If you are an artist, I have some terrible news for you. If you think that writing, drawing, painting, animating, film making or music production take skill, application, years of training and a good deal of creativity and discipline, you’re sadly mistaken. I have to tell you that there is a very large constituency of potential customers and audience members out there that fervently, honestly, sincerely believe, with all their hearts, that you don’t have to do any of that, anymore. The software and/or technology does it all for you. All you have to do is the equivalent of pressing “play”.
For this reason, they feel no guilt in stealing the content you made. After all, they believe you didn’t make it. Your tools did. They also think that electric drills and routers make furniture and guitars and that kitchen appliances and cars are made by robotic factories, not people. Things, in their way of thinking, ought to be cheap, because there is nothing to it. The making of content, art, and physical things is all done by machine, these days. Don’t you know? None of what you thought was hard work is real work at all, apparently.
How did this nonsensical notion take root?
Marketing, corporate self interest and lack of education are to blame.
A convenient, but utterly false myth, propagated by those that want to sell you power tools, music synthesisers and desktop software applications, is that their tools do all the hard work and everything you make with them is “limited only by your imagination”. The idea is that imagining things is free and effortless and something everybody can do. However, the tool they’re selling is, in contrast, very valuable (i.e. worth more than the list price), because it does the real work.
This is why software development, as an industry, is becoming (or arguably has already become) such a disaster zone. Everybody has been encouraged to believe there is nothing to it. The abstractions and processes, disciplines and insights have been de-emphasised as being at the core of the task, because you can’t easily sell or profit from those. Only shrink wrapped or boxed products have value, because that’s what the marketers want you to think and it’s what they have to sell. They’ve been telling this story since before many people that believe the nonsense were even alive.
The truth is that the tools are a bit crude and limited, in actuality. You cannot simply purchase one and become an instant expert. The tools actually get in the way of the highly skilled, who reach the limitations of them regularly. Like any skilled craft, you have to learn how to get the best out of your tools and how to work around them, when they become a limitation, over a period of years, ensuring that you keep your hand in regularly. All human creation is this way, irrespective of the tools used. Yet, the marketers have sold the lie that somehow, through the magic of their products, there is a short cut to getting results of acceptable quality, without putting in the effort, the learning or the practice.
It’s a lie and they’re liars. You can’t. Buying Microsoft Word doesn’t turn you into Shakespeare. Buying Pro Tools doesn’t turn you into Mozart. Owning the tools doesn’t create a single thing for you.
Corporate Self Interest
The idea that artisanal skills are not to be valued highly dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when thousands, if not millions of workers were thrown out of their sole-trader, craft-based businesses and forced into the mills and factories, to provide a source of cheap labour for the owners of capital.
The idea that musicians and artists were not valuable dates back to when they were in the employ of wealthy patrons, so that the patron could look good, co-opting the art and music as their own, while treating their indentured artists on the same level as mere servants. Clearly there was a divide between somebody capable of shining the patron’s shoes and another person capable of composing a mass for the patron’s private chapel every Sunday, but no such distinction was recognised or acknowledged. In a class ridden society, the true value of everybody outside of a small circle of elites was artificially denigrated. That’s how the wealthy kept power and control for themselves.
Keeping skilled workers cheap, by de-skilling some of their tasks and telling them their non-automatable skills are replicable, abundant and easily replaced is an old trick and one that is still applied by movie studios, online retailers, record companies, software start-ups, factories and other similar tyrannical, totalitarian hierarchies. It means that, as an owner of the factory or machines, even if those machines are servers in data centres, you get to keep more of the earnings of the collective effort of your skilled people for yourself. It’s a pure con trick. People working for such tyrants could easily overthrow the management and keep the earnings for themselves, in a co-operative organisation, but the lie has been so oft repeated and people divided, so ruled, that the rebellion is never likely.
As part of this lie is the denial of the role and value of humans and human ingenuity in the production process. The machines are worshipped, but the machine makers and operators are denigrated. This is why corporations are so brazen about co-opting design ideas and intellectual property as their own. If it wasn’t for the facilities and machines they provided, they claim, there would be no innovations. Of course, innovation doesn’t work this way at all. Ideas are literally bullied out of the people that have them and then exploited handsomely by those that take them, for little consideration.
