Is the Internet Making Us Poor?

There are more opportunities than ever before for doing things on our own, whether its being an independent author or artist or setting up a company. Much of that is down to the internet. Artists can showcase their work on line. No need for representation by a gallery or agent, who probably have their own agenda, and a vision different to the creator’s. Authors can publish their own books. And musicians can make their own albums, videos and more.

And that’s fantastic. But the shadows are darkest when the sun is shining at its brightest. And there’s a flip side to the obvious benefits of the world wide web: Creatives are discovering that while their work is in demand, the value of it, in many cases, has slumped to near zero.

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The internet is to many creatives what robots were to automotive workers a generation ago. It is rendering them unemployed. Yet, unlike the automotive workers who were replaced by robots a few decades ago, the work of creatives remains in demand.

I have a couple of musician friends. One of them is successful. He plays for some well known singers — I won’t say who, but at least one of them you’d know if you’ve seen any magazine covers, turned on the TV, or listened to the radio over the last few years. My friend goes on tour with these signers a few times a year. “It’s a job,” he told me recently. “If I’d been doing this thirty years ago, I’d be rich,” he said, adding that today, such was the music industry that he needed a second job to support this one.

My other friend is at the other end of the music world ladder. He’s fairly regularly messaged by “big fans,” but so far he hasn’t sold any of his music. But his fans figure, not surprisingly, why should they pay for it? We can listen to music all day long for free on YouTube and other sites, not to mention free music streaming services such as Pandora. If you can listen to Rihanna and Katy Perry for free, why pay some unknown?

“Many creatives are finding that they’re going to college for the same number of years as doctors or lawyers, but will be lucky to earn like a Starbucks barista.”

It’s the same with books. I recently met a very well-known graphic novel artist. He, like my first musician friend, told me that he and most of the artists in his industry need a second job to survive. Frankly, I was kinda surprised. But I probably shouldn’t have been.

Books (and graphic novels to a lesser extent) can be purchased used from Amazon.com (so no need to pay those pesky royalties to the author who may have spent several years writing a single work), not to mention those illegal file sharing sites where you can download pdfs of books.

Many creatives are finding that they’re going to college for the same number of years as doctors or lawyers, but will be lucky to earn like a Starbucks barista.

You might say that artists have always been poor (which wouldn’t be true, since many were patronized by monarchs, and modern artists such as Picasso, Dali, Warhol, and even Basquiat, were very wealthy in their own lifetimes).

You might cite Van Gogh as an example of an artist that died poor. And of course there have long been poor artists and writers. But the big difference is that they died poor because no one wanted their art or literature during their lifetimes.

Van Gogh didn’t wander into some bar only to see his paintings on the wall. Not so with the Van Goghs of our own time. There work is out there.

Technology affects the economy in profound ways. Not always positive ones. The stock market crash of the thirties and early forties followed the launch and widespread establishment of public radio in the twenties. The crash of recent years likewise comes a similar time after the spread of the internet.

Its not just creatives in the usual sense of the word. Everything from newspapers to porn (according to Louis Theroux) is being hit hard.

We’re still working out how an economy can run in the internet age.

But how creatives can be compensated for their creativity is one of the biggest questions of the contemporary era, even if it’s generally conveniently overlooked. Because you can be sure that if creatives can’t make a living out of their work — despite the enormous debt they may have racked up during their college years — then there’s going to be a whole lot less creativity in the world.

It’s a simple equation. If a society’s creatives are going to be poor, then that society is soon going to be culturally impoverished.

Still, some creatives are finding some ways around the net. And we’ll look at what they’re doing, and how creatives can survive in the internet age, in a separate article very soon.

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