creative implosion

More and more businesses these days are essentially creative. Maybe art is central to their product, like movie and music industries. Maybe they’re technology businesses–I suppose most businesses are technology businesses these days. Many businesses combine elements of both–the automotive industry comes to mind.

There’s a point of vulnerability in all these businesses. When business turns down–for whatever reason–the business instinct is to cut risk. In an artistic business, that means pushing a blander product: as risk-taking declines, so does interest in their product–art without risk is, well, boring.

I see this dynamic most distinctly in the current music industry. It’s restructuring around new technology, and the major labels built around big blockbuster hits are in a state of free-fall. And they’re pursuing all the defensive business measures, working in Washington to ban as much of their competition as they can, laying off and slashing budgets. And betting on the sure things: the big glamorous groups, the conventional music… Britney Spears would have made the list, until recently.

And the most interesting music is coming from outside of the major labels. Not only is the technology changing, the attitudes of artists are changing. You don’t need to spend millions to distribute music anymore. So people who are amateurs in the original sense of the word–in it for the love–have new modes of success. You can have a really solid middle-class income, or even forgo that, and make music in your spare time, and still get heard, if that’s all you want.

This calls in to question one of the capitalistic rationales that the big labels use to defend the prosecution of piracy: that if you don’t protect copyright, you’ll lose the incentive to make music. Which is ridiculous: we don’t know any human cultures that don’t have music. We’ve had music much longer than we’ve had modern capitalism.

Now, you will lose the opportunity to “make it big.” Which is too bad: after all, isn’t all the best music produced in the name of outsize greed? I mean, I don’t hate capitalism, it does keep a roof over my head. But does everything have to be optimized according to its criteria? I don’t think so.


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