Steve Jobs made a habit of proclaiming that Apple stood “at the intersection of technology and liberal arts”. Yet in recent years, the worlds of the arts and technology have too often been at – or at least been seen at – loggerheads.
From the long-running rows over online piracy through to the current arguments about Amazon bullying book publishers or how much money musicians earn from streaming music, the relationship between the arts and technology has regularly been one of mutual distrust, or at least a mutual incomprehension over motivations, business practices and the technology itself.
It’s good to boil all this back down to basics though: technology as merely a tool capable of having positive, negative or plain neutral effects on artists, whether they’re musicians, filmmakers, photographers or other creators.
Take music as an example. The internet age brought with it the ability to digitise, copy and share songs effortlessly – a change embodied by the original Napster and other filesharing services used for piracy, but which also underpins many of the modern, legal ways music is distributed, from SoundCloud and Spotify to YouTube.
The internet age saw major record label income, headcounts and budgets reduced, but it also sparked new sources of investment like crowdfunding; spawned a host of smaller, inventive music companies; and birthed an array of tools for distributing and promoting music that artists could use themselves, from Bandcamp to Facebook.
The digital age made it cheaper to create music, but easier to steal it; simpler in theory to promote music to an audience of millions, but harder in practice to cut through the clutter and reach them; easier to make a noise, and easier too to be ignored.
Similar principles apply to other art forms, and to the related media industries too. There are important debates to be had about the role of what Thom Yorke described as “self-elected gatekeepers” when self-releasing his last album through BitTorrent (picture above), but it was Yorke’s action that was important rather than his words. He was trying to make technology work for him.
That feels like a better way to define the relationship between the arts and technology in 2015 and beyond: great artists surviving and hopefully prospering by figuring out what technology can do for them, rather than just complaining about what it does (or has done) to them. Active, not passive.
This may still involve some complaining, mind. One of the themes of 2014 has been an increased willingness of creators to get involved in the digital debates defining their industries. Authors weighed into Amazon’s dispute with publisher Hachette, and countless musicians expressed their reservations about streaming.
In the past, the details of digital disruption around the arts have often been nailed down by technology firms and the companies responsible for selling that art. Now, the creators of the art are demanding to sit at the table too. It’s a positive thing.
But back to the idea of artists rolling up their sleeves and asking what technology can do for them. Musician Zoe Keating, who is speaking at Le Web this year (top photo), is a prime example.
She’s built a sustainable career through the parallel channels of commercial stores and her own Bandcamp site – in 2013, 46.7% of her recorded earnings came from iTunes, 31.3% from Bandcamp and 7.8% from streaming – but has made a habit of publishing her figures so that other artists can learn from the breakdown.
Keating has also been a constructive critic for streaming services, with her belief that they can be a “convenient way to hear music” as a way to encourage fans to support her in other ways, while also being one of the earliest artists to talk publicly about the value of the data being generated by streaming services, rather than simply their per-stream payouts.
Engaged and active. As are the creators – from filmmakers, musicians and authors through to YouTubers – who are raising money on crowdfunding site Patreon (see its homepage above) which was launched by musician Jack Conte in 2013, and which by November 2014 was paying out more than $1m a month to its creators.
That site works by getting fans – or “patrons”, which deliberately harks back to centuries-old methods of supporting the arts – to commit to paying small sums of money every time a creator releases a new piece of work.
“It confirms a massive cultural shift that we all felt but had trouble describing. It’s a restless movement, developing simultaneously right now in arts communities around the world,” wrote Conte in a blog post as the $1m-a-month milestone was announced.
“As the cost of consuming digital media drops to zero, the masses are beginning to visualise the peril on the road ahead for creatives, and now they’re doing something about it.”
Patreon is paying out $1m a month to creators. Bandcamp is paying out $3.1m a month to its community of musicians. Since its launch in 2009, Kickstarter has processed $253.3m of pledges to successful game projects, $208.4m for film and video projects, $118.4m for musicians, $51.9m for publishing projects and $38.5m for pure “art” projects.
All of this is why investors like Saul Klein are talking about the idea of a “new creative economy” fuelled by clever technology and savvy artists.
In a November op-ed piece for Wired, Klein cited the emergence of sites like YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter and Wattpad as a trend that “changes the way creative talent can emerge and grants artists a power that they have never had before – the power not just to be direct, but to be direct at scale.”
“Stay alert because you will be part of the movement which will see Macklemores emerging in every genre and in every form of the arts,” wrote Klein, addressing fans who’ll be increasingly backing the new breed of artists directly.
“You will back filmmakers on Kickstarter who will go straight to Netflix and beyond. You may be one of the 20 million reads that writers like Brittany Geragotelis generate on Wattpad. This is the year that artists and their fans change the power dynamic forever and lay the foundations for the new creative economy.”
His peer, Union Square Ventures VC Fred Wilson, had another way of describing the new era in a post on his own blog in August, with his description of SoundCloud as “a peer network with a social architecture that emphasises engagement and sharing”.
“Like Twitter and Tumblr and a number of other popular social platforms, SoundCloud treats everyone as peers in its network. My profile is almost identical to an artist’s profile on SoundCloud,” he explained.
“I can do the same things they can do and they can do the same things I can do. The same is true of a brand’s profile. This social architecture encourages engagement, sharing, commenting, and favoriting. It’s like the artists, listeners, and brands are all hanging out together at one big party.”
As with any party, some participants will end up with hangovers, but in 2015 and beyond, the relationship between the arts and technology should be reason for much more celebration.
“The Arts” is one of LeWeb’14 Paris’ key tech trends. This conference track will include speakers such as photographer Christopher Michel, Frontback founder and CEO Frédéric della Faille, Duncan Osborn and Amit Sood (Google Cultural Institute). More LeWeb’14 programme info here…
Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, covering apps and technology for The Guardian, and entertainment technology for Music Ally. He notably interviewed Nest’s Tony Fadell at LeWeb’13 Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.
Top photo: Zoe Keating – via her Facebook page