Such efforts and proposals are admirable. They are also clearly out of proportion to the scale of the overall problem. It’s not their fault and it doesn’t mean they’re not worth it either. The problem starts with Giant Tech. Silicon Valley in general, and the tech giants in particular – above all, Google, Facebook and Amazon – have staged a vast and continuous transfer of wealth from creators to distributors, artists to themselves. The cheaper the content, the better for them, because they measure the flow – by counting our clicks and selling the resulting data – and they want that flow to be as smooth as possible. Any real solution must start there too.
Pretty much everyone I have spoken to about this is advocating for an overhaul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the DMCA, which was designed to update copyright in the digital age. When the law was passed in 1998, Google was five weeks old, YouTube didn’t yet exist, Mark Zuckerberg was entering high school – and Napster was a year away from launch. It wasn’t designed to tackle the scale piracy that was about to explode.
“Takedown” must be changed to “stay down”, so that the files cannot go up directly. A small claims court should be created for copyright infringement, so that individual artists, not just media conglomerates, can afford to sue for damages. “Fair use” means the provision in copyright law that allows limited exemptions (such as citation for scientific purposes or sampling for satire), which Google and others are relentlessly seeking to expand, must remain within traditional limits. In 2019, the European Union passed a landmark law, as the New York Times explained, that “requires platforms to sign licensing agreements” with musicians, writers and others before releasing material. content – in fact, to proactively remove counterfeit content. A comparable rule should be adopted in the United States.
But these measures only concern copyright. The biggest problem is the hugely disproportionate advantage monopoly platforms have in the pricing struggle. For starters, this pricing is often a mystery. We don’t know what platforms pay, in many cases, because they don’t have to tell us. This is why the music streaming rates (0.44 cents on Spotify, 0.07 cents on YouTube) are only an estimate, as is the rate per page that Amazon pays through Kindle Unlimited (its Spotify for electronic books). Artists don’t even have the information to negotiate on: how much money the services are taking. How much does Kindle Unlimited generate, for example? Amazon does not speak. And even if we had this information, the platforms are unlikely to even trade. What really bothers her, filmmaker Ellen Seidler told me, “is that no one is ready to come to the table” from the other side. Instead, she says, “the performers were vilified in a pretty orchestrated way. Our voices were suppressed. It’s David versus Goliath.
What is less clear is what can be done to create a more equitable distribution of the many billions of dollars that “demonetized” content continues to generate, to recoup the money that technology monopolies have reclaimed. Workers are allowed to organize for higher wages. When producers cooperate to set prices – even imagining that such a thing was possible here, given how incredibly dispersed content production is today – it is called collusion, and it is illegal. The government also cannot fix the prices, of course.
But there is one thing the government can do – and as people have started to realize lately, it absolutely must. He must break these monopolies. There are already movements in this direction. In 2019, the federal government opened antitrust investigations into four of the Big Five, with the Justice Department looking into Google and Apple and the Federal Trade Commission taking responsibility for Amazon and Facebook. The House Judiciary Committee also announced plans for an investigation. That same year, the Supreme Court, in a ruling on a lawsuit against Apple’s App Store, signaled its willingness to review its approach to antitrust law, a measure long overdue. Such efforts to contain “technology’s top predators,” in the words of journalist Kara Swisher, must not derail. The powers of tech monopolies to ignore the law, dictate terms, stifle competition, control debate, shape legislation, determine prices – all of which flow directly from their size, wealth and of their dominance in the market. They are too big, too rich and too strong. And we have to do it before it’s too late.
The arts, it is often said, are ecosystems. This means that major talents, with their enduring and transformational achievements, do not fall from the sky, that their emergence depends on a host of other people: childhood teachers, early mentors, rivals and long-term collaborators. date, all of which must have a way. to earn a living too. This means that the institutions (the local club, the 99-seat theater, the independent label and the independent press) can only survive with a critical mass of artists to serve – who, in turn, rely on the institutions. This means that even small projects or mediocre projects have their value, as they give creators experience, and maybe a paycheck, so they can stay and work another day. This means that artists can’t do their job if others can’t too: the lighting technician, the editor, the person who keeps the books or checks the coats or sells the beer. This means that artists coexist in networks, helping each other find jobs, cheap rooms, opportunities, but only as long as they can stay in the arts.
As institutions tremble and collapse, professionals from all walks of life lose their autonomy, their dignity, their place.
But all communities are ecosystems, not just the arts. In the larger economic ecosystem, too, whales grow larger by starving plankton. The consolidation towards monopoly now affects almost all sectors and this is the main cause of the fall in wages. The trend towards poorly paid contract work – on-demand, piecework, temporary work – is almost ubiquitous. As institutions tremble and collapse, professionals from all walks of life lose their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is rising everywhere and everywhere the middle class is disappearing.
Some people I have spoken to believe that the solution for the arts is better public funding. Others think we need a universal basic income. They might both be great ideas, but I don’t think they would solve the problem. You want the market to have a vote, because you want the public to vote. In fact, you want the public to have the most votes.
Markets, when functioning properly, are mechanisms for transmitting signals of desire – in clearer language, to say what we want. What we don’t want is for art to be cut off from that, cut off from popular taste; let the bureaucrats of the arts funding boards tell us what they want. But markets have to function properly. Universal Basic Income seems to me to be the wrong answer to the right question. Yes, we have to put money in people’s pockets, but better to do it organically, not just by decree – better to do it, in other words, by restoring the whole ecosystem, by rebuilding the middle class. It would mean undoing a lot of what we’ve done to get here: breaking the monopolies; increase the minimum wage; reverse decades of tax cuts; re-establish free or low-cost higher education; empower workers, once again, to organize, rather than constantly obstructing them. It would also mean updating laws and regulations designed for a bygone economy to reflect the one that actually exists: obviously, by extending the types of guarantees that full employees enjoy to engage in collective bargaining – to l growing army of construction and contract workers. You shouldn’t have to be a winner in order not to be a loser.