The New York Times sells out artists: Shallow data paints a too-rosy picture of "thriving" creative class in the digital age

The magazine's cheerleading for the post-Napster Internet is being described as "an exercise in gaslighting"

Published August 24, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Dmitry Brizhatyuk</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Dmitry Brizhatyuk via Shutterstock)

Musicians, writers, and other creative folk are still scratching their heads over the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine: “The New Making It” -- packaged online as "The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't" -- looked at how the Internet economy, instead of destroying creative careers, had redrawn them in “complicated and unexpected ways.” The story’s author, Steven Johnson, is an engaging writer, and the piece is told largely through statistics, which most readers assume to be beyond criticism. So why are so many people who work in the world of culture wondering why the article seemed to describe a best-of-all-worlds planet very different from the one they live on?

The Times story tells readers that just about everything they’ve heard about the Internet’s cult of free – and the way it makes an artistic career difficult – is gloomy, nay-saying foolishness. USC professor Jonathan Taplin, who produced the films "Mean Streets” and “The Last Waltz,” for instance, is baffled to read “that Internet monopolies have actually been a boon to the average artist.”

The story was told primarily through statistics – there are sidebars on a half-dozen young artists who demonstrate the new ways of making a living, but Johnson barely discusses specific creative figures in his story. (When I tried to understand the issue for my book "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class," some of which originally ran on Salon, I combined figures with numerous interviews with artists in various genres. That seemed like the fair way to do it.) Because his story is told mostly through numbers, it’s impossible to get into its shallowness without talking in numbers as well. So how well do they stand up?

In many cases, groups and observers who keep and assess figures on the careers of artists are not convinced by the stats Johnson uses. Melvin Gibbs, the jazz and funk bassist who serves as president of Content Creators Coalition, calls them “cooked numbers.”

Another of these groups told The Times about the weakness of the figures before publication. Johnson refers approvingly to Future of Music Coalition, a D.C.-based think thank that collects and interprets research on the lives of musicians. FMC is known to some in the artists-rights movement as being optimistic and overly friendly with technology companies, which is mostly not fair. Either way, its research team – made up heavily of longtime musicians, including Kristin Thomson, who co-founded the Simple Machine label -- is very strong. And the group has a major complaint about the very basis of the story, stats which Johnson refer to as “The closest data set we have to a bird’s-eye-view of the culture industry,” from the Labor Department’s Occupational Employment Statistics.

To Johnson, the numbers say that despite whatever digital disruption has wrought, more people are making careers as musicians now: “the market looks as if it is rewarding creative work, not undermining it, compared with the pre-Napster era.”

The Times approached the FMC to fact-check the story, and the group pointed out that his numbers did not tell the story they seemed to be enlisted to tell. Here’s what they’ve posted since:

Alas, what ended up running was rather disappointing. NYT Magazine chose to publish without substantive change most of the things that we told them were either: a) not accurate or b) not verifiable because there is no industry consensus and the “facts” could really go either way.

Steven Johnson’s article “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” frames itself as a data-driven response to concerns about the plight of creative workers in the digital age. But Johnson’s grasp of the limitations of the data he cites seems tenuous, and he ends up relying on some very dubious and all-too-familiar assumptions. In its sweeping dismissal of artists’ various concerns, the article reads as an exercise in gaslighting.

Some of the statistical stuff is wonky and hard to explain succinctly. But one of the key objections comes from Johnson’s claim that more people are making their livings as musicians. But since the statistical categories were changed midstream to accommodate school teachers, the early numbers and the later numbers become an apples-to-oranges comparison: the numbers of working musicians, it appears, is not going up but down.

The story also falls back on one of the most common tech-apologist clichés: That while musicians are making less money selling recordings, they are earning a lot of money on the road. It’s nice to think so. But while concert revenues are indeed up, bands rarely make a fortune touring – the big money goes to a few superstar acts, and enormous expenses for the musicians mean many groups just break even. Is a constant sequence of vans and Motel 6’s really a feasible way for a musician over the age of 25 to make a living? "I can’t stop touring because I will die,” surf-rock legend Dick Dale, who is raising money to cover his health problems, recently said. “Physically and literally, I will die."

Johnson’s argument, which begins with the rantings of Metallica’s Lars Ulrich over Napster 15 years ago, relies on a straw man. “It's not that there is a creative apocalypse where no one creates,” Camper Van Beethoven musician and technology critic David Lowery told me. “It's that the digital age has crushed creator wages, and the preponderance of evidence indicates that it's parasitic middlemen (digital and analog) that are capturing the value.”

Johnson also ignores the larger context and the way a creative economy works as an ecosystem. He makes a dismissive remark about “the glory days of Tower Records,” but Tower and places like it employed many people who went on to become important musicians: Peter Buck, Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo, Brian Burton (Danger Mouse), and numerous others worked at record story. Bookstores kept Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill and Jonathan Lethem fed while they found their respective voices.

Johnson's description of the publishing world -- which has reoriented around blockbusters and away from the midlist just as developed-world economies have undercut their middle class -- deserves its own critique. But is it really fair to say that independent bookstores are thriving because their numbers are slowly increasing? The U.S. lost about half of its indie bookstores from the mid-1990s to the dark, Amazon-shadowed days of the Great Recession, and Border’s is entirely gone now: The fact that the number is ticking back up hardly makes a success story.

One more reason it’s worth looking at the world of culture as an environment: As rents in cities that have traditionally made creative life possible – especially collaborative creative life – jolts up by 10 percent or more a year, musicians, writers, actors, and others get forced out to make room for financiers and trustafarians. If I can extend the eco-system metaphor for a second: For most people working in film, music, television, or books, that is hardly sustainable. David Byrne has made this point about the one-percenting of American cities and its impact on culture quite eloquently; “The New Making It” does not even engage his argument indirectly.

Is the environment for creative people all bad? Of course not. Is television better – maybe way better – than it used to be? Sure. Is digital technology the only villain here? Of course not.

“If you want to know how musicians are faring, you have to ask musicians, preferably a whole lot of them,” the FMC retort concludes. “You’ll get different answers from different musicians, and they’ll all be correct in terms of their own experiences. But your overall understanding will better reflect the complexity of the landscape.”

One thing you find if you talk to people who work in culture is that those lacking family money, tenure, or celebrity status are pushing up against very serious limits in the entrepreneurial, tech-mad, post-recession world. The Times story mocks these struggles rather than trying to understand them. Don’t believe the hype.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Creative Class Digital Music Internet New York Times