Tag Archives: creativity

Something to say

How do people who work creatively – writers, artists, musicians, playwrights – make a living? The question is as old as civilisation and the answer has usually involved some mix of patronage by wealthy individuals or institutions, and getting people to pay for something that is scarce – a live performance or a unique painting for example. The technologies developed over the last five hundred years, from printing to the CD, have steadily increased the opportunities for creative work to be distributed, but have also tied that work to a physical artefact. This has allowed the development of copyright and royalties – the creator of the work gets a slice every time one of these artefacts is sold. It worked for a while in a rough and ready sort of way but now we are in a new era. Pretty much anything can be digitised and if it can be digitised, it can be copied at negligible cost.

Industries are scrambling to catch up with this and publishing, in particular, is still dominated by licensing and copyright agreements which seek to restrict access to writing in various ways. However, I (and many others) do wonder if all this is simply missing the point of what it means to be a writer in a digital era. I recently came across a quote from science fiction writer and activist Cory Doctorow which expressed the point well:

“For almost every writer, the number of sales they lose because people never hear of their book is far larger than the sales they’d lose because people can get it for free online. The biggest threat we face isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”

Doctorow walks the talk, making much of his work (which I highly recommend) available for free download from his website in multiple formats, on the basis that his work will thus be read more widely, and can be monetised other ways. Besides, he wants people to read his work. There are ways for writers, musicians and artists to make a living today, but trying to do this by selling physical objects which contain copies of your work will only get harder and harder. And writing wasn’t exactly a good way of making money to start with. For every JK Rowling or EL James there are thousands of very talented writers just about making a living and for every one of them there are thousands of others who write and earn little or nothing from it. Clinging on to your copyright and restricting access to your work in the hope of making some money out of your writing one day is a mug’s game. To make money, you are much better off buying a lottery ticket – it’s a lot easier and the odds are better.

That’s the bad news for all of us who like writing, but there is good news too. It has never been easier to be a writer, and to actually find an audience for your writing. No one bothers to count the numbers of blogs out there any more, and then there are countless social media platforms, fiction sites, fan forums and all kinds of other things. Contributing to these requires an internet connection and a bit of time. If you like the idea of a book then it will cost all of £149 to publish your work as a paperback, less as an ebook. Sure, there is a lot of noise out there and it can be hard to be heard, but it is perfectly possible with care and persistence. This humble blog has been going for nearly four years and has clocked over 9,000 views. That’s a long way off the big league, but means that thousands of people have seen my work who would not have done if I kept it to myself, and hopefully some of them have found it interesting or useful.

Needless to say, I do not write this blog to make money and I explained a while ago why I decided to license my blog under Creative Commons. If anyone wants to use my work in any way, I am only too pleased to get a wider audience and would just ask that they acknowledge where it came from. I do not want to hoard my ideas and keep them to myself. I have always trusted that the more ideas I can write about, the more ideas I will have and the easier I will find it to write about them. So far, it has worked for me. F Scott Fitzgerald famously put the point this way:

“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”

So, he might have added, the more people who hear it the better. And as so often these days, I notice that all this is something my teenage kids, who have grown up in a connected world, grasp instinctively. My daughter enjoys, and sometimes contributes to, “fan fiction” sites, where people write stories in homage to their favourite writers and characters. My son builds new levels for computer games and sometimes new games on sites which give you the tools to do so. The stories and games can be copied as often as anyone wants and they do it just for fun. They know that creativity is to be shared and celebrated, not hoarded. I’m proud of them.

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Middle class life and hard work – lessons from Amanda Palmer

For our current H818 task we are being asked to review Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on trust and giving and her accompanying blog post. In a nutshell, her thesis is that if musicians and other creatives trust their fan base, they will be rewarded, helped and paid for what they do. I found the talk absorbing and interesting but ultimately unconvincing as a model to be widely copied. Clearly, she has found an approach that works for her – being supported with donations, help and equipment from her fan base. But I have extreme doubts about whether this model is really widely scaleable and will work for someone without her charisma, fan base or willingness to couch surf. So often in the last few months I have found myself coming back to the insights of Lanier (2013), who highlights the fact that the business models of the Web currently emerging do not look like they will be sufficient to support a middle class.

The donation model that Ms Palmer talks about is a case in point. No doubt a few top stars would still get very rich – the likes of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry could, I’m sure, make plenty of money from concerts and commercial endorsements even if they gave away all their music. It would also be fine for bohemians like Ms Palmer who can, perhaps, achieve the lifestyle they want by these means. But for the rest it would be a question of scraping a living from live performances as best you can, constant travelling and complete insecurity. Things like buying houses and bringing up children, the foundations of middle class life, would be impossible. To achieve that, you need boring things like contracts, royalties and payment systems. These mechanisms allow people to achieve financial security and dignity, yes even musicians.

So is this a model we want to import into education – a handful of wealthy “rock-star” professors or universities, some travelling gurus and the rest of us getting by as best we can? Perhaps the MOOCs are taking us in this direction (maybe that’s a discussion for another post), but it’s not an attractive prospect, as one famous musician recently noted.

What I did find really interesting and useful was Ms Palmer’s blog post to accompany her talk. I came away with the impression that Ms Palmer is a seriously high maintenance lady, but I respect her honesty in giving this account of the incredible lengths she went to in preparing, honing and practising her talk, and the help she received from many others. Something like a TED talk is generally very slick, polished and professional. I get the feeling many speakers would like us to believe that they can simply turn on a performance like that on demand. Of course, they can’t, no one can. A polished performance of any sort can appear spontaneous, because people like that, but it is invariably the result of hours of thought, preparation and rehearsal. Periodically, I have come across accounts of some of the great, enduring live music acts – Queen, Cliff Richard, Lady Gaga, people like that. Their style of music and fan base varies hugely but they have something in common. All of their shows are planned, choreographed and meticulously rehearsed down to the last detail, every move, look and note. A good performance is the result of hundreds of hours of work by the band and many others.

So this detailed case study illustrates a general, very important point. Creativity is a great thing, and humanity does not progress without it. But any successful artist, musician, writer or entrepreneur will tell you that turning creativity into results needs team input and hard work – lots of it.

References:

Lanier, J. (2013) Who owns the future? Penguin, London.

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