It doesn’t take a Leonardo-level intellect to figure out that the pandemic has been devastating for the arts economy. Live events were the first things to stop, and they will be the last to return. That means musicians, actors, and dancers, plus all the people who enable them to take the stage—playwrights and choreographers, directors and conductors, lighting designers and makeup artists, roadies, ushers, ticket takers, theater managers—have no way to make a living from their work, and haven’t for more than a year.
Still, I don’t think most of us appreciate just how bad things are. The crisis goes well beyond the performing arts. Surveys published last summer found that 90 percent of independent music venues were in danger of closing for good, but so were a third of museums. In a survey by the Music Workers Alliance, 71 percent of musicians and DJs reported a loss of income of at least 75 percent, and in another, by the Authors Guild, 60 percent of respondents reported losing income, with an average drop of 43 percent. During the third quarter of 2020, unemployment averaged 27 percent among musicians, 52 percent among actors, and 55 percent among dancers. In the first two months of the pandemic, unemployment in the film and sound-recording industries reached 31 percent. Meanwhile, as of September, gallery sales of modern and contemporary art were down by 36 percent. What has been happening across the arts is not a recession. It is not even a depression. It is a catastrophe.
There is another thing the rest of us, the audience, do not fully appreciate: the crisis is rooted in the destruction that was visited upon the arts even before the pandemic—that is, in the scandal of free content, which has been going on for more than twenty years and which implicates us all. The trouble began in 1999 when Napster came along, creating not only the possibility that music could be free, but the belief that it should be. First the price of music was driven to zero or near zero, then so was the price of work in nearly every other medium: text, images, video. Revenues plummeted across the arts. By 2010, sales of recorded music were down by 69 percent.
Artists adapted, because we left them no choice. They learned to make their money from things that can’t be digitized. That meant physical objects and events—especially events. Musicians tour until they drop; two hundred dates a year is typical for an emerging band. With book advances pulverized by Amazon and freelance rates decimated by Google and Facebook (not to mention non-subscribing web readers), authors hit the lecture circuit. Like a lot of visual artists, many writers also teach classes, give workshops, and do residencies. Musicians and comics play cruises and corporate gigs. In an age when everything is mediated, audiences crave events, too. Festivals have multiplied, and so have fan conventions.
As for physical objects, they are often not distinct from events as a revenue stream so much as ancillary to them. Merchandise—posters, T-shirts, stickers, CDs—is a high-margin category for musicians and other performers, but most of it is sold at shows. For authors, talks and workshops juice the sales of books; for visual artists, appearances boost sales of calendars, cards, mugs, and anything else that’s big enough to put an image on. Events are also key to building a base of superfans, people who love your work enough to purchase anything you can sell them. Harness that audience through crowdfunding platforms or other means, and you can garner enough support to stay afloat.
Artists have adapted, yes—the way you adapt to losing a limb. The growth in ticket sales, for example, is still billions of dollars less than the decline in sales of recorded music. There is also the blockbuster phenomenon to consider. Internet traffic is driven by network effects, which means, to put it simply, that the big get bigger and the small get smaller. In 1982, the top 1 percent of musicians earned 26 percent of concert revenue. By 2017, the top 1 percent earned 60 percent. And so it is across the arts: the bestseller lists are dominated by a shrinking number of authors and books; the box office, by an endless procession of big-budget, mega-grossing franchises. And in the visual-art world, as of 2018, just twenty individuals accounted for 64 percent of global sales by living artists. Aside from stars and superstars, nearly everyone is making do with less.
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There is a belief at large, spread by Silicon Valley and its useful idiots in the media, that there has in fact never been a better time to be an artist. Thanks to faster computers, better software, ubiquitous phones, and the internet itself, production and distribution—of your self-recorded album, self-published novel, independent movie, digital art—are now, respectively, cheap and free. But as any artist can tell you, the biggest expenses involved in making art are not production and distribution—they are staying alive while you do your work and becoming an artist in the first place. In other words, rent and tuition. And those costs, of course, have been soaring for years. Since 2000, median rent has gone up 62 percent in real dollars and student debt has roughly quintupled.
Not only do artists earn less and have to spend more than they did before the platforms came along, they work even harder. Because it’s not enough anymore just to make your art—already a difficult task if you’re going to do it well enough to have a career. The same forces that have bled the incomes of artists have also shrunk the profits of the companies—publishers, record labels, and so forth—through which they earn, or used to earn, their living. As the culture industry contracts, artists are left to replicate its functions on their own. Artists are now single-person small businesses, complete with marketing, accounting, and logistics departments. They not only create and perform, they produce, design, manage, distribute, and publicize incessantly. The idea persists that artists are lazy. In fact, the ones I’ve talked to work as hard as anyone I’ve ever met, often all day, every day, for years on end. Their life is a constant hustle and—thanks in great measure to Silicon Valley and to an audience accustomed to free art—often a constant struggle, too.
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You can’t just pick up your art career, eighteen months later, from the place you dropped it. There’s no job to go back to; the job is you. Momentum, once lost, must be laboriously regained. You’re the only one pulling the cart, and the cart starts rolling backward the instant you stop. After hustling nonstop for fifteen years, Maldonado was close to making it to Broadway, where the pay is many times better than what he had been earning. Turkuaz toured relentlessly when they were starting out, logging as many as 260 days a year on the road. They started getting real traction around 2015, selling out thousand-seat theaters and receiving prominent billing at festivals such as Red Rocks, near Denver, and Jazz Fest, in New Orleans. In 2019, Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads chose Turkuaz to collaborate on a fortieth-anniversary tour of Remain in Light, the band’s landmark 1980 album. Like scores of other dates the band had planned for 2020, that breakout opportunity, of course, was postponed.
Mamie Tinkler, a painter living in New York, grew up in Tennessee without a lot of money. She has always had a full-time job—in a gallery, as the coordinator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and now as the studio manager for the artist Matthew Barney—which means that she has never had as much time as wealthier peers to develop her work. At forty-two, Tinkler opened her first solo show in New York, a milestone in the career of any artist, on March 14, 2020. The next day, the gallery closed to the general public.
The paintings were “by far the best work I had ever made,” Tinkler said. Not that she had been hoping for miracles; she’d been around the art world long enough to temper her expectations about what the show would accomplish. There’s always a voice inside, she acknowledged, that says, “Oh my God, everybody’s going to finally realize what a great artist I am,” but realistically, “it’s more a feeling that you want the work to start working for you instead of you having to constantly be out in the world pushing your work forward.” It was “profoundly disappointing,” she said, to have the show “just disappear like that.”
Link to the rest at Harper’s