Artwork has been brutalized by expertise giants. How can it survive?
Such efforts and suggestions are admirable. They also clearly do not correspond to the extent of the overall problem. This is not their fault, nor does it mean they are not worth doing. The problem starts with Giant Tech. Silicon Valley in general and the technology giants in particular – especially Google, Facebook and Amazon – have carried out a comprehensive and continuous transfer of wealth from developers to distributors, from artists to themselves. The cheaper the content the better for them, as they want to measure the flow – count our clicks and sell the resulting data – and want to make that flow as smooth as possible. Every real solution must begin there.
Virtually everyone I've spoken to on this matter is in favor of a revision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to bring copyright law up to date for the digital age. When the bill was passed, Google was five weeks old in 1998, YouTube didn't yet exist, Mark Zuckerberg was starting high school – and Napster was a year to go. It was not intended to combat piracy on the scale that was about to break out.
"Takedown" must become "Stay Down" so that files cannot start up properly again. A small claims court should be established for copyright infringement so that individual artists, not just media conglomerates, can afford to seek damages. "Fair Use", the provision in copyright law that allows limited exceptions (such as quoting for scholarly purposes or sampling for satirical purposes) that Google and others have relentlessly tried to expand, must be kept within traditional limits. In 2019, the European Union passed landmark law, the New York Times stated, that "platforms must sign licensing agreements with musicians, writers and others before content is published" to proactively remove violations. A similar rule should be enacted in the United States.
However, these measures only concern copyright. The bigger problem is the disproportionate advantage that monopoly platforms have in the battle for pricing. At first, this pricing is often a mystery. In many cases, we don't know what the platforms are paying for as they don't have to tell us. For this reason, music streaming prices (0.44 cents on Spotify, 0.07 cents on YouTube) are only a guess, as is the price per page that Amazon pays via Kindle Unlimited (Spotify for e-books). The artists even lack the information to negotiate: namely, how much money the services are using. For example, how much does Kindle Unlimited generate? Amazon doesn't speak. And even if we had this information, it is unlikely that the platforms would negotiate at all. What really bothers her, said filmmaker Ellen Seidler to me, "is that nobody is ready to come to the table" from the other side. Instead, she said, “Artists have been defamed in a fairly orchestrated way. Our voices were suppressed. It's David versus Goliath. "
What is less clear is what can be done to achieve a fairer distribution of the many billions of dollars that "demonized" content continues to generate in order to recoup the money scraped away by the technology monopolies. Workers are allowed to organize for higher wages. When producers work together to set prices – and even imagine that something like this is possible here, given how incredibly dispersed content production is now – it's called collusion and it's illegal. Of course, the government cannot set prices either.
But there is one thing the government can do – and as people are beginning to realize lately, it is imperative that they do it. It has to dissolve these monopolies. There are already movements in this direction. In 2019, the federal government initiated antitrust investigations into four of the Big Five. The Justice Department investigated Google and Apple, and the Federal Trade Commission took responsibility for Amazon and Facebook. The House Judiciary Committee also announced plans for an investigation. That same year, in a ruling over a lawsuit against Apple's App Store, the Supreme Court signaled a willingness to rethink its approach to antitrust law, a move long overdue. (Both state and federal antitrust lawsuits have been filed against Google since this book was published.) Such efforts to contain the "Apex Predators of Tech," as journalist Kara Swisher puts it, must not be derailed. The powers of technology monopolies to break the law, dictate terms and conditions, stifle competition, control debate, shape legislation, set price – all come directly from their size, wealth and dominance. You are too big, too rich and too strong. And we have to do this before it's too late.
The arts, it is often said, are ecosystems. This means that great talents with enduring, transformative achievements do not fall from the sky, but that their emergence depends on a multitude of other people: childhood teachers, early mentors, lifelong rivals, and co-workers who must all have a way to make a living to earn. This means that institutions (the local club, the 99-seat theater, the indie label and the independent press) can only survive with a critical mass of artists who in turn depend on the institutions. This means that even small or mediocre projects have their value as they provide developers with experience and possibly a paycheck so they can stay and work for another day. This means that artists can't do their job if others can't: the lighting technician, the editor, the person who keeps the books or checks the coats or sells the beer. This means that artists coexist in networks and help each other find jobs, cheap rooms and opportunities – but only as long as they are able to stay in the art.
While institutions tremble and collapse, professionals across the board lose their autonomy, their dignity, their place.
But all communities are ecosystems, not just the arts. Even in the wider economic ecosystem, the whales are getting fatter by starving the plankton. The consolidation towards a monopoly now affects almost all sectors and is the main cause of falling wages. The trend towards poorly paid contract work – gig work, piecework, temporary work – is practically omnipresent. While institutions tremble and collapse, professionals across the board lose their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth rises everywhere and the middle class disappears everywhere.
Some of the people I've spoken to believe that the solution for the arts is better public funding. Others think we need a universal basic income. Both of these may be good ideas, but I don't think they would solve the problem. You want the market to vote because you want the public to vote. In fact, you want the public to have the most votes.
Markets, when functioning properly, are mechanisms for transmitting signals of desire – in simpler language, to say what we want. What we don't want is for art to be cut off, cut off from popular taste; for bureaucrats in art promotion bodies telling us what we want. But the markets have to work properly. The universal basic income seems to me to be the wrong answer to the right question. Yes, we have to put money in people's pockets, but better organically, not just by fiat – better, in other words, by restoring the entire ecosystem, by rebuilding the middle class. That would mean undoing much of what we did to get here: breaking monopolies; Raising the minimum wage; reverse decades of tax cuts; Restoring free or inexpensive higher education; re-enabling workers to organize rather than persistently hindering them. It would also mean updating the laws and regulations created for a past economy to reflect the one that actually existed: most obviously by expanding the safeguards that full-time workers enjoy – health and other benefits, protection from discrimination and harassment, the right to bargain collectively – for the growing army of gig and contract workers. You shouldn't have to be a winner to not be a loser.