Getting Paid: does the decline of creative industries herald a Golden Age of creativity?

Posted in Adorama Rentals by Nathan Lee Bush on November 18, 2010

Who is shocked by this? Harlan Ellison makes a self-evidently rational assertion, that people should be paid for their work. But he ignores the elephant in the room. It’s called supply and demand. Different kinds of labor are valued differently, based on the tension between these two forces. More people want to be writers/photographers/actors/filmmakers than lawyers, but society needs more lawyers, so all lawyers are paid for their time (and well), while few photographers are. Making art and expressing yourself creatively is self-evidently more fun than most other kinds of work, such as cleaning houses, fixing leaky roofs or filing people’s taxes. At some level, this story is as old as time. I remember my favorite high school teacher, Doc, saying to me that many of the truly great writers had lived and died poor. But that they couldn’t not have created what they created. They were compelled by things beyond purely monetary compensation.

Veruca Salt encounters the photo industry

Veruca Salt encounters the photo industry

Exacerbating this classic story is a demographic trend. A generation of middle and upper class kids has come of age which was fed the same story, through the media, schools and parents: that you can be anything you dream, that you should only do what you lovethat warrantless self-regard is to be applauded and that the corporate world will crush your humanity. We are a generation with completely unrealistic expectations, weened on movies where the dad wanting his son to go to law school or be an engineer was the villain. The result, thousands of ‘I think I can,’ ‘believe and achieve’ kids with fantasies of fame and fortune are flooding the creative industries…and they live in Williamsburg (full disclosure: I live in Williamsburg. I am entering the industry. The Little Engine That Could was my favorite book as a kid).

Completing the picture, we live in a brave new world, where there are practically no barriers to entry, think 7D/D7000/FCP on the production side, and YouTube/Flickr/Blogger on the distribution side. Anyone can cheaply produce and freely distribute his or her work.  The prosumer camera of 2000 paled in comparison to the pro alternative, but today the difference is less dramatic. Canon’s speculative vision of the consumer camera of the future shown earlier this year doesn’t seem so far off, given the exponential rate of technological advancement we see, with paradigm shifts measured in months rather than decades. I don’t have to explain to anyone over 20 how radically different the way we consume content is since the rise of the internet (to the under-20s: very).

When you add up these factors, the historical supply/demand conundrum, Generation Y entering the workforce, and a world almost completely divorced from the historical distribution system, we have a perfect storm of excessive supply and waning demand. The world is so flooded with free/cheap media of decent quality, there is a greatly reduced demand for expensive media of great quality. People only have so many hours in the day to spend absorbing images. By the time they finish checking Facebook in the morning, they have seen more images than the average person saw in a month a hundred years ago. And why buy a magazine when you can get beautiful, backlit images for free online? I’m one of the pioneering breed that has foregone a television and watch video solely online.

The silver lining is that many more people than ever have the chance to pursue creative interests. Every day I discover a new incredible music video or song or photograph. Do I ever pay for that content? Very rarely. Does the artist, in turn, get paid? The arithmetic is pretty basic. We’re in a golden age, artistically (in my opinion). But the flipside is that fewer people will get paid for their work. or the same money will be more widely distributed, reducing everyone’s share of the pie. On most shoots I’ve been involved with in the past year, someone will inevitably spill the beans that no one is getting paid for their time, “but the exposure’s great! And this will lead to paid work, right? Right??”.

Yesterday, I was brainstorming music I liked to go with a video I shot (for free, of course). I realized all the music on my shortlist was by unsigned bands, probably barely scraping by, all of them. Still, I can’t imagine they are unsatisfied with their lot. They have the tools they need to make what they want and share it worldwide. Ten years ago would have cost ten times what it costs now (thanks to relatively cheap pro-quality mixing software), and required professional technicians to produce. These musicians are from all over the world, and can produce and distribute their pioneering music for next to nothing. Still, no one is going to pay them for it (my impression is that musicians can only rely on touring and vinyl fetishists these days, moneywise).

I’m talking outside my element with music, but with film/photo it’s the same story. This video I just shot used about $3000 worth of equipment, but would have easily cost 10 times that much for equivalent image quality just five years ago.

My friend, Jason Custer, summed it up best when we were talking on Facebook recently:

…the problem isn’t necessarily that the overabundance of free music stops people from wanting to purchase music; I think that the vast, virtual, terrain of the internet has radically altered people’s fundamental notions of property and ownership….When artists remain stuck on the fact that very few of them are going to make as much money as people in other professions, they are only drawing attention to their own lack of industry and entrepreneurial ingenuity. if you want to make art — make art. if you want to make money — go where they money is. if you want to make money while making art, go to where the money is, but also make art, probably separately. if you expect to make whatever art you feel like and get whatever money you think you deserve for it, you are mentally ill!

Ellison is the Old Guard, incapable of grasping the new reality. Luckily he doesn’t really have to. He’s made his money (a fair share through copyright lawsuits, apparently) and achieved his recognition. It remains to be seen how this will unfold for the rest of us.


Nathan Lee Bush is a photo and video artist in New York City. His pictures are on his site and blog, and his videos are on Vimeo.


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