Once upon a time, a young boy was looking at his parents' collection of books, bought from a book club for their impressive spines so the bookshelves in their living room would look good. There, he found an odd title: Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The kid wondered what you had to confess about eating something, so he asked his father what opium was. "Why do you want to know that?" he replied. The boy pointed at the book. "Who was Thomas deQuincey?" he then asked. "The guy who wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater," his father said. "Yes, but what else?" "That's really all anyone knows about him, he wrote a book." And, although the kid had been a reader for some time, that's when he decided to become a writer. Imagine: known for eating something over a hundred years ago! And, of course, writing about it later.
It all happened so long ago that regretting it is sort of besides the point by now, but it's true: my desire to be a writer was due to a book I never read. (Well, I was forbidden to read it originally, of course). But back then, I could never have forseen -- nor could anyone else -- the precipitous decline and nearly total disappearance of that occupation as a way of making a living. But that's what happened. It happened to a lot of other people, too: musicians, of course; photographers, whose work can be ripped off with the click of a mouse-button; filmmakers (both people who make movies and, even more so, people who used to make the cellulose stuff they were put on), you name it. What you might call (although I wouldn't because I hate the word) "the creatives."
We're all in the same, sinking boat, and acknowledgement is coming from all over. The past couple of weeks' Doonesburys have concerned themselves with Rick Redfern, once a star reporter at the Washington Post, having to cover the Republican convention as an unpaid blogger for the Huffington Post, an institution whose treatment of writers is so vile that I won't click a single link for them under any circumstances. Oh, not that it's impossible to find paying work, even on-line. The content farms are always hiring because their writers are always burning out. And no wonder: Gawker (itself no paragon of satisfactory emolument) just published an article about one of them that was offering between $.009 and $.02 per word. That's extreme enough to be news, but even without digging any further, I can tell you two things about the company in question: one, they're getting people to do this job, and two, those people are happy to have it. The comments section even has a comment from someone in a similar position whose advice is "deal with it." Thanks, but no thanks.
Then there are these guys:
Some of you may recognize them as a band called Grizzly Bear, the subject of a long, long, long, very much too long profile in New York Magazine's Vulture pop-culture blog at the end of last month, which your dutiful reporter sat down and read so that he could understand the comments, which are far and away the most interesting part of the piece. The takeaway from the piece is simple: Grizzly Bear is right up on top of the indie-rock heap just at the moment. They've just played Radio City Music Hall, which is hardly the corner bar. They get airplay, they get their songs picked up for use in popular TV shows and commercials. And yet, they still don't have enough to buy a getaway in the Caribbean or stupidly expensive cars. They judiciously hoard frequent flyer miles for when they have to fly to a gig, still live in small apartments in Brooklyn, and, in general, probably make more than their average fan but not enough more for anyone to compare frontman Ed Droste to Rod Stewart.
But where the article (finally) gets interesting is where the commenters start talking about the fact that the band had access to some resources that other indie-rock bands might not have. Like trust funds. Like a grandmother with a spare cottage on Cape Cod she could let them use to record an album. Like a working spouse. Like a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to fame. As the babble continues, one fact emerges: if people didn't like Grizzly Bear's music, they wouldn't buy their records or go to their shows, and no amount of family money or cabins in the woods could make them. So they do buy their records and go to their gigs, enough of them that they can play Radio City Music Hall, which holds somewhere north of 5000 people. And yet for all of this, the various members are making, from their participation in this highly successful band, around $80,000 a year. More than I make, but really: is this a rock star income these days? We can, incidentally, assume that these guys aren't getting ripped of as flamboyantly as James Taylor was in the article I posted last week: they have far more control over their records, and don't sell nearly as many -- almost nobody does these days -- as he did.
But there's another point here: there are a million indie-rock bands out there, and I'm willing to posit that there are a number who have just as much of What The Kids Want as Grizzly Bear does. (Don't ask me: I heard a Grizzly Bear song once and it sounded like all the rest of the indie-rock I've heard, which is a subject for another discussion down the road). It's evident from the article that Grizzly Bear worked hard to get where they are, and there's no question that there was a lot of competition to get there, given the overwhelming number of bands these days. And this is where the trust fund, the grandmother, the working spouse come in handy. Look: I've had money -- not a lot, but more than I could spend at once without buying, say, real estate -- and, more frequently (oh, much more frequently) I haven't. And here's what I've discovered: as a "creative," you work much more efficiently and on a higher level when the noise generated by not having to worry about being tossed out of your house or wondering where your next meal's coming from or having your phone or electricity cut at any moment is absent. You just do your work. And you use your phone. And you turn on the lights. And you eat dinner. That might seem obvious, but I think it needed saying.
And so we turn our attention to an article in Forbes with the scary headline "Are Creative Careers Now Reserved Exclusively For the Privileged?" I doubt anyone's going to keel over with shock when I say that the executive summary of the essay's conclusion is "yes." And I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see more articles like this (I've even linked to a couple here in the past).
But the thing that makes me crazy is that there's one more part of this discussion nobody's gotten to yet: if the "creatives" are all drawn from the upper-middle and upper classes, because they're the only ones who can afford to pay the rent during their apprenticeships, then their creative work is going to reflect that. One reason Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith are as widely popular as they are, and have stayed that way for decades, is that they both came from what might be termed the working class. Their work embodied struggles which spoke to everyone, which is what popular musicians should hope to do if they're going to be, uh, popular. Contrast this with the work of the guy who seems to be many people's choice for the most important novelist of the past twenty years, David Foster Wallace. I'd heard so much about his novel Infinite Jest, but was horrified when I finally got a copy and started reading it: tennis players? Private schools? Really? Somehow it's hard for me to imagine a poor kid being inspired to become a novelist by reading it. You know: a poor kid like Philip Roth. So as writing becomes more elitist, at least the democratization of technology means that the next Grizzly Bear won't need a cottage on Cape Cod to record its breakthrough. But they'll still have to pay the rent, somehow, until they, too, can play Radio City.