In the future no-one's getting paid

With the news that zero-hours contracts are becoming the norm for a large number of ‘workers’, it might seem that the doctrine of freeconomics is coming to us all.

How do you ensure your output has value? How do you make your experience count in coin? What value do your contacts and knowledge have?

We’re all only worth what someone else is prepared to pay for us or what we can do. There once was a ‘going rate’ for pretty much everything but the floor has dropped out of most markets.

If we don’t protect or value creativity there will be no purpose in its existence. Why would you bother to be creative if it doesn’t pay the bills? When will you get the time if you’re too busy working – or will it come when you’re on stand-by to work?

It’s not a new idea, I’ve mentioned it before and this Wired piece dates back to 2009, the only difference in the argument might be that we still don’t really know how it’s going to be subsidised. Delivering paid-for advertising to the end-user seems to work for most media formats but not in abundance, it has to be quantified and specialised and customised to such a degree that the numbers don’t always add up.

We live in a celebrity culture so vapid that we could be forgiven for thinking that we hear every whinge and moan from the musicians concerned, perhaps we’re ignoring it because we’re all in the same situation? Certainly those reporting it all might have more sympathy given that the general public tend to consider all content is free. Even for those ‘literally’ on the frontline there is very little regard. This piece from an Italian war journalist in Syria illustrates the price of life and the lowered value of work very vividly, it is profoundly shocking. It’s not about the wages of war but the lack of them, rendering the gripes of songwriters somehow less important – unless you see them as a figurehead.

If we don’t stand up for the musicians you may wonder who is next and where the art will come from to illuminate our existence. In digital it seems that everything is free and the route to revenue is strewn with hazards and obstacles – not least of which is the quantity of other artists all trying to earn. The web is full of commentary from enlightened sources, from doom and gloom to graphic illustration. 

There are no easy solutions, only a glut of debate – often initiated by those who also aren’t getting paid for their ‘art’. An attempt to be simplistic about it might lead me to suggest that there are essentially two routes to sustainable income:

(a)             You’ve got to be so magnificently popular that the level of your sales is sufficient to overcome the volume of piracy you’ll also suffer.

(b)            You’ve got to be sufficiently niche that you practically have a one-to-one relationship with your fans, they value you so highly that they’ll invest in you always – sometimes in advance. For this model you could take Amanda Palmer as a prime example but she’s far from being the only one.

Very few musicians can achieve both of the above but you’d think the likes of GaGa have done enough to straddle the line and potentially bullet-proof themselves against the eventual drop-out of their mass appeal. You can only master a & b once you’ve actually ‘broken through’ and created some form of recognition and platform for your oeuvre. Until then you are reliant on hand-outs, part-time (or full time) work and the patronage of others – of the like that record labels used to provide.

It was probably always difficult for certain bands to make money. As this post from David Hepworth indicates many acts went ‘unrecouped’ with their labels. The labels funded a lot of releases that simply didn’t make money. They could afford to do this in that market because other record sales would help to support the releases that weren’t breaking even. Thus if EMI lost money on The Gang of Four it didn’t matter too much as they were always going to make it back via sales for The Dark Side Of The Moon or whatever.

There may be a bigger argument about the splits in revenue between acts and labels and whether the ‘costs’ were justified, most acts didn’t really care – the labels paid their way and the artists went out and did their ‘thing’.

With less revenue ‘sloshing about’ the labels contracted, consolidated and accordingly took far fewer risks. Consequently if you were Gang of Four starting out today you’d probably be with an indie, you’d be funding yourself on numerous tours and hoping that your talent would be sufficient. You’d probably also be in complete control and have long-lasting rights to your work – something that may pay off long-term (with luck and perseverance) as this debate in the New Yorker suggests. 

The truism we continually forget is that those of an artistic bent are probably compelled to create – with or without an audience. Obviously we’d all like to earn a living from that which we enjoy, precious few are lucky enough to do so. These are challenging times, you’ve still got to put the hours in.