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How The Web Screws Artists... By Allowing Them A Normal Life

1In this piece, Ross Pruden of Techdirt works to dispell the myth that the internet is destroying art and culture, making it impossible for artists to make a living via their creative work. Instead he looks at how the internet has allowed creatives to target niche markets of fans and consequently thrive.

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Guest post by Ross Pruden of Techdirt

For pretty much all of the history of Techdirt, we've been hearing from the legacy entertainment industries about how the internet has been destroying art and destroying culture. They were making things worse, and we'd have more starving artists and less content -- and whatever content we did have would definitely be terrible. That's the story we were told over and over and over again -- and there are still a few in the industry who pitch this story.

The problem is it's simply not true.

The New York Times has an article by Farhad Manjoo called, How The Internet Is Saving Culture, Not Killing It, in which Manjoo claims that a cultural shift has been happening, one that could have radical implications for creators:

In the last few years, and with greater intensity in the last 12 months, people started paying for online content. They are doing so at an accelerating pace, and on a dependable, recurring schedule, often through subscriptions. And they’re paying for everything.

Manjoo presents compelling stats to back up his argument:

Apple users spent $2.7 billion on subscriptions in the App Store in 2016, an increase of 74 percent over 2015. Last week, the music service Spotify announced that its subscriber base increased by two-thirds in the last year, to 50 million from 30 million. Apple Music has signed on 20 million subscribers in about a year and a half. In the final quarter of 2016, Netflix added seven million new subscribers -- a number that exceeded its expectations and broke a company record. It now has nearly 94 million subscribers.

(1)So it seems low-priced subscription-based services are finally coming into their own. Netflix’s lowest subscription plan of $8/month offers access to thousands of hours of content. Compared to DirectTV’s $50/month plan, that’s a bargain. If you happen to also be an Amazon Prime subscriber, between merely those two plans, you can access a huge amount of content whenever and wherever you want... it’s no surprise cheap subscription models across the whole spectrum are finally thriving.

If you’re an creator, this is fantastic news. Patreon now leads the pack with plans for artists to offer their fans a recurring payment option and/or a pay-for-new-content model (and, of course, you can see Techdirt's Patreon page here). Patreon Founder Jack Conte agrees the wind has shifted recently in favor of fan-funded artists:

“I do think something has changed culturally,” Mr. Conte said. “This new generation is more concerned with social impact. There’s a desire to vote with your dollars and your time and attention.”

Despite all the disruption the web has wrought on incumbent cable companies and brick-and-mortar game stores, the web has also made it impossibly easy for niche artists to both deepen connections with their fans as well as give them reasons to buy:

Thanks to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, artists can now establish close relationships with their fans. They can sell merchandise and offer special fan-only promotions and content. And after finding an audience, they can use sites like Patreon to get a dependable paycheck from their most loyal followers.

The elephant in the room, of course, is whether artists can deliver on the promises the internet has laid before them; record labels traditionally took care of much of the publicity required to build the buzz that pushes new artists into the public stream but now that artists can take those reins, not all of them are capable or willing. Nevertheless, some artists are willing; Manjoo notes that Chance the Rapper, despite winning best new artist at last year’s Grammys, “proudly rejected every offer to sign with a record label and even to sell any of his music.” That marks a stark turning point for how all artists could soon come to view recording labels, i.e., as gatekeepers instead of enablers.

For those lucky few rising to the top, i.e., artists who have mastered the “dark arts” of social media marketing, they can take significant control of their lives and livelihood.

“I can have a normal life now,” said Peter Hollens, an a cappella singer who creates cover videos on YouTube. Mr. Hollens, who lives in Eugene, Ore., now makes about $20,000 a month from his Patreon page. The money has allowed him to hire production help and to increase his productivity, but it has also brought him something else: a feeling of security in being an artist.

“I don’t have to go out on the road and play in bars,” he said. “I can be a father and I can be a husband. This normalizes my career. It normalizes the career of being an artist, which has never been normalized."

If the trends continue as Manjoo predicts, that worn cliché of the starving artist will no longer ring true, and the blame rests solely at the feet of the global copying machine that we call the web.

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