In difficult times like these, humanity leans on artists to lift us up and connect us. From musicians performing to their fans over livestreams, to writers keeping us informed and entertained, creators give us hope when we need it most.
But neither the creative industry, nor the attention economy the internet relies on, were built to benefit those who create the things we love. Now, as current events force creators to cancel tours, gallery showings, book launches, and more — it’s become clear that artists deserve a much higher reward for the impact they have on our lives.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
At one point, the internet was looked upon as a symbol of hope for creators. Before the invention of the web, if you wanted a career in the arts, you had to convince someone with a checkbook and a rolodex of contacts that you were worth that chance. Writers had to assure publishers they were worth their weight in ink. Filmmakers had to sell their ideas to a studio, and musicians needed a label for distribution.
Of course, there were DIY exceptions. But, overall, the success of independent artists was limited by industry gatekeepers. That was the case until routers, ethernet cables, and dial-up modems came into our homes. Finally, creators didn’t have to ask permission to share their creations. Rap empires started on Tumblr. Critically acclaimed shows began on YouTube. Podcasting careers ignited in the garage. All of a sudden, talent, grit, and internet access were all a creator needed to sidestep the powers that be and find an audience for their art.
But the democratization of this distribution and access came at a cost. File sharing dug into the profits of established bands and major labels, making CDs obsolete. Ad-supported free content on the web caused a tornado of bankruptcies and consolidations throughout the print media landscape. From radio to brick-and-mortar stores, the internet shook up every aspect of the creative industry. Still, we were comfortable with this trade-off because the internet appeared to level the playing field for independent artists.
Unfortunately, we didn’t know what we were signing up for.
When the dust cleared, these gatekeepers of industry didn’t go away — the power just changed hands. Social media companies became the new publishers, and video platforms the new television. Creators had to make a choice: play by their rules, or risk irrelevance.
We hoped these new gatekeepers would keep the creators’ best interests in mind. Instead, social networks track and sell their audiences to third parties, turning the privacy of the creators’ biggest fans into a commodity. Opaque and ever-changing algorithms interfere with the artist/fan relationship, leaving creators to shout into the void, or pay to “boost” their content to their own audiences.
While social networking giants say they value creators — and their platforms would not exist without them — all evidence tells a different story: it’s not so much that they’re working against creators, but that they’re working for someone else.
What went wrong?
The pioneers behind these platforms aren’t evil; there are no cartoon villains here. Most likely, they were fueled by good intentions, looking to find a way to fund their new and exciting projects; however, the realities of their business model hindered their ability to put creators first. And since ads and data mining were determined early on to be the only way to fund these platforms, everything since has been built with that model in mind.
This ad-based business model may have been good for shareholders, but for artists, it’s a different story. Instead of building tools to help creators, platforms innovate for advertisers. From machine learning that lumps sex education with pornography to unintentional censorship in order to keep advertisers happy, companies routinely make decisions at the expense of the very people who fuel their platforms.
How does this affect creators day-to-day?
Unfair compensation: It isn’t right that creators only receive a small slice of the revenue they help these platforms generate. A million streams or views should provide artists with enough income to thrive, but in some cases, ad-revenue earned from a viral video is barely enough for a trip to the grocery store. Platforms should pay artists a sum that’s equal to the value these creations provide those that love them, not what advertisers are willing to pay to rent the creators’ audience.
Online toxicity: Creators shouldn’t have to brace for impact before posting online. Social media acts as a public forum open to all, which is good for a free exchange of ideas, but there’s a dark side to this openness and anonymity. Online harassment is commonplace, and trolls lurk in the comments section — a fact that hits creators especially hard because they’re the ones putting themselves out there. Telling creators to “toughen-up” or “get a thicker skin” isn’t a solution when the environment is to blame.
All-powerful algorithms: When YouTube started, it was revolutionary because of the way it allowed creators to share their art. But now, in an effort to increase watch time across the platform, it funnels viewers into auto playlists, taking them away from the creators’ work and into other related content. To combat this, creators are forced to release content to feed the algorithm and make art by SEO rather than for themselves or their audiences. There’s no denying that discovery mechanisms play a vital role in our creative ecosystem, but the need to discover and be discovered shouldn’t come at the expense of making meaningful connections. Instead of fostering deeper relationships between artists and their audience, these often flawed tools end up standardizing culture and reinforcing biases.
We need a new creative economy
People say “that’s just the way it is,” “no one pays for ‘content’ anyway,” “you’ve got to feed the algorithm.”
We say the system is broken, and it’s not too late to fix it. The world needs a new system, built around core principles that can enable the long-term success and well-being of creators:
- Meaningful connections: A community that’s fueled by shared passion and respect, where creators and fans can get closer, exchange more than likes, and fans can be more than followers.
- Creative control: A place which empowers creators to follow their vision and create for themselves and their fans, not to meet demands of middle-men, algorithms or popular taste.
- Financial independence: A world where being a creator is a viable career path that offers sustainability. Artists should be able to achieve their creative ambitions, grow their businesses independently, enjoy stability, and be served as respected members of society.
We’re doing our part to help usher in this new creative economy. For that to truly materialize, we need a shift in culture — artists, fans, and creator-first platforms must work together to educate the world about the flaws of the attention economy and the culture of so-called free content. If we don’t, artists will never be valued fairly, and we will miss out on important creative achievements and works. It’s time to finally put creators first.
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