The Arts: Back to Bohème?

Arts and culture are not exempt from the continuing concentration of great, if not excessive, wealth among fewer and fewer people while the number of poor only grows. Orchestra seats at the Metropolitan Opera are about $650 each. When my grandmother took me to matinees at the Old Met at the age of ten, they were $35. And cabbies bought standing room in the upper balcony for $1.00.

In 1972, when I first chaired the Vermont Arts Council, an exec from the National Endowment for the Arts told me that Vermont had the highest per capita concentration of artists in the United States. Some 50 years later, I am one of about 400 authors in our small state. One can only imagine how many artists there are today across all genres. Vermont is truly a “State of the Arts.”

But the art world is changing. The former dream of making a living in the arts is vanishing, even as it has throughout history been largely a gamble.

Michael Couture and I started the Philo Records recording studio in a converted pig barn in 1972. For better or for worse, we recorded musicians, made records and sold them internationally. Our artists  got them from us at distributor cost and made money selling them too.

Today, there is no more record business. Philo’s recorded assets are owned by a private-equity company. Google, YouTube, Apple, and Amazon stream all the music ever recorded to whomever wants to pay their monthly fee. They, in turn, pay artists a pittance for the rights to do so. Musicians are relegated to teaching and performing to eke out a living while continually being asked to do “benefit” performances. The concept of a “benefit” was once an occasional gift in a nonprofit cause balanced out by paid gigs. Not any longer, as one classical musician told me who is asked for more benefit performances than paid ones.

I’ve written nine books. I’ve self-published, published with a hybrid press, and with a traditional press, Simon & Schuster. I consider myself lucky in that I eke enough out from self-publishing to cover editing, design, printing, and self-publishing. My books cost me time and creativity as has always been the case. But today it’s the occasional comment or email praising one of my books that is my compensation and, frankly, means more than the paltry sales checks I get from my print, ebook, and audiobook distributors.

Counting vanity, self-publishing, hybrid and traditional presses, some 2-3 million books a year are published in the U.S. Yet total books sales have grown barely at all – about 789 million in 2022.

One of the great risks to creatives now is the vulnerability that comes from dreams of writing a best seller. The industry is rife with scammers feeding on hope and vanity   ̶   promising to make budding writers “New York Times Best Sellers for example. “Let us put your manuscript in front of Netflix producers !” “Let us get your book published by a well-known publisher !” Also rife are fake publisher contacts, PR posers, and fraudulent literary agency email ads. All of these demand a significant upfront investment after which there is no delivery on those promises.

As troubling to me are the number of legitimate trade organizations such as the Independent Book Publishers Assoc. (IBPA), Bowker, etc. that flirt with author egos   ̶   offering for a price to provide a paid thumbnail and descriptor with other books on a page bought from Publishers Weekly, or to place a copy of your book on a table at the Frankfurt Book Fair or Book Expo New York, or to include your book in a custom catalog going to bookstore owners. These are not scams, but they play on the same creative vanity with little or no effect on a book’s success. As a creative person, it’s important to understand that your ego can be your downfall.

Like the polarity of wealth in the United States, that has decimated the middle class in favor of the one percent, fewer and fewer authors make more and more money in traditional publishing. By way of example, James Patterson has sold some 425 million books during his career. In 2020, he was the highest paid author in the U.S. making $80M. It takes 16 people full-time to publish James Patterson books.

I’m friends with a number of Vermont authors and have read some of their books and manuscripts. Many are highly credible works, worthy of broader attention than they will probably ever get because of ownership concentration in a publishing industry that focuses on blockbuster sales alone.

Post-War America in 1946 was the golden age of publishing. Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Roger Straus, Bennett Cerf, and Arthur Thornhill Sr. were among the lions of a publishing industry that took risks, sought out great stories, and brought us many of the classics we revere today. We can only hope that their mission to seek out and publish great work will someday return.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry has been consolidating, which means the focus is on market power and profit not on finding and publishing great work. One good sign: Recently, the Justice Department enjoined Penguin Random House’s purchase of Simon & Schuster, which would have created a market-dominant duopoly owned by the German magnate Bertelsmann Publishing.