To take just one example, does anybody truly believe Jeff Bezos has the technical skill or enough life time to construct a web site the size, complexity and scale of Amazon? Do they believe that the ownership and monies that accrue from it are distributed amongst those that really conceived of it and brought it to life in proportion to the importance of each engineer’s contribution? It’s like the old adage. Somehow, the gold mine is in somebody else’s country, the gold is mined by miners and yet the gold belongs to the mine owner. How so? Just because of a few pieces of paper saying he is entitled to it and because he bought the picks and shovels?
The truth about capital is that you can’t make practically anything by machine alone. Capital won’t get you there. Owning the machines and the software doesn’t produce a thing. Even if your machines do produce something in a fully automated fashion, somebody keeps the machines running and topped up with raw materials. There is no machine yet made that can install itself, provide its own raw materials and maintain itself. These things are human activities and everything made has human input.
You certainly can’t let the software loose to make good art. Even with the current sophistication of some software tools, you can’t get good, interesting, high quality art out of them, simply by turning them on and walking away, any more than a finely made hammer can design and build a house.
The myth of mass production, by automation and of machines replacing the necessary skills and intelligence of people has been propagated so that the owners of capital can appropriate the profits made from the application of the skills of “their” workers for themselves. They consistently assert that ownership is what matters, but ownership on its own does nothing. Try it for yourself. Buy the best Digital Audio Workstation software you can find and push the play button. Did you get any new and original music?
At the same time as the owners of capital were telling their workforce that the machines don’t need them and to be grateful for any crumbs the owners deign to throw them, they were telling customers that their products were superior to handmade items, consistent in their quality, uniform in their dimensions and characteristics and not easily replicated by any other company. They were inflating the value of their goods to customers, while telling the employees that produced them that their contribution to the production of these goods was negligible. In accounting terms, this is called “margin” – the difference between production cost and selling price. Whatever you can do, including lying, that makes the production cost low and the selling price high is more money that the owner of the corporation can retain in their own trouser pockets.
If you’re really fierce and brazen, you don’t have to provide expensive machines and premises at all. You can simply demand that the producers furnish their own materials, tools and premises and promise to buy their output exclusively and take it to market for them. Thus, the weavers of tweed cloth were paid a pittance, but the cloth was sold on in major markets like London, by monopolists, at high prices, as if the goods were luxuries. Pretending that demand is low, to the producers, so that the production can be obtained for a song, while telling consumers that production is scarce and rare, thereby commanding a premium price for it, is an age old margin manipulation. It’s a wheeze.
It’s not always the case that consistency and uniformity equates to better product, by the way. If all music was consistent and uniform, or all paintings and books, that would make for a pretty dull world. What people actually want are personalised, individualised items. They want something new, fresh and interesting. That sort of customisation takes people, somewhere along the line.
The low returns made by artists, musicians and makers is a consequence of centuries of effort and narrative to keep the people under control, in thrall to their employers (corporations) and dependent on corporations for the provision of every necessity or frivolity in life, so that corporations and their owners make all the money. This is nothing short of a con trick.
There are modern corporations whose entire business model and revenue streams depend on co-opting creative outputs from individuals very cheaply (or ideally, for free), but selling that intellectual property cheaply, but in massive quantity, so that they make all the money. Spotify’s claim to fame, for example, is that it’s cheap enough to deter outright theft, but they make sure the lion’s share of the money earned from distributing other people’s creations goes to themselves, not to the creators. They can do this because they aggregate the customers and the content and act as gatekeeper between the two constituencies. By the same token, each consumer and artist is treated as a powerless unit of one, in any negotiations on terms. These aggregators leverage the accumulated product offerings and customers for their own benefit, simply by standing in between the two groups. If any customer could find any artist and obtain a license to enjoy their music directly, what would be the value of an aggregator?
Corporate self interest dictates that they spend time, energy and money on ensuring you don’t get any inconvenient ideas like “handmade is better”, or that the makers deserve a bigger share of the profits, that anybody skilled enough can start up as a competitor and that people should be anything more than passive, stupid, complacent, docile consumers and workers, who keep the money flowing upwards to the rentier. That’s their narrative. It’s the story they tell to keep things the way they are.
