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The Creative Middle Class

‘Poetry of the Music’, by ‘Lel4nd’ on Flickr

The recent creative industry pat-on-the-back event The Oscars[1] has got me thinking about creativity, art and business.

We have mega-über-super-stars, and struggling artists. And that seems to be it.

There are some fantastic people and businesses that are exceptions, but there are still relatively few ‘little guys’ able to make a comfortable living from their art (in a way that respects their customers too). [2]

Where is the middle ground? Is it really the case that it must be this way, or is it the case that Hollywood and The Big Three and their policies are stifling the creative start-up?

The Problem

In the tougher economic times many of us are facing right now, I think we have even more of an incentive, and even more of an opportunity, to help people build small businesses. Taking something you love doing and extending it into an economic enterprise is something that more people will have a try at, as many face redundancy in their previous jobs.

But there’s a problem, specifically with starting up a new business around art of any form. If you want to make a film, you will face huge challenges getting funding without a well-developed script and talent on board[3], and yet that is a huge challenge without funding. It is a catch 22.

If you are a musician in the UK, to get paid from your work when it is played in PRS/PPL-licensed venues, you would have to pay an upfront fee to those collecting societies[4]. Even if you do that, you are then forced to support an organisation which engages in behaviour that could be seen to be anti-competitive in undermining EU single market rules[5], as well as providing a poor experience[6] to small businesses who want to play your music.

In many fields, there are societies, guilds, unions, collective bargaining organisations that, by their very nature, raise the bar for small businesses. The overheads and complexity can make it very difficult to make an income from your creative work.

We Have the Tools

A lot has changed in recent years that should have furthered this agendum.

The technological tools have been democratised — we have inexpensive computers and software for creating and mastering all sorts of works, we have podcasting and other distribution mechanisms, and we have payment systems that make it easy for small businesses to get paid. But it still isn’t happening on a wide scale.

I can’t help but think we need somebody, or something, to be fighting for the little guys and girls. The millions of dollars that Big Business can spend promoting the latest ‘hit’ movie, single or TV show, simply can’t be matched by a one-person operation. Attention is scarce, and getting the word out there demands that we compete for slices of potential customers’ attention.

‘Creative industry’ is, for a whole generation, becoming synonymous with suing your customers[7], spending millions of dollars to ‘buy’ legislation[8] to maintain failing business models (including attacking the sovereignity of other nations by trying to unduly influence legislation there too[9]) and proposing draconian ‘solutions’ that clearly would break vital internet infrastructure[10].

We need to show that there are smaller businesses, who want to profit from their creative work and contribute to the sum of human creativity, all while providing a good experience to the customer and respecting their rights.

The last thing I want to suggest is another society, a collective group, to help do this job. So often with this type of organisation there is the potential for the businesspeople to become disconnected from the artists, and corrupt the integrity of the art, or forget to treat the customer with the reverence and respect they deserve.

But, I’m beginning to think that is what we might need, to get the voices of small creative businesses heard and to help them market to their potential audience. To throw out the old rules that seem to favour the mass-market cash cows. To level the playing field.

It would have to have principles that were rigidly upheld:

Principles

Treating the Artist Right

  • The artist must retain all the ownership and rights over their own stuff.
  • No lock-in — no term that would prohibit the artist from making other deals. The artist should be encouraged to look into innovative business models wherever that might help.
  • The artist always retains creative control — over their content, and the way it is marketed.
  • The organisation’s commercial and societal role should always further the interests of the struggling artist and seek to lower the barriers to entry. (Balancing this carefully with the rights of others, naturally).

Treating the Customer Right

  • The customer always retains control over their stuff. It’s their computer, their TV, their music player.
  • The customer’s rights of fair use/fair dealing, and other exemptions to copyright, are acknowledged. Not acknowledged begrudgingly, but recognised as legitimate, inalienable rights.
  • No lock-in — no DRM. No unfairly restricting the right to format shift, for example. No imposing terms that are unreasonable. No using technology to create artificial restrictions.
  • The customer should be encouraged to remix, share, to the extent that they are helping promote the artist’s work.

The truth is, I know more about what I would demand from the customer’s perspective than I do about what artists need. In fact, I am not even clear on what this organisation would do, but I feel that somebody does need to secure better access to marketing opportunities and put the small business viewpoint forward in the public domain.

It is still a little unclear in my head, but it is an idealistic pipe dream? Eminently possible? Do we even need collective bargaining, or a unified voice, to help small and medium creative businesses compete with the big players? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

[1] — does it strike anyone else as just a little pretentious that The Oscars has award ceremonies precede it and anticipate its judgement, just so that we can all dance around saying ‘tipped to win an Oscar’?
[2] — there are notable success stories, which I am very glad to support. Black Lab and Don McAllister’s ScreenCastsOnline are two that immediately spring to mind.
[3] — http://www.law-arts.org/pdf/Legal_Issues_in_Film_Production.pdf (PDF link)
[4] — http://www.boosey.com/pages/publishyourself/collectionSocieties.asp
[5] — http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/08/511&form
[6] — “Just 6% of companies rated their experience as good or excellent. In contrast, over half said their experience had been poor or very poor.” http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/zones/policy/press-releases_1/performing-rights-society-requires-urgent-review-says-bcc.html
[7] — http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2008/12/riaa-says-it-pl/
[8] — http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120125/04252517536/elected-officials-asked-to-return-hollywood-money-following-dodds-threats.shtml
[9] — http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16391727
[10] — http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/01/14/obama-administration-responds-we-people-petitions-sopa-and-online-piracy
Any references throughout this article to ‘the artist’ are most definitely not references to the 2012 Oscar Best Picture. ;)

Photo is ‘Poetry of the Music’ by ‘Lel4nd’ on Flickr. Licensed under CC-BY.

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