Back to the Future: Where Publishing (and Artistry in General) is Going

Lent is going very well, thanks for asking. One of the things that self-abnegation is supposed to do for you is make you mindful of the thing you’re giving up, so you can appreciate it more, or at least notice what a big role it plays in your life. Sugar plays a moderate role in my life. I don’t drink soda pop, but I do eat cookies and especially cookie dough fairly often, and I like my ice cream. I notice that I can’t eat those things, and I’m happy to be reminded of how often I do, and how much I enjoy it when I can. Lent is a success already, because of that.

But that isn’t why I’m writing this. As you are surely aware, both of you that read this regularly, I’m a writer and a relatively prolific one. I average 50,000 words a month, every month, so that’s a fair-sized novel six times a year. I also write short stories in profusion, and finding a market for those has been somewhat problematic. Yes, I could certainly put them up on Amazon with the several hundred thousand competitors, and see what happens. I may do that one day. I am not, however, going to do it right now, because I think there are better models out there.

I teach history to high-schoolers, too, which thing you may not know. We’re studying the 19th century right now, which is the point in the art world where some composing began being done on a market basis instead of a patronage one. This I will explain.

If you were, say, Mozart, you made a living writing for the Archduke of Austria. He paid you, housed you, fed you, and in return, you wrote things for him. That’s a patronage model. Those works were, frequently, performed in big opera houses, with lots of attendees, but the work itself belonged to the man154340-004-815BAA93 who paid for it (except there was no such thing as copyright, so “owning” is a bit more complicated than I’m making it sound, but just go with it for now). There was often fierce competition for the services of the best composers and musicians and painters, etc. among the royal houses of Europe, who were the ones that could afford it.

In the 19th century, there was a move away from the patronage model, as the royal houses were faced with wave on wave of revolution. Composers began to do more work on spec, getting paid by the gig and by the reception of the piece, rather than paid by someone who wanted direct, immediate access to the artist. This is the model that’s existed not quite all the way to right now. Yes, there are label and movie house and publisher contracts, some of them mimicking the patron model (usually without the corresponding benefits to the artist), but none of them really analogous. Artists made deals with these corporations not so the corporations could enjoy their music, but so they could distribute it to make money for themselves (something Maria Therese would have abhorred).

A few years ago – really, just a few – the Internet made distribution almost as easy for a single independent artist as for a big label (record, publisher, whatever). It became possible for a solo artist to take his work directly to the buyers and skip the label contract. Self-publishing was born. Now, the legacy model (that’s what we call it in publishing) is not dead. It’s still around, and in some places still fairly robust. There are still behemoth record labels, and movie studios (whose deals with theaters and distribution companies make indie moviemaking more problematic), and publishers, but many fewer than there once were. Some forecast their total annihilation. I don’t go that far. They’ll always be around, I think. But the game is changing, and I’m not talking about self-publishing. There’s another wave coming, and it will take us back to the future.

Lots is made by economists and (especially) politicians about income inequality. Without weighing in on the merits of the research itself, let me just point out from the standpoint of the 99% that my life may be getting worse on a relative income scale, but it’s getting better every second on an acquirable goods basis. What that means is that whereas in 1950 a rich man would have better food, better cars, better housing, better entertainment and travel options, better access to information, better pretty-much-everything than I would, in 2015 Mitt Romney and I drive similar cars, live in housing of similar quality (his is bigger, but not palatially so), eat similar food, and listen to exactly the same music, read the same books in the same quantities, read the same news and get the same movies, television shows, and sporting events. He cannot have better information access than I do. All the money on earth couldn’t buy more of these things than I have (okay, but only really, really marginally). We have, as an American society, reached the point of diminishing returns in practically every consumable good. There is functionally so little difference between Mitt Romney and me in terms of what we can and do consume on a daily basis that there is no useful distinction.

NOTE: I’m not commenting on the millions that don’t have enough to eat or a decent place to live. There are such people, and I belong to more than one organization that does much to attempt to alleviate their misery. I also do not comment on conditions outside the US (more specifically, the computerized world), which resemble those in the US in the 19th century much more closely. I’m aware of these things, and do not believe they bear on the thesis of this essay.

These things being so, two things then become likely, in my opinion. One, as the marginal utility of my money declines, I’ll be looking for things to do with it that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, like supporting Kickstarter potato salad projects (no, actually, I didn’t; it’s just an example, but I think a good one). Two, the really rich are not going to be very happy about schmoes like me being able to wear the same clothes and listen to the same music and read the same books.

The latter first: one of the historic hallmarks of rich people is that they have to have stars upon thars. It’s not enough to have more money and security; other people have to know that they have more. Flaunting it is a major component of snobby riches. Eating expensive – and disgusting – food is necessary, so that people like me can be made jealous because we can’t. That’s getting harder and harder to do. I have close friends that seriously contemplate buying Teslas and going to Mars. Not people you’d think of as rich, either. So how does a swell separate himself from the great mass of the unwashed?

Glad you asked. Big houses, for sure, but that’s not working all that well anymore. I already have more house than I can keep clean, and I have eight kids. I don’t want a bigger house. You can only eat so many calories (eating fewer calories is now a sign of the rich). My gym has the same equipment in it that theirs does, so they do crossfit. But anyone crazy enough can do that. If you happen to be really rich, and you’re looking for a way to differentiate, I have one for you.

Reinstitute the patronage model.

There are plenty of places to do this, but one of the best is a site called Patreon, where you can, with your boundless wealth, lock Mozart up so that he’s only playing for you. You can actually have music, art, literature, what have you that no one else can get. Exclusive. All yours. No need to share unless you want.

Yes, the hoi polloi can support these artists, too, but your money can buy you access we don’t get. Right now, it will mostly get you just earlier access than everyone else, but think bigger. You could have Pentatonix make a video for you, and only you. You could have Hugh Howey or Lindsay Buroker write you a novel, that only has one copy, and it’s on your shelf. You see the possibilities.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the wave of the future. When we get to a completely post-consumer society – and we are far closer than most people think – the only differentiators are going to be access to creativity. And we’ll be back to Mozart, only this time everyone will have enough to eat and doctors that wash their hands, so that’s going to be better right there.

As we go, I’ll be chronicling how some of these things work, from the inside, as I try them out. Not being a rich man (remember the eight kids?), I won’t be locking up Peter Hollens to just come sing his tracks for me, but I’ll be showing how the patronage model, and variations on the model like Kickstarter and Pubslush and Peertracks, etc. work for the hardworking but as-yet-undiscovered craftsman, often using myself as the guinea pig.

Curious? Yeah. Me too.

tumblr_nk6wk0fMzf1tnf2f7_ogP.S. If you want to be a groundbreaker in the new model of creative endeavor, you couldn’t do better than supporting this project (see adorable picture). It’s all the good things I talk about above, and would make some deserving kids very happy.

P.P.S. In case this didn’t come through above, I actually think the patronage model will be fantastic for new artists.

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