The Economics of Creativity

Creative endeavors are, for creative people, estatic experiences.  Playing music, writing poetry, sculpting, designing websites, cooking, etc.  Fun and spiritually fulfilling, creative endeavors also make you popular.  Creative people will create for free.  Even at free, it’s a good deal. 

But in every age, technology favors some creative talents over others with huge quantities of money.  Often shocking amounts of money.  I started thinking about this when I read Billy Bragg’s editorial calling for Michael Birch, the creative genius behind Bebo (who is a friend and Adviser to Ooga) to share some of his earnings from the sale of Bebo with the musicians who put their music and video up on Bebo’s site and contributed to Bebo’s popularity.  A good summary of the resulting debate is here on ReadWriteWeb

It occured to me that Bragg feels wronged because he doesn’t understand that a technology shift has taken place and he, with his talent for recording music, will no longer be over compensated for that talent, something which he would actually do for free.  The new creative talent which is being over-rewarded is inventing great user experience on computer screens — something Birch would probably do for free, given that it’s fun, inherently fulfilling to do for him, it touches millions of people and it makes him popular.  His particular bundle of creative talents happen to fit with the economics of creativity in this age. 

Let me flesh out a few more examples to amplify.  In the mid 1800’s a grandfather of mine (who was an American) married a Von Brandenberg woman in Germany, where he was living with his dad who was the conductor of the Berlin Orchestra.  I found out a few years ago that a Von Brandenberg is kind of royalty in Germany.  How could it be, I thought, that my dumpy ancestor could marry a royalty.  I didn’t make sense.  Until you realized there was no radio back then.  People who played in the orchestra were rock stars of their day, and the conductor too.  Even the conductor’s son was part of the creative elite.  Royalty lavished big bucks on musicians and, I guess sometimes, fell in love with them.  That was the technology of the day, and it happened to favor the particular bundle of talents my great great great grandfather had.

Fast forward to 1925 when my grandfather was trying to make it as a cellist in Boston.  He got paid for playing his cello at dinner at the Chatam Inn on Cape Cod but he could barely support himself and his bride.  When the kids came, he became a machinist and a fork lift driver at a brewery.  His creative endeavor no longer paid the bills because radio was availble and the transition was underway in the 20’s from rewarding live music to rewarding recorded music.  Later in his life, my grandfather would practice and play the cello for free.

Forward to the 1940’s when my grandfather’s sister, Florence, 20 years younger than my grandfather, loved to sing from the time she was three years old.  It was in her nature and she would do it for free.  She recorded 8 albums in the 1950’s which were distributed on vinyl and played on radio stations around the U.S.  She’s loaded!  The technology available to distribute creative endeavors richly rewarded the talent for recording music.

Forward to the 1990’s, when a friend from college who won the Julliard Prize for playing piano, tried to make it as a concert pianist.  She was much more talented than my grandfather, but by the 1990’s, the economics of live music had deteriorated to $50 stipend for an hour performance.  And it takes her 80 hours to prepare for that hour.  She still performs every chance she gets.  She’s willing to do it for free today, while my ancestor got to marry royalty 150 years ago for a similar talent.

Designing user experiences on computer screens may be one of the creative endeavors economically favored by the state of  technology today.   How long do you  think it will last?


4 thoughts on “The Economics of Creativity

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks about Creativity

  2. Pingback: should everything people use be free? « blake borgeson

  3. Great insight! Creative talent’s yet one more thing that gets commodified with technology and time.

    I believe interface design will be *the* art form of the early century but I expect it to be in decline by the 5th decade. From that point on, who knows, but my guess would be that AI-composing, creatively hacking the AI to solve almost any given task, might be the next art form. I’m also long on “post-symbolic communication”:

  4. James makes a good point – that the economics of creativity has always been changing, so we (musicians and composers) have to constantly re-invent how we apply our talents in a way that provides us compensation so we can survive. And yes James, I would love to do it for free, but I can’t afford that luxury, so off to work I go. In the 80’s I made a nice living as a performing musician. In 2003 I chose to stop performing because it paid so little that my time was better invested doing soundtracks for video games, and the expense of going out to gig would actually end up costing me money. As far as Billy Bragg’s composer friendly stance is concerned, I think compassion like that would sure be nice, but business is business and it ain’t gonna happen. And Michael Birch shouldn’t be penalized for being a smart business man. Exposure is worth something to an artist. What no one is mentioning here is that the performing rights organizations (ASCAP at least, not sure about BMI) are working on ways to collect performance royalties for internet use of music. Issuing blanket licenses to game portals like Yahoo Games is one example. Once in place, composers will be compensated for their works being performed on the net in the way they’ve been compensated in the past for performances on radio and TV. Whether it will be anything significant for the artist remains to be seen, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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