Editors Note: For the purposes of this article, we will ignore the fact that the bulk of the profits for art have always been delivered mostly to the parasitic entities which surround the artists such as record companies, studios, promoters and distributors. We will assume the artists fraction is relatively constant, and ignore the fact that direct artist to consumer music publishing is now possible because of technology. Conversely, we will also ignore the fact that technology has allowed a proliferation of amateur artists to publish their art for free.
There is one unchanging feature about technology. In a continuous process, the technology becomes ever smaller, faster, and cheaper.
150 years ago, if you wanted to hear a song, you had to hire live musicians. In buildings still standing, we see examples of old mansions, castles and the like where a studio was provided for musicians to perform, and the sound was vented throughout the estate. 150 years ago, if you wanted music you had to be an elite member of society who was able to afford to hire musicians to perform. All music heard was performed live by artists. Without technological progress it would be this way today.
The first video cassette recorders became available in the 1970’s. For the first time, this allowed consumers to watch movies at home. The same technology also allowed illegal copies of movies to be made and distributed.
The first computers came onto the scene in the early 1980’s. If you bought the super deluxe IBM model, it came with a hard disk about the size of a shoe box, which had enough storage capacity to store one or two modern mp3 songs.
Now only 30 years later you can store a lifetime collection of songs on something the size of your finger which you can keep on a keychain. You can even have it all stored right on your telephone. Countless people have digitized everything they own and listen to it anywhere they want.
The current state of the art allows you can store thousands of full length movies on a computer hard drive. You may not be able to carry them all around on a keychain yet, but that day will come soon enough.
It is no coincidence that as we have gone from 8 track tapes or cassettes and vinyl albums to ipods, that there has been a continuous decline in record sales. In the old “analog” days, it was quite a time consuming feat to make a copy of a song. Furthermore, there was a degradation in the sound quality from every generation dub. If you wanted to listen to music, you had to either listen to it on the radio, buy the vinyl album, or buy the cassette tape. Because of the arduous task of copying, if you wanted to listen to your favorite artist at home and in your car, you had to purchase two copies. When you stepped on your album and cracked it, or when it wore out…when your 8 track player barfed up your tape after 20 plays….you had to go and pay the same amount all over again for a new copy. The cost of a given song then relative to income compared today was many times higher.
The key point to understand is that as we entered the digital realm of CD’s, mp3’s, computers file sharing, and now real time network streaming…and as technology has become faster, better, smaller, it has also become possible to duplicate 5 or 10 thousand songs in a few seconds. On a modern high speed network you can transfer the lifetimes work of any artist in a flash. You can browse and watch as many movies as you like on netflix as fast as you can press a button.
An entire lifetime of work….in 5 seconds. Think about that. An artist’s entire lifetime of production, or maybe a novel that took someone 10 years to write, moving from point a to point b in the blink of an eye. Think about a writer spending 5 or 10 years in front of a keyboard or typewriter, only to have the masterpiece transmitted to 100,000 people for free in an instant.
30 years ago with vinyl albums and tapes, this kind of duplication effort would have been a monumental task. It would have required an endless supply of expensive tapes, and when completed all the work would be inferior second generation copies. Copying a book was basically impossible.
So while copying personal music, movies or books for personal use may or may not be illegal, copying it for distribution clearly is illegal. That said, there will always be people around willing to use the technology for illegal purposes. This is also a constant. In spite of any law or protection mechanism that can be devised, there will always be an element willing to get around it. Because of this fact, the relentless march of technology will continue to drive down the value of art. There is no stopping it.
So at this point in time, the current state of the art in technology has already caused a proliferation of music. Does anyone remember riding their bicycle to a friends house to spend an hour listening to a Beatles record? When a middle school kid today can go over to his friends house and download 10,000 songs off of his keychain in 5 minutes, music proliferates. When file sharing services distribute the lifetimes work of an artist in a few seconds, the music becomes ubiquitous. Some of the younger generation today for example refuse to pay for music. With Pandora and on line streaming, there is so much choice this is now a valid option.
Does anyone remember the ubiquitous movie rental stores from two decades ago? The cost to rent a movie, not including gas and other incidentals was 2 or 3 dollars.
