Why do artists and academics earn less than the value of their work?

The money that artists and academics make fall short of the value of their work. Why?

Let’s take a case study: music streaming service Spotify does not pay its musicians well. Let’s examine if they could.

There are two non-exclusive ways they could pay their musicians more. Either they could maintain their profit and start charging their listeners more, or maintain their pricing and cut their profit. Imagine they make it their mission to make sure artists get paid the most that consumers are willing to pay for their music. So they do both. They start charging more and more, and channel all earnings (minus operating cost) to their artists and take no profit.

The first thing to acknowledge is that people will be willing to pay more for music (and art and literature and knowledge) if they are forced to. This may be hard to imagine in today’s world of overwhelmingly cheap and accessible content that is constantly vying for our attention. But take our hypothetical scenario as an example. In support of their mission of fair compensation for musicians, imagine that Spotify takes over the entire music industry, so that all music that is created can only flow from creator to consumer through them, and they can completely control the terms of this. Once they monopolize the industry, they start raising their prices. This makes music a more expensive commodity, and it starts to disappear from the sphere of our attention where it was plentiful before. It takes a while for people to adapt to this removal of stimulus, but gradually a population that was overstimulated and spoilt for choice becomes hungrier for music, and willing to pay more.
Spotify can milk this to the fullest extent possible by making listeners pay as much as they are willing to. In the extreme case they are able to artificially create the condition of optimal scarcity (like the diamond industry), make the maximum revenue possible, and pay the creators the maximum possible (unlike the diamond industry). Under such an extreme condition, a considerable section of the population will be unable to afford the amount of music they would like, while a small rich fraction will be paying most of the money that musicians make.

Now it becomes important to consider the particular nature of music and other cultural content: it gives us intrinsic joy to create and share such content. Even if it isn’t making them any money, people feel like creating and sharing art, and seeking out and sharing academic knowledge. Under conditions of extreme scarcity that we’re imagining, there will be people who will feel more compelled to create and share music for cheaper or for free, because the need for this is more acute and the joy in satisfying it is greater. We will have people who deliberately forsake the possibility of making a lot of money, and find ways to create and share their own or others’ content for free, sometimes in violation of existing laws.

This is a crucial step in the reasoning. The property of intrinsic joy is not true of a lot of other services and content that people create. There is little intrinsic joy in working through accounting spreadsheets: its value is mostly tied to the money it earns that can be spent towards other things that bring happiness. But art, culture, learning and science bring intrinsic joy in doing and sharing.

As a black market of cheap or free content starts becoming available, the starved people will naturally turn to it. This will directly eat away at Spotify’s business and begin to harm their altruistic mission of paying creators the most possible. They will realize that the only way to continue business is to lower charges and pay their creators less.
The bright side of this is that content that brings us intrinsic joy can never be completely taken away from us and monopolized by corporations. Since there is incentive to not only consume for cheap, but produce and share for cheap, people will always find a way for cheap distribution.

In short, artists and academics make less money than their content is worth because they are compensated by the intrinsic joy of the work and are willing to be paid less, and the free market automatically adjusts to price their work accordingly.

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The Cool Hollow

I read in the paper today about how the awareness about hip-hop and street dance genres is spreading through India. The article featured a couple of break dance groups that now conduct short hip-hop workshops and shows around India. Pretty remote areas too. There was a photo with the article, featuring one of the group members performing some move on the street as youths dressed in various western urban hip-hop outfit looked on.

This wasn’t somehow a happy article for me. I find a sad, hopeless hollow in this mindless aping of whatever the West happens to dish out. And how like an epidemic any of that spreads, ready to be lapped up by the eager Indian youth.

Where is we? Where is our stuff? Why is it that through centuries of civilization we haven’t been able to create culture and arts that is fun? That people will practise and enjoy and share? Or have we, and then quietly forgotten?

The media has a hand in this. Both its sticky little hands, rather. The marketing of any (modern) western culture is served with spaghetti sauce and fries on the side, with an overpowering aura of glamour and coolness to which You. Shall. Bow. If you are not this, you are nothing. You are old and forgettable. Bollywood movies, you’ll notice, have this recent increasing trend of shoots abroad, settings of the stories abroad, and in general most of the objective of any mainstream Bolly flick these days seems to be the portrayal of western life, culture and this radiating urban coolness for most of its running time.

If you will look at the ads on TV, have you noticed an increasing occurrence of hip-hop wear, skateboards, western settings, and a general aura that confuses you whether it is an Indian ad at all?

I took drum lessons from a band drummer for a little while. I noticed the other guys who used to go there. More about metal outfit and attitude than about placing the beats correctly. I mean, mate, it is about hitting a membrane with a stick.

The mind of the nation is molded by the media. In our case, an irresponsible, short-sighted, self-serving, but all-powerful media. When we are in its grip, we forget about independent judgement and personal taste. It is a great monstrous conforming machinery at work. And we submit to it, because it is too easy. So much easier to dress up in hip-hop wear and tilted cap and get spiked hair and call that culture than learning the piano or the sitar or read good books.

And we create emptiness. An emptiness that will eat us back some day.