of founding your own.
But even if it doesn’t hold, there are other sectors writers can lean on for support. They can seek funding through fellowships or residencies, or teach writing at a university. These kinds of opportunities have helped a significant group of American artists carve out a middle-class living for themselves.
Ms. Simone does not seem to realize that artists and intellectual of all stripes have always relied on patronage of corresponding diversity. The creation of industries that relied on tangible products which could be made artificially scarce produced a new economy whose heyday saw the creation of much wealth for those who controlled the means of production and distribution. That economy is now in its death-throes. Artists will now seek patronage in other ways, yet to be determined. (Incidentally, there are ‘fellowships and residencies’ for musicians, and many of them teach music too at a variety of institutions.)
It will be replaced by one in which many reconfigurations will need to take place; artists who might have flourished in the old one will not do well in this new one; some who would not have done well in the older one will do better in this one. Its contours are hard to determine; there is too much flux to permit any more facile predictions like the ones I have just made. (There might be some genre-switching too.)
But so long as the creative impulse lives on–and there is little to suggest humans will stop writing novels, poems, and plays, making music and painting, given that they did so before the industries whose deaths are now being forecast ever came about–we can expect art to be made. Entry to its world might be harder or easier; its products might be available in ways different from the ones we are used to; we might consume them differently.
We need artists to turn their imaginations to conceiving what this world might look and feel like, and not spend their time griping about new modes of creation and distribution.
When they do so, they don’t sound like artists. They sound like reactionaries.