Today, a streaming netflix subscription costs 10 dollars a month with six allowed devices. If six people each watch one movie per day this is 180 movies a month or an average cost of 18 cents a movie. What we can see from this is that the value of the art is declining due to technology. When inflation is factored in, the real decline in price from 2 or 3 dollars to 18 cents is even more dramatic. This trend will continue unabated. The big media owners will attempt to stop it, or thwart it, but to no avail. So far, the new business model of suing their customers has not alleviated the problem.
Now we get back to supply and demand. If the music becomes ubiquitous, the price of the music or the value of the art goes down, however you want to look at it. As the value of the art goes down, there is less available profit for the artists to support themselves.
Today if you do a calculation that takes into account the amount of “free” (mostly illegal) music, the cost to legitimately download a song from itunes or equivalent, plus the giant proliferation of quasi legal offshore distribution sites, you come up with the average value of a hit song at about $.35 cents a copy (some fraction have paid $1.00, some have paid less, some have paid nothing).
Now lets take that .35 cents and talk about a “gold record”. Every artist strives to reach this pinnacle of success. According to the definition, a gold record is 500,000 copies. A platinum single is 2 million copies sold.
So lets go with that. Lets say as an artist you have struggled your entire career, and finally have a platinum single. Looked at another way, you have produced art that 2 million people want. At .35 cents a copy, that’s $700,000 dollars. Out of this $700,000, the cost of production, mixing and mastering, advertising and promotion, as well as distribution and channel sales, then finally wholesale and retail markup all have to be deducted. So this amount of money today isn’t going to buy a lot of rolls royces and learjets. Unless a profitable tour can be undertaken, this platinum recording probably becomes a loss.
It is no coincidence that the stables of the large record companies continue to decline and now support only a few broad appeal mega pop artists who have to be palatable to a mass audience. Otherwise, they are not a viable economic undertaking. Unfortunately for the patron of the arts, there is very little artistic value in this whole mass appeal contrived persona endeavor.
So in the case of illegal copying and downloading, the value of a lifetime of work for a one in a million talent is already reduced to zero. The cost of good quality high fidelity classical music from legitimate sources is already zero. It is no coincidence that symphonic orchestras are shuttering their doors around the world.
The point is that when there is less profit, there is less economic incentive to produce art. As there becomes ever less profit, there becomes ever less incentive. The art becomes economically not viable.
So without getting caught up in the details of the numbers, the important point is that as the technology becomes more advanced, for all these reasons the value of the art declines. As the value of the art declines, the number of artists which can be supported by quantity [x] of art declines.
As technology continues to advance, how long will it be before you can have 10,000 movies on your keychain? At the present rate, maybe another decade.
What happens when we get to the point where technology would allow a copy of every movie ever made or every song ever written to be on your keychain?
What if you could go to a flea market and buy a keychain storage device with a copy of every movie ever made for $50? or $10. This would put the value of a movie at a few cents, and in many cases this would render the movie making process economically non viable.
If an underground character can buy a storage device for 5 dollars, and load a billion dollars of content he got for free to that, then resell it for ten dollars, he made 100 percent rate of return on capital. So it is the ability of the technology to do that, which drives the whole process.
Technology WILL make this happen. There is no law or treatise which will stop it. The technology will facilitate it, and there will always be an element willing to skirt the law or hack whatever protection can be devised. Because of this fact, the value of art in real terms, for any art which can be digitized and copied, is destined to move ever lower. Maybe all aspiring artists should turn to sculpture?
Technology provided a “golden age”, where we went from having floor space in your living room for a quartet, to being able to electronically record a performance and duplicate it for the masses. This period has now passed. The profitability of all art is now declining.
So summarizing, what we can see now is that the price of a unit of art will continue to decline as technology progresses. This will be true for music, movies, artwork, photographs, fiction and non fiction books, or anything which can be digitized. As the art and content becomes less and less commercially and economically viable, it can support fewer artists. As this happens, talented artists will enter other pursuits and endeavors because everyone has to eat. Collectively, this will reduce the quality of the art available, because some people who would have gone on to produce great art will instead choose a vocation that allows them to be fed.
The arts are dying. Technology is killing them.
For further reading about how technology is affecting our lives, please see Rise of the Machines.