The intersection between commerce, technology and culture has long been a place of anxiety and foreboding. Marxist critics in the 1940s denounced the assembly-line approach to filmmaking that Hollywood had pioneered; in the ’60s, we feared the rise of television’s ‘‘vast wasteland’’; the ’80s demonized the record executives who were making money off violent rap lyrics and ‘‘Darling Nikki’’; in the ’90s, critics accused bookstore chains and Walmart of undermining the subtle curations of independent bookshops and record stores.
Take a look at your own media consumption, and you can most likely see the logic of the argument. Just calculate for a second how many things you used to pay for that now arrive free of charge: all those Spotify playlists that were once $15 CDs; the countless hours of YouTube videos your kids watch each week; online articles that once required a magazine subscription or a few bucks at the newsstand. And even when you do manage to pull out a credit card, the amounts are shrinking: $9 for an e-book that used to be a $20 hardcover. If the prices of traditional media keep falling, then it seems logical to critics that we will end up in a world in which no one has an economic incentive to follow creative passions. The thrust of this argument is simple and bleak: that the digital economy creates a kind of structural impossibility that art will make money in the future. The world of professional creativity, the critics fear, will soon be swallowed by the profusion of amateurs, or the collapse of prices in an age of infinite and instant reproduction will cheapen art so that no one will be able to quit their day jobs to make it — or both.
And yet Steven Johnson, in The New York Times, continues this essay by making the argument for the creative apocalypse that wasn't: "in the digital economy, it was supposed to be impossible to make money by making art. Instead, creative careers are thriving — but in complicated and unexpected ways."