How Some Creatives are Surviving (and Growing) in the Internet Era

We recently looked at how the internet, though a serious tool for promoting the work of artists, musicians, and so on, is, at the same time, undermining the incomes of those and other creatives. Here we’re going to look briefly at some of the things that creatives are doing to get around them problem.

Leaving aside the specifics for a moment, as we’ll soon see, the overall strategy for surviving the internet’s de-monitization of everything from music to writing to graphics is — perhaps counterintuitively — to think upscale. They’re focussing on, and bringing back, the limited, the higher quality, the unique, and the personal. Let’s take a look at them.

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The Limited, Unique, and the High Quality:

Thanks to YouTube, Pandora and other video sites and music streaming services, listening to the work of musicians for free has become the “new normal.” That’s good for us. But not so good for the musicians.

However, while smaller bands are the most affected (since they can’t recoup their losses through touring and packing out stadiums, some very, very small labels are creating deluxe box set editions. These are expensive, and they look it. A box set of CDs might come with gold foil print on a box made of expensive card and paper. It might contain a poster, pin, a glossy booklet, and limited edition bonus CDs. You open one — perhaps before you open it, even — you feel that it’s something special.

It’s not just the smaller bands that are doing this, with box sets limited to a few hundred or so. The 80s German synth band Kraftwerk released a box set of all eight of their albums in 2012. Limited to a still relatively small 2,000 copies, the set was sold through the Museum of Modern Art and PS1 (a cool Queens, NY-based museum).

70s Punk band The Sex Pistols also re-released four singles and an album on vinyl. Since virtually no one has record players any more, it seems — no matter what claims were made about the superior sound of scratchy, crackly vinyl — that these records were being reproduced as Punk souvenirs.

Perhaps the attitude doesn’t strike us as entirely that of the anarchism of Punk. But, hey, at least they figured out how to make a living when so many talented musicians can’t make a cent.

Something similar is going on in publishing. Small, independent publishers are offering often very expensive leather-bound editions, or editions with special finishes, letterpress type, embossed with gold leaf on the cover, and so on. We’re talking around $100 a book in an era that’s seen the Borders chain of bookstores collapse, and many of those still reading paper books buying them used on Amazon (not exactly what an author wants).

Getting Personal:

Like me, you probably spend quite a bit of time on social media. I’ve met a lot of interesting people that way. Some of them have turned into actual friends, even if we’ve never actually met.

Connecting matters. And it matters even more for creatives. Artists that starve are artists with no connections, no support group, no one to bounce ideas off of, no one to collaborate with, and… that’s right… no one to pay them.

It’s understandable that someone who’s spend a decade or so developing their work would feel that they should be judged on that.┬áBut as any creative knows, the “talent” word is often invoked to justify not paying for art, music, or other products of creativity. They’re talented, right? “They can just do it.” It’s easy, so why pay? Can’t be real work, right? Wrong.

A musician friend of mine complained to me recently that at 50-plus, he’s still broke. “I’ve spend decades honing my craft,” he told me. “And that’s precisely where you went wrong,” I told him. He laughed, but he knew that there was a very large element of truth to what I said.

Does talent pay? Yes, but only if you cultivate connections too. The good news is, having talent will help get you connections, especially in the internet age.

Independent bands, independent authors, independent artists, bloggers, podcasters and so on, will often support each other. An independent band will, in many cases, promote the work of another band in the same genre (a competitor, if you will) via their social media profiles and pages. It’s the same with artists and authors.

But the physical, personal connection to the audience also matters — a lot. Hence the box set. It’s a tangible connection to the artist. Signed or limited edition deluxe books, and the physical works of art that appear on websites and online magazines or that are printed in comics, etc., are desirable.

Graphic novel artists are selling signed posters and sketches at those rapidly growing comic conventions. Authors and musicians are selling deluxe box set CD editions. Then there are other ways of profiting with the personal connection, such as live gigs for musicians (not a new discovery, of course), consulting for some writers, and so on.

In conclusion, what these creatives are doing is what we might call couture creativity: offering limited, individualized, personal, and super high-quality artistic products, services, and experiences in an era of free downloads. Talk of money and profits can make some people feel “icky,” but what these creatives are doing is being authentic to themselves. Maybe they’re not becoming millionaires, but they are putting out there things that are treasured, and making a livelihood out of their lifestyle in the process.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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