By never attempting to make or create anything, most people have no idea what the task involves. It’s relatively easy to get vast populations of passive consumers to believe that making and creating are no work at all and that it is all done by software and machines. The proposition is never tested. People that have become passive consumers never attempt to create or make a thing, to confirm their beliefs.
People that think factories make things feel no guilt about wasting them, stealing them, throwing them away, breaking and not repairing them and buying new ones, needlessly, as a fashion statement. This is good for corporate bottom lines, but disastrous for each consumer’s retained net worth and for the environment. It’s not hard to imagine why people that benefit most from this aberrant consumer behaviour might be busily reinforcing the notion that factories make all things.
Similarly, people that think computers make music and art, without knowing how that could even happen, are content to value it at zero, appropriate it for their own use at no cost to themselves and regard artists and musicians as disposable, replaceable and in endless supply. The reality, though, is that artists and musicians are unique, we can’t live without art and music and while there are many artists and musicians ready and willing to try to live on thin air, just so that they can create, each individual artist or musician creates something that nobody else can replicate. The supply of their particular art is exceedingly scarce, in fact.
This is why paintings by Van Gogh are so highly prized today. Nobody is making them anymore, despite the queue of competent artists willing to give it a try and the presence of so much capital and so many sophisticated software tools and machines that a factory ought to be able to do it. While factories could (and do) slavishly reproduce Van Gogh’s paintings, no amount of capital can create a brand new one. History tells us that Van Gogh was not disposable, replaceable or in endless supply. Rather the opposite.
Lack of Education
If you go through an education system that values only the passing of exams and the three “R”s, with only a derisory amount of education in art and creativity, you could be forgiven for being an idiot. If you are never taught art, music, making things or how software actually works, or taught that these things don’t really matter, then it’s easy to bamboozle you into thinking it’s all about buying the right software and/or machines and suddenly the products worthy of buying magically appear. You never learn to value the products of art and creativity, because you have no idea about what’s involved in their production.
Education has discouraged or under-valued free thinkers and creativity, because the education system, funded or politically influenced as it is by the owners of capital, has been concerned with producing compliant workers to slot into industry, like interchangeable parts. We’re taught to be convenient fodder for the owners of capital to exploit at their leisure. This is why we think that form filling, administration, office work, financial and property speculation, accountancy, advocacy and production line work is real work. That’s mostly what we train people to do. Ironically, it’s not very valuable and people are easily replaced, so employment security has never been lower.
You are never expected to strive to dig out original and challenging ideas or creations from the depths of your soul. If you learn to do that, it’s by accident and not encouraged by the education system very vigorously. It’s treated as an aberration and you are screened out from access to higher accomplishments and rewards, in academia. Arts are not treated as seriously as Maths and Science, yet without creativity, Maths and Science stagnate.
The result is that people who do make and create are thought to be fraudsters and their creations worthless by a large sector of society who do not make and create things. Art is thought to be a waste of time – an idea that is confirmed by the lack of money earned by artists as a group. They see the poverty as a confirmation of their prejudice, not as an artefact of a widespread manipulation.
The artists’ tools are thought to be doing all the work and this is never tested, because those that think this way never try to make or create anything. They think factories, software and machines make everything, so trying to make anything at all by hand seems illogical to them. Why would you even do it manually, when machines can do it so much more cheaply and better? Artists and creators that claim they work hard on their creations are either lying, or taking the long road needlessly. That’s the common myth.
Artists, makers and musicians are condemned, by their nature, to pursue making and creating things, because they can’t be any other way, yet they are forced to endure the punishments of an economy that is rigged against them and their intellectual property and in favour of the owners of capital and physical property. Their potential audience and customers, the general public, has been taught that the contribution made by creators is not real work, that their contributions are valueless and optional and that if they stopped making and creating, it would be no big deal, because machines could easily do it instead. The lies have been effective. The proof is in the royalty statements of musicians and authors, for example.
I don’t know what to do about this regrettable state of affairs other than attempting to explode the lies and distortions. Unfortunately, the lies and distortions are such ingrained, widely accepted assumptions, after centuries of reinforcement, that any narrative to the contrary is viewed as insanity. Yet the undeniable truth remains. Art and creativity are hard work, they are necessary for humanity to thrive and only the makers can truly own their means of production.
The owners of capital hate those facts a lot.