The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz

Review by Brian Tanguay

For artists are these the best of times or the worst of times? Has technology toppled many of the barriers that once prevented aspiring musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists from breaking through to wider recognition? Has the Internet opened doors that were once closed and locked? The answer to these questions depends entirely on who you ask. Silicon Valley titans will enthusiastically say yes, there’s never been a better time in human history for creative endeavors of all kinds. But ask the painter or sculptor hunting for affordable studio space to rent, the freelance journalist seeking to earn more than pennies per word, or the musician bedeviled by Spotify and the answer will likely be different. Yes, it’s easier, for instance, to record music now and distribute it on the Internet, but who’s going to pay for it? Making a living in a culture which has come to expect art, music, and writing to be free is a daunting task for thousands of creative people.  

When William Deresiewicz dives into a subject he goes deep and emerges from his explorations with extraordinary clarity about what is happening, and why. His previous book, the New York Times bestseller, Excellent Sheep, examined the dubious promises, steep financial cost, and degradation of American higher education, a subject Deresiewicz knew firsthand from his years in academia. In The Death of the Artist, Deresiewicz directs his critical gaze at the relationship between art and money, and how that relationship is impacting artists and art in the twenty-first century. By way of exhaustive research and interviews with hundreds of working artists — musicians, visual artists, writers, filmmakers — Deresiewicz connects the dots between the changes the digital revolution has wrought in the economy as a whole with how it has impacted the ability of artists to earn a living. What he discovered is that the shift of wealth from creators to distributors has left many artists consumed by financial anxiety. Referring to the age as the Fourth Paradigm — when there’s nothing to shield artists from the dictates of the market — Deresiewicz identifies the chief culprit: “It is the power of concentrated wealth, of course — the power of Silicon Valley.” As in other sectors of the economy, there’s a lot of money in the arts, but the distribution of that money favors Big Tech, not artists. The money is primarily going to the owners of the platforms — Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix — that control the algorithms that determine what is seen, shared, liked — and monetized. Despite claims from Silicon Valley cheerleaders, access to the Internet alone isn’t enough because the connection between artist and audience isn’t direct, it’s intermediated by Big Tech. The Internet is a vast space, and as Deresiewicz points out, the audience isn’t likely to find you if they don’t know that you exist. And if your audience can’t find you, good luck making money from your art. 

Deresiewicz helpfully places art and artists in historical context, summarizing the time when artisans worked for church or crown, to the period when the solitary writer or painter would emerge from isolation and unleash a new work on the world, to the present when artists of every persuasion have learned, some reluctantly, that in order to make money from their work they must brand themselves and find a niche. This new necessity runs counter to what most artists have been taught to believe about themselves and their relation to commerce. As Deresiewicz puts it, “The brand is the corollary of the niche. The audience is the niche; the artist is the brand. You reach the first by having the second.” What many artists have learned about building a brand is that it’s nearly a full-time job that requires ceaseless effort, endless networking, and a major commitment to maintaining an active presence on social media. It also leaves less time for the process of making art. Talk about a daunting conundrum. 

One of the more interesting, albeit disturbing, chapters in the book is about piracy. Piracy, of course, is technically illegal, but how many consumers have ever given it much thought? We click and watch, or read, or view without a care. But as the word implies, piracy is a crime that steals from someone to enrich someone else, and at present there’s virtually no effective legal mechanism an artist can employ to have pirated work removed. “Content is pirated wholesale,” Deresiewicz writes, “indiscriminately, and the traffic — the eyeballs, the clicks — is monetized mainly through ads, which are brokered, like everywhere else on the Web, by Google.” Google isn’t the only culprit, but it’s a major beneficiary of piracy because it also owns YouTube. There ought to be stricter and more easily enforceable laws preventing wholesale piracy, but when you consider Google’s vast lobbying power it’s understandable why such laws don’t exist. Neither Google or Facebook will support legislation that undercuts a profitable business model. This matters because piracy eats into profit margins. It’s one reason that Hollywood films keep drifting toward the blockbuster and away from indie films. “Piracy is one of the reasons that studios make fewer films, that arthouse divisions have closed, and that mid-budget movies are so difficult to do,” writes Deresiewicz. Movies still cost a lot of money to make, promote and distribute, and it’s difficult to project potential profit across multiple revenue streams. Indie films are risky. What this means for the public is that films aren’t being made, stories are left untold, and voices are being silenced.

One area that is thriving in this new age is television, and the money generated is reasonably well distributed among creators. The major broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX — sell viewers to advertisers, while the premium networks such as HBO sell programs to viewers. The difference is very significant for the kinds of programs that get made. In fact, as Deresiewicz points out, there has been a role reversal: “TV is eating the movies, the line between the two is disappearing, and Netflix and Amazon increasingly dominate both.” What’s interesting about this reversal is that the subscription model of television doesn’t require large audiences to work. With more than sixty networks and streaming services there’s more space for the offbeat, tragic, and strange. There’s work for writers, actors and technicians. The TV ecosystem is healthier, better balanced between artists and owners, producers and distributors. 

The Internet, Deresiewicz reminds us, is a ruthlessly efficient engine for sucking everything into the market, including art. “Not only are works of art increasingly commercialized, of necessity, in their own right, they also increasingly function — as loss leaders, marketing platforms, branding devices — as merely one component of a larger commercial endeavor, a cog in the commerce machine.” Making a decent living as an artist has never been easy, but the difference now — and this is a point Deresiewicz hammers home — is that it’s hard even if an artist finds an audience, earns the respect of critics and peers, and works consistently. 

In the end the problem with the arts economy is the same problem with the economy as a whole: concentrated wealth. As Deresiewicz writes, extreme and growing inequality is the sin of contemporary American society, and artists, no more than the rest of us, can escape its suffocating grip.