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In attempting to understand the impact of the pandemic on artists and the arts, we need to start by recognizing that this new crisis has collided with an arts economy that was already severely weakened by 20 years of digital assault. The assault has taken the form, specifically, of demonetization. Any content that can be transmitted over the Internet—music, text, still images, video—has seen its price severely cut, often to zero. Across a wide range of fields, major revenue sources have crumbled: for musicians, recorded music sales; for writers, freelance fees and book advances; for publications, advertising revenue; for the movie business, ticket sales as well as DVD sales and rentals.
As a result, artists and cultural institutions have learned to seek their income from sources that cannot be digitized, meaning physical objects and live experiences—especially live experiences. Musicians tour, tour, tour. Writers give readings and talks, teach classes, do residencies. For visual artists like illustrators, animators, and cartoonists, classes and workshops have also been key. Publications monetize their brands with panoplies of live events. Festivals of all kinds (music, film, comedy, books) have proliferated, as have art fairs (a major venue now for the sale of high-end visual art) and fan conventions like Comic-Con (which are huge for a range of creative fields).
None of that, of course, can happen now. The crisis has not just hit theaters, though their closure has been devastating for orchestras and ensembles; opera, dance, and theater companies; and the artists who create and perform for them. It has not just hit museums, galleries, art spaces, and the artists whose work they show. The major basis of much of the contemporary arts economy—live, in-person, face-to-face events—has been destroyed. And even the one art that was not weakened before the pandemic, the one creative arena that had been thriving financially in the 21st century, television, has suspended production, throwing tens of thousands out of work.
But the loss of revenue from live events is only the start of this particular disaster. Artists typically piece together their livings from a multiplicity of part-time income sources. As one writer put it to me, you stack up a bunch of small checks. Full-time jobs do not generally allow sufficient time to make one’s art, nor do they permit the kinds of extended absences (touring, residencies, performance runs in other towns) that are necessary for pursuing one’s career. So artists do a lot of one-offs and short-term gigs: commissions, client work, adjunct teaching. Much of this is likely to dry up as businesses and institutions, including universities, tighten their belts. (The fate of art schools and departments during a time of virtual instruction is not likely to be pretty.) Artists also drive for Uber and Lyft, pull shots, wait tables, tend bar, and engage in many other varieties of low-wage service work. A lot of that is now shut down or severely curtailed. And very little of it (the day jobs or the art-related work) comes with health insurance.
Artistic careers are also such that you cannot just put them on hold—for three, six, 12, 24 months—and expect to pick up where you left off. Artistic work is project-to-project. Your album or your play can make a splash, but then it is back to square one. Attention and momentum quickly fade and must be constantly regenerated. Many of us are hoping to go back, eventually, to some kind of normal, but for artists, with few exceptions, there is nothing there, no job or position, to “go back” to. You are the job. You are the small business. For actors, writers, and directors who have had their productions shut down, comedians and bands who’ve had to cancel tours, visual artists who were looking forward to a gallery show (all after years of preparation, deprivation, and uncertainty), the pandemic may be killing opportunities that won’t come back. In the arts, far more than almost any other field, success requires luck. Even in the best of times, the extent to which you can simply get randomly screwed is heartbreaking. The pandemic is a random screwing on an epic scale.
For artists, the disease’s effects on the larger economy, both now and whenever the crisis is over, are also likely to be grim. However much we value the arts, spending on them is discretionary. As we slide into our new depression, many people will have precious little left over for things like books or vinyl. With the rise of free content, spending on the arts has also largely come to be voluntary. The most hopeful financial development for independent artists over the past decade has undoubtedly been the emergence of crowdfunding platforms, especially Kickstarter and Patreon. Crowdfunding is the patronage model updated for the digital age, and it has become a lifeline for creators, a crucial part of many a financial picture. But like all patronage, crowdfunding depends on the existence of benefactors who feel they have the economic breathing room to give.
The truth is that digitization has not really demonetized the arts. Someone has been making money, but that someone isn’t artists: For those who are counting the clicks and selling the resulting data, “free content” is a gold mine. Silicon Valley in general, and the tech giants in particular—above all, Google, Facebook, and Amazon—have engineered a vast and ongoing transfer of wealth, on the order of tens of billions of dollars a year, from creators to distributors, from artists to Big Tech. They have been able to do so because of their monopoly positions and the unparalleled power and wealth these have brought them. With the destruction that the current crisis is wreaking on brick-and-mortar retail, along with the way the pandemic is shifting even more of our existence onto screens, signs are strong that this upheaval will only serve to strengthen the hegemony of Big Tech in the post-pandemic world.
Things were already bad for artists. Even for those who are lucky enough to survive this with some semblance of their professional lives intact, they are likely to be worse.