This is the capsule review accompanying the Research Spotlight article Are you better off than you were 15 years ago?

Title: The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t

Author(s): Steven Johnson

Publisher: The New York Times

Year: 2015


Topics: art and digital reproduction, commerce, technology, digital economy, culture

Method: theory, analysis of secondary data from 1999 (the year Napster and Google took off) to the present.

What it says: The article attempts to explore how “today’s creative class [is] faring compared with its predecessor a decade and a half ago.” Napster and its successors have undermined the economic value that consumers place on recorded music, but musicians (along with writers, directors, and other performers) don’t seem to have suffered greatly as a result. Some key data points that support this view include:

  • # creative industry jobs (as measured by Occupational Employment Statistics category 27-0000) and their average wage have grown (modestly) in relation to the rest of the economy between 1999-2014
  • # businesses that are or employ independent artists, writers and performers, and total revenue generated by them, grew faster than rate of inflation from 2002-2012 according to US Economic Census
  • # people identifying musician as their primary occupation grew 15% between 1999-2014, faster than 6% growth overall; average income of musicians grew 60% between 1999-2014 according to OES but only 25% between 2002-2012 according to Economic Census
  • Americans spent the same percentage of household income on entertainment in 2013 as 2000.

How can we square these data points with the rise of internet piracy and the decline of recorded music (from $60 billion to $15 billion worldwide)? During the same period, live music revenues have tripled from $10 billion to $30 billion, so that’s part of it. Meanwhile, costs of production and distribution have gone down, thus artists are better able to withstand a loss of revenues. There are also more ways to be compensated for your creative work than existed before. Johnson attempts to address the quality of different genres over the time period, concluding that TV is in a golden age and that film and books are arguably no worse off than they were before. Far from harming the diversity of artists’ voices, technological change has if anything enabled it.

What I think about it: Johnson’s case that artists and musicians have not suffered economically over the past 15 years relies heavily on the data from the Occupational Employment Statistics and Economic Census, both of which turn out to be compromised. Definitional changes appear to account for all of the growth reported in the number of musicians and then some, while general definitional fuzziness may be distorting the numbers of all creatives. The article also neglects to mention that the number of artists employed by businesses has dropped, even though the number of businesses employing artists has grown. That said, the assertion that musicians’ average incomes have increased does seem to hold up, and is strengthened by the NEA’s analysis of CPS data showing the same thing. The biggest unanswered questions are about the distribution of the growth. In the article Johnson considers it only briefly and not very convincingly, with incomplete data on live music tour revenue only; a claim in the follow-ups that the median income for musicians has outpaced the mean could easily be explained by the same definitional challenges as affected the analysis of the number of musicians. Furthermore, what we see in combination is a situation where there are fewer people who identify as full-time professional musicians, but they’re making more money, while at the same time there are presumably lots more people pursuing music part-time than there were before. Johnson’s rhetoric often implies that all artists are sharing in the largesse, rather than a few, but if income inequality is increasing, that would be like touting America’s shared prosperity on the basis of stock market growth since the depths of the recession.

What it all means: So is it harder to be an artist than it was pre-Napster? It depends. Data suggests that for the most part, no. There is still plenty of money to be made in the creative industries, and Americans are still as willing to pay for entertainment as ever, although the specific mix of goods and services is changing. But if you’re a creator, and particularly creating music, it seems like opportunity might be shrinking. Recorded music has been undeniably affected by streaming and piracy, but so far at least, that effect seems not to have spread to other industries and genres. (We’ll have to see what happens with film and TV over the next decade, however.) It’s difficult to determine implications for overall societal wellbeing without more information about the distribution of income and wealth and how that has changed.