Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Making an Income Through Digital Media: No, The Sky Isn't Falling

Recently this clarion call about the evils of Apple and how it's singularly responsible for the failure of artists to make a living from their art is being distributed allover the internet. The quote is from an artist named Antony Hegerty. You can read it, here:

Antony Hegerty Quote.

OK, ignoring the horrible web design, this is basically nonsense.

Yes, the music industry might be hurting right now, I'll concede to that, but the arts in general? More people are making art and having it seen on the internet, but I'm not sure that less people are making a living at it. The fact that people are using Apple computers to make their art, that more artists use Apples, is because at the moment, they're the best machines available for the job. It's true, Apple has a monopoly on the industry and a huge and cult-like promotional machine unlike any other, but you could just as easily blame Gibson guitars for the commercial failure of musicians. It makes no sense to point the blame at a popular device, even an exceedingly popular device that's got a stranglehold on the industry, because artists use that popular device to make their art.

And then again, most people who own Apples probably don't use them to make art that's too terribly great. You have more people making art overall and more art being seen, so you have a greater percentage of good art being seen, and a greater percentage of bad art being seen than ever before. So the atmosphere is a little more competitive in a way it didn't used to be. So yes, talking to your average artist, just like in the past, you'll find that they're struggling to make an income, because its hard to make an income as an artist, and you also have more self-proclaimed artists.

But lets take the illustration field for example: because of CGI movies, advertising, animation and video games--yes, the video games played on all those handheld Apple devices--more illustrators are being employed than have been in a very long time. Preproduction art, 3D modeling, design, there's a lot going on in illustration right now, even though print media is suffering.

It's no harder and no easier to be a fine artist than its ever been. Computers have no bearing on this, because you have the same basic distribution and promotion system. Galleries. Nothing has essentially changed here, aside from the internet being used as an advertising tool. But people don't tend to buy and sell fine art on the internet. At least not the kind you typically see in galleries. So no bearing here.

Authors: this is a tricky one. Print media is dying, but digital media is thriving. Yes, some of it is free, but a lot of it isn't. The number of Kindles and handheld reading devices is growing. And more importantly, more kids are reading than ever before. The young adult market is thriving like it never has before. That means more future adult readers. I attribute this, in part, to the internet. Because of the internet, because more kids are reading every day, because you have to read to participate in web-based culture, more kids are reading. So while print media is dying, there's a growing population of potential readers, and more people are buying digital books.

And think about peer-based project sites like Kickstarter. Artists are getting funding for projects that they would never have been able to get under any other circumstances. There are also artists who have cultivated a fan base through digital media like blogs and social media, and have been marketing their work directly to that fan base with no middle man. Some artists have a better affinity for this kind of promotion than others, but many are making a living this way. It's a way artists have never been able to make a living from their work in the past. Though many artists are giving their work away for free, there are some artists who have cultivated an online fan base that is willing to support their art with their actual dollars.

Then there are the free media advocates like Nina Paley and Cory Doctorow. Offering their work with Creative Commons licenses has allowed these artists a level of visibility they would have never otherwise had. By giving his books away for free in digital form, Cory Doctorow's print sales have actually increased. Nina Paley wrote, directed, and animated a feature length film called Sita Sings The Blues, that's been seen allover the world, and it's essentially copyright free. She makes an income from the film by selling merchandizing and official artist sanctioned copies of the work. She also has a pretty good ongoing gig showing her film and giving lectures on free media. But the main reason for her success, is because more people have been able to see her film because there is no limitation on where it can be shown or how it can be shown, and more people are willing to support that work because of this access. There simply would be no way that her film could be seen by as many people if it was distributed as an independent film through traditional outlets.

But after all is said and done, I do think, at the moment, that music in particular is experiencing some growing pains evolving to accommodate this new model of promotion and distribution. Part of this, however, is a panic that's coming from the music industry, not from musicians. It's easier for musicians to promote their work directly to their peers, a role that only record companies used to be able to fulfill. Yes, there is more illegal downloading, dollars lost to people who do not support the artists they like, but with more artists interacting directly with their fan base through web-based social media, people are more wiling to support those artists directly. You've got more people willing to fund their Kickstarter projects. More people willing to buy their books and music and films directly than ever before.

The problem here is that industry standard promotion machines like record companies and publishing houses are still better at promotion and selling than most artists. So it's true, it's still easier to make a living if you're being published or distributed by one of these big companies than it is to make a living promoting your work on your own. The middle men still are a powerful force. With more artists trying to compete, but also getting their work seen, there is the danger of those consumer dollars getting diluted. There are still a lot of questions to be resolved. But I don't think the sky is falling just yet. And I don't think it's Apple's fault.

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