Stayin’ Alive

     |    Wednesday April 25th, 2012

I must have missed the press release. You know how, when a singer has a new album out, they’re suddenly on the covers of all the magazines that week because someone sent out a press release? That’s what happened this week, only with an idea, not a cultural artifact. And the idea is one I’m well-acquainted with: almost nobody I know can make a living any more.



There are a lot of reasons for this, all revolving around the same basic core: nobody wants to pay for anything these days. Me, I’m feeling an odd sense of déja vu about this all. Haven’t I been here before?


Sure I have. I’ve lived here every day for the past I don’t know how many years. And yet, as if thre had been press release, the past week has seen a blossoming of stories about this. Unlike a new album, the stories and issues here aren’t things which have just appeared. Still, as someone with a dog in this race, I’m happy to see them. As with any issue close to home, it’s good to see this one still has legs.


The first article I saw was called “No Sympathy For The Creative Class,” and appeared in Salon this Sunday. Like a lot of Salon stories, it’s long, rambling, and pretty well researched. Its author, Scott Timberg, is described as a “former Los Angeles Times arts and culture reporter,” (ah, one of those) and he does a good job of finding musicians, dancers, a novelist, a poet, and others to show how job opportunities for the people I wish he wouldn’t call “creatives” have plunged, how (if we’re going to go by Internet comments, which I don’t think are representative) the “common man” resents the “creatives” who are seen as just sitting on their butts and not really working. It’s a long, discouraging screed, especially for those of us who know that, for the most part, Salon doesn’t pay its contributors.


After that, full-scale nostalgia set in, as Spiegel Online did a series of articles on how — get this — downloading free content is hurting artists. There was an honest-to-god debate between a German hip-hop artist I’ve never heard of named Jan Delay and one Christopher Lauer, who’s actually made it into the Berlin city government as a member of the Pirate Party. It’s worth reading for Delay’s seething acrimony against Lauer, as well as Lauer’s idiotic responses — and a killer last line from Delay. That, as it turned out, was only a sidebar to a longer article on artists of all kinds versus the Pirate Party, which grew out of the prosecution of Sweden’s Pirate Bay website.

The article makes it clear that the Pirate Party are political neophytes, and, as such, clumsily staggering around looking for a foothold. Still, the public anger they’ve ridden into their current position is real, and it’s not just the record companies and film studios which are scared now, but the established political parties, as always when a bunch of people clustering around half-thought-out ideas gets a bit of power.


Around about the time this was all happening, I coincidentally heard from an old friend from punk-rock days in Austin, who had gone to Hollywood and used his graphic talents to design record covers and ads for record companies, and seen his income over the past decade plummet to the point where his mother suggested he take advantage of the fact that he was entitled to a European passport so he could live overseas and use the benefits of socialized health-care. He was extolling the virtues of downloading to me, and suggested I give it a whirl. After installing a torrent client on my computer, I went and grabbed two (out-of-copyright) old films I’d always wanted to see. He was right: it was easy. And another thing: there was tons of stuff up there I could also have grabbed, including the latest films and last night’s television shows. But I didn’t, no matter that everyone concerned in those ventures makes many times what I make these days.


Because that’s the problem: I make almost nothing any more. It started when two horrible things coincided about six years ago: I’d worked all my life for magazines, and suddenly the price of paper shot up and a consortium of big publishers pushed an increase in postal rates through which assured that the more copies you mailed, the less postage you paid for each one. That nailed the coffin shut on the few remaining magazines I worked for. (Paste managed to survive as a web magazine, but only by screwing their writers: they still owe me over $1000). The transition to online publishing wouldn’t have been so bad if anyone had been able to figure out a revenue model that would have kept writers paid, but they didn’t: there were too many of them, presumably living in their parents’ basement, who were willing to write for free.


And there’s another thing which comes into play here: while even the knuckle-dragging morons whose comments on the Louisville Orchestra’s financial crisis are quoted in the Salon article would have to acknowledge that playing a violin is a skill which not everyone can acquire, it’s astonishing how many people don’t feel that way about writers. Another article which appeared along with the Salon and Spiegel ones was in the Guardian, headlined “Other Professionals Don’t Work For Free. So Why Are Writers Expected To?”  Exactly. I’ve wanted to ask Salon that question for some time now, but I have a personal conflict with their founder (irrelevant to this post) which means I’m not going to. I wonder if Scott Timberg did, though. It’s boringly defensive to mention that despite the fact that the ability to form and execute a sentence in writing is hardly art, the ability to write articles (or novels, or poems) definitely is a skill, and one for which people used to be compensated. But much as I like Guardian writer Jonathn Tasini’s exposition of the question, I’m not sure that his solution, organization, is practical. There was once a National Writers Union, and there may still be. One of its past presidents visited me this weekend, in fact. But my experience with it was far from positive, and so, I gather, was most peoples’.


But the destruction continues. Newspapers, in particular, are hard hit. Just the other day, the Chicago Tribune announced that it was turning its local neighborhood reporting to a content-mill called Journatic, which uses anyone who wants to do the work to generate the content and pays them a whopping $4 an article. While some talk about how this “democratizes” reporting, the potential for abuse is overwhelming. Not much poetry gets generated in this kind of reporting as it is, but you can bet this won’t be Pulitzer-quality material. Or, if someone’s interest is at stake, even accurate or reliable.


In the end, though, what worries me the most about the wholesale destruction of the culture biz is this: if, as seems to be the coming trend, the only people who can afford to make culture, to make art, and to write about it, are the people who can afford to work for free, then there’s going to be an unfortunate skew in the content. Only those who already have money will do this work, which means that it will be increasingly produced by what the Occupy folks call the 1%. It will reflect their interests and their values. It won’t necessarily affect anyone’s ability to play the violin well — rich kids and poor kids probably have that talent equally distributed among them — but it sure will affect literature, reporting, and criticism. What would fiction be like if only the rich made it? What values would wind up in our screenplays? Is it just possible that, in the name of democratization, the Pirate Party is playing into this scenario?


It’s not just that I can’t make a living any more, and neither can my friends. There seems to me to be a whole lot more at stake for all of us.


(Note: the title of this post is, of course, a reference to the Bee Gees’ song, and apologies to those who thought that this might have been about Robin Gibb. I wish him and his family strength in his struggle, though.)