I Read It So You Don’t Have To: ‘The Death of the Artist’

How Big Tech made it harder for working artists to make a living

Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium

I Read It So You Don’t Have To is a series that gives you the TL;DR on a business book you want to read — but don’t have time to.

What did I read?

The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz.

So who’s this William Deresiewicz?

Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic and a former professor of English at Yale. He’s also the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and A Jane Austen Education.

Give me the 30-second sell.

Working artists are in trouble. Now, that’s not what you’ll hear from Silicon Valley and its evangelists in the media, who say there’s “never been a better time” for artists, arguing that there are more ways than ever to distribute your work and get eyeballs on your art.

But in The Death of the Artist, Deresiewicz actually asks working artists about what’s happening in their fields. For the book, he interviewed hundreds of working artists in various fields — music, writing, visual art, and film and television. What he found was an arts economy that mirrors the larger national economy: a “middle class” hanging on by the skin of their teeth, teetering on the edge of poverty and burnout while facing difficult choices about compromising their principles in order to make a living.

Partly, this is because the cultural industries that used to nurture and support young artists (publishers, record labels, galleries, and mid-major movie studios, to name a few) have been kneecapped by the internet and the business models of tech companies. Former safe havens at universities, where artists could find time to both teach and work on their craft, have been turned into salt mines worked by a weary army of adjuncts.

All of this means artists have less time to focus on making their art. Instead, Deresiewicz argues that most artists today are actually small business owners, responsible for their own marketing, fundraising, sales, and accounting as they struggle to stay solvent. He sums it up like this: “The good news is, you can do it yourself. The bad news is, you have to.”

As it gets harder to make a living as a working artist (and not just an amateur — a distinction Deresiewicz is firm about) there will quite simply be fewer artists making less of the stuff we love to consume. Artists are humans, too. No matter how much they love to make music, write books, direct films, or paint, there comes a point where the stress of staying alive while doing so becomes too much to bear.

One of Deresiewicz’s most poignant examples comes from the music industry, where piracy and abysmal streaming revenues have forced artists to tour constantly — leaving them no time to make new music. When we don’t pay artists fairly for their work, we aren’t just making it difficult for them to earn a living; we’re destroying their ability to make more of what we love.

What will I learn, in a nutshell?

You will learn a lot about what it really means to be an artist right now. Fewer and fewer artists are “making it” to any extent, and the middle class of artists is shrinking as more of them slide into poverty. The interviews with artists, which make up about one-third of the book, are fascinating and often deeply moving.

My 30-second sell of the book might make you shrug and think, “Well, ‘the starving artist’ is a stereotype for a reason. Everybody knows art doesn’t pay.” But if you read the entire book, you’ll have a better understanding of where that stereotype comes from, why it’s not a very healthy way of looking at creative work, and what the consequences of keeping artists on the brink of starvation really are.

You’ll also get a fascinating education in the history of “art” with a capital “A.” Our idea of artists as people living on the margins of society and using their work as cultural criticism or a quest for truth is a relatively recent invention. Deresiewicz outlines the three general paradigms the arts have gone through in the past few centuries — artists were once artisans, then bohemians, then professionals. He argues that we are entering a new stage, a “fourth paradigm,” in the evolution of art, characterized by “the artist as producer.”

In this new paradigm, artists are “free particles in the marketplaces, finding what work we can for what money we can, and exposed without protection to the market’s whims.”

Any particularly juicy bits?

Deresiewicz doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the Silicon Valley apologists who act as though this were all inevitable — and that amateurs on the internet are better than professional artists anyway.

He devotes an entire chapter early in the book to blowing up the myths that the tech world is peddling about how they “support” artists with piddling payouts from massively profitable platforms.

But Deresiewicz isn’t a starry-eyed idealist, either. He makes the point repeatedly that artists don’t deserve to be paid just for creating something. It does, in some way, have to be valuable to someone. The point is that we are all consuming vast amounts of art — music, writing, television and film, and even visual art like photography. That’s a pretty good clue that the work artists are doing is valuable. The question of who is profiting from that value and why provides the meat for some of Deresiewicz’s more cutting critiques.

If I ran into you at a cocktail party, which parts of the book would you impress me with?

One of Deresiewicz’s most astute observations is that content has only been demonetized at the point of sale — for the platforms, it’s a money-making machine. Take music streaming, for example. Deresiewicz correctly points out that streaming services like Spotify are essentially a protection racket. They pay out tenths of a cent per stream, but tell artists and labels, “Hey, if you don’t like it, you can always go back to letting people steal it and make nothing.”

Spotify makes billions, but it’s only possible with a massive, underpaid labor force whose only other option is getting ripped off entirely, rather than getting mostly ripped off.

If I were the type of person who got invited to cocktail parties, and we got to talking about the arts economy, I’d certainly steer the conversation in this direction. We’ve all been told that content has been devalued and that artists now need to be “consistent” and pump out more and more content to make up for the fact. But who is pushing this narrative? The people who benefit from endless content are not artists or even consumers (who are awash in a sea of mediocre content). It’s the platforms that feed off this constant stream of content to the tune of billions in revenue or new rounds of investment.

Should I take the plunge and read the whole thing?

Given that you’re reading this on Medium, you probably already have some insight into how the creative class is making money these days. If you’re at all interested in the dynamics between platforms, artists, and the work they produce, this book is a must-read.

Next up: I’ll read Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy, a book about a new macroeconomic theory that challenges conventional ideas about national currencies, taxes, deficits, and more.

Reader, writer, content provider. Fan of hand-made guitars, racket-based sports, and houseplants. You can find me in St. Louie.

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