Vermont has its share of famous authors  ̶  Julia Alvarez, Katherine Paterson, Chris Bohjalian, Howard Frank Mosher, Archer Mayor, Major Jackson, Jamaica Kincaid, Alison Bechdel  ̶   but also a bevy of little-known literary stars whose books deserve much wider “discovery,” to use a term the publishing industry uses to describe its biggest challenge. David Holmes, Robin MacArthur, Rebecca Rupp, Steve Shepard, Laura Budofsky Wisniewski, Hank Lambert, Daphne Kalmar, Bernie Lambek, Stephen Payne, Angela Patten, Daniel Lusk, Peter Gould, Meg Little Reilly, J.P. Coquette, Bill Torrey, to name but a few, and with apologies to all the many other Vermont authors of quiet gems.

Unfettered monopoly and monopsony (Amazon) formation have decimated indie bookstores, which, like art galleries, theaters, and concert halls, are the cultural centers of many communities.

Digitization of books, music, and even artwork (NFTs) are rendering copyright protections useless. Once a book or musical work is digitized it can be shared widely without compensation to the creator. Google’s early effort to scan and digitize the world’s books ran into some trouble from the American Assoc. of Publishers and the Authors Guild (of which I am a member) because it further enabled digital piracy. However, today it is permitted under a new agreement with copyright holders.

It’s estimated that some 17% of all ebook acquisitions are pirated. Ebook pirate sites are rife. When served with a legal shut-down notice, they simply pop up elsewhere within hours under a new domain name.

Piracy has been rife since hard media came into being. “Replica art,” or art forgeries, began in the 15th century when one could make a living copying and selling the great works.

When I was active in the music industry, a prominent joke ran, “the Bee Gees latest album sold ‘gold’(500,000) and returned ‘platinum’ (1,000,000),” implying that pirates had made more copies of the album than their then-label Atlantic manufactured.

According to Billboard, the music industry trade magazine, more than 15 billion visits to music piracy sites were logged in 2022. Whereas old pirates just manufactured illegal LPs, cassettes, and CDs, a new generation of pirates focus on streaming fraud.

Another current scam: I recently did an online search for a book of my father’s letters he wrote during his service in the Pacific theater in World War II. He died on the U.S.S. Cooper in Leyte Gulf Philippines during a torpedo attack. I was immediately offered a copy by a pirate in Wyoming who had found, scanned, and printed a dismal copy, offering it to me for an absurd price. I wrote him asking to see his copyright license… crickets.

On the good side, UVM recently debuted a pioneering publishing venture that treats scholarly work  as a common benefit to humankind in a globalizing environment. Financial and intellectual property restrictions associated with traditional publishing are bypassed to create a transnational knowledge commons based on the Diamond open-access model of publishing. UVM Press will focus on cutting-edge research work that in traditional scholarly publishing might never have earned its creators any income, in fact, it might well have cost them money to publish.

Could this same scholarly rationale apply to creative works? That is to say, are protecting the financial interests of the creator of a work of art more or less important than the value of eliminating all barriers to their work as a cultural benefit to mankind? In the future, that’s the question we’ll want to answer, assuming that technology hasn’t made the question moot.

Acknowledging the creative and economic contribution of its arts and cultural communities, the European Union has increased its six-year cultural subsidy 63% to $2.4B Euros ($2.5B).

Meanwhile, over the same time period, the U.S. investment in the arts is half that of the E.U.’s. The 2024 budget for the National Endowment for the Arts will be $211M, less than the Defense Department budget of $300M for military marching bands.

Given all these trends, are the arts destined to become a vocation without any return on creativity? Will we gather in our attic lofts like Mimi in the opera La Bohème to celebrate the beauty of art while living in poverty?

And what will artificial intelligence (AI) bring to the world of art… endgame or a bloom of creativity? And if we ever figure out how to regulate it, will we do so to drive profit or to enrich the cultural good and creative minds of all mankind?

Comments are closed.