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What’s the right ratio of creative success?

It’s hard to ignore successes in middleman elimination like Radiohead’s In Rainbows, NiN’s Ghosts I-IV, Louis C.K.’s Shameless and the Double Fine Adventure. But they’re not immune to criticism either. Sure, it works for them — the argument goes — but they’re already famous. And the legacy players have always served (at least) two roles; while the Internet may beat them for distribution, it’s not as good for discovery.

The most ready response to this, I think, is that there are also plenty of examples of the Internet “discovering” artists: Amanda Hocking, the 27-year-old self-publishing millionaire; J.A. Konrath, who turned down a $500,000 contract to self-publish; Jonathan Coulton, one of my favorite musicians, to name a few. Cory Doctorow has said (I can’t track the quote down, unfortunately) that his CC publishing was only dismissed because he was unknown and could afford to experiment until it was dismissed because he was famous and could count on people buying copies.

But that response isn’t the most interesting one to me. What’s interesting is the underlying embedded question: is there an appropriate “yield” we should seek for artists achieving commercial success? What factors influence that number — pursuit of the social good, some kind of commitment to artists, something else entirely? Should the likelihood of success be dependent on commercial viability, or some other quality like “artistic value”?

One thought strikes me immediately while considering the question. The system we’ve had in place until now has been a pretty awful one for discovery. Picking up a guitar, or a video camera, or a paintbrush has never been a “secure” career path, has it? I don’t know how one would quantify what the ratio of aspiring to commercially successful artists was in, say, the second half of the 20th century, but I imagine it’s vanishingly small. Without that quantification, and without settling on an ideal ratio, I think we can say neither which direction things are moving, nor whether it’s the right one.

That (some percentage) of artists and authors deserve to derive a living from the right to copy their work is a relatively new idea, sometimes attributed to Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I like art and creativity, and while I don’t believe it’d go away absent monopolies like copyright — Mozart and Shakespeare, et al, managed to do some pretty good things without it — I’m happy to cede a little common ground to make the lives and livelihood of artists easier.

It’s worth nothing, though, that some people (and even some artists) are willing to go further. The filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola gave a great interview last year where he addressed this point: “I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?” And the aforementioned Jonathan Coulton has made some really thought-provoking comments on the issue:

making money from art is not a human right. It so happens that technological and societal blahbity bloos have conspired to create a situation where selling songs about monkeys and robots is a viable business, but for most of human history people have NOT paid for art. I don’t want this to happen again, and I would be very sad if this came to pass, but it’s not up to me to decide. We are constantly demonstrating through our actions what we believe to be the norms for acquiring and consuming content.

These are hard questions, and I don’t know the answers. But I think they’re worth discussing before we ask new questions on top of them. If we’re going to ask whether the Internet is capable of making enough artists successful we have to first ask how much is enough, what we call successful, and why we’ve made these decisions.