A Practical Real-World Debate About Public Money And The Role Of Artists

Ohio’s Cuyahoga County voters approved a cigarette tax to fund artists. So the question was how to allocate those funds. The country’s arts commission decided that the program would

emphasize community engagement over studio practice. Originally, the proposal was to have a Washington DC-based nonprofit organization replace the Cleveland-based group that had administered the individual artist grant program since its inception in 2008.

But artists got upset that criteria emphasized change over artistic merit.

Artists who work at making art in their studios and exhibiting it in galleries—as opposed to creating community engagement programs, seeking partners, and other social practices—feel like that kind of guideline writes them out. It pits one type of artist against another. And it feels not like public support, but like government direction.

The protests led to a community meeting at which there seemed to be broad agreement that the arts should advance racial equity and be a force for reflecting and improving the community. But where does the quality of art factor in, and who defines it? With voter-approved money on the table and a need to show that the money is being spent effectively, agreeing on how that happens is both a practical question but also a philosophical debate about the role of art and artists in their community.

How Music Streaming Is Changing The Ways Artists Think About Their Music

It’s a cliche of course that tools define the art. The recording industry is declaring 2016 the year that streaming became the primary way people are getting their music. But it’s not just that streaming is a vehicle. It’s changing the ways artists are thinking about their projects.

Streaming music services such as Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal are shifting not just how music is consumed, but increasingly how it is funded, created and marketed. The talk of the industry is increasingly about playlists and how labels and artists can seed their music into high-rotation mixes on streaming services to blend their new offerings with old favourites.

When vinyl ruled, musicians thought about creating albums of songs, some using the form to create series of songs that fit together or played off one another. Downloading killed the album as listeners went directly for the songs they were after.

But as streaming has become the preferred format and playlists are a thing again, artists are playing with the format.

Where downloads and playlists favored the lone song, streaming gives the artist and the album a fighting chance again. Anyone interested in a particular artist, from die-hard fans to novelty seekers, can listen to a whole album repeatedly — not just song samples, not just YouTube choices — and let subtler material sink in. Musicians don’t need to think so exclusively about what sounds, beats and structures the radio gatekeepers will allow; they can get poetic, political, sonically weird or all of the above. While big and glossy still works, it’s just possible that odd and heartfelt will, too.

And because streaming reveals precisely how people are listening, artists can see exactly what works and what doesn’t:

Because streaming services automatically count clicks, they make it possible to tabulate more precisely what people are listening to. In years past, a sale of a disc or a download revealed only that the transaction had been made. But a streaming service knows exactly how many plays every song is getting; it measures usage beyond the one-time purchase. And those streaming statistics, along with sales and radio plays, are now included in compiling the pop charts (though it takes 1,500 streams to equal one album sale purchase). The combination of sales, radio and streaming is arguably a far more accurate assessment of which music is finding an audience at any given moment. And because the music business, like all creative industries, runs on ego as well as revenue, a higher chart position is positive feedback for a star who’s thinking about taking chances.

Even better, streaming changes the incentives for listeners. Paying for individual songs as downloads tore apart the album; getting a song legally for 99 cents was a commitment, one that limited the audience for the album cuts beyond radio-approved, video-promoted hits.

Inevitably this will change our expectations about music and what artists give us. And the business model that supports music. Not a minute too soon.

Algorithm-Driven Art – How Netflix Is Changing The Way Artistic Decisions Are Being Made (Or Not)

How do you calculate the value of art? In the TV and movie business, given the size of budgets involved and the number of tickets that need to be sold, the commercial business calculation is paramount. A worthy artistic project won’t get very far if the potential audience calculation isn’t right.

Of the many ways Netflix is changing the TV and movie business, calculating audience behavior might be the most revolutionary. Netflix uses an algorithm to calculate how viewers choose what to watch, what they’re watching, when, and for how long they’re tuning in.

When determining how cost-efficient a program is, Netflix analyzes its share of viewing relative to its share of the cost budget, and other factors like impact on acquisition, total raw viewing hours, critical acclaim, and awards performance.

Of course, Netflix doesn’t release audience viewership data, so competitors can’t tell which Netflix projects are doing well and which aren’t, which in itself upends the popularity charts that typically power pop culture and guides producers and studios in which projects get made.

This article suggests that Netflix is also using its viewer algorithms in negotiating how much it will offer producers for projects, though Netflix denies the practice:

Like other entertainment entities, it (Netflix) looks at things like the talent attached to a project and the audience for a particular genre to estimate how much a film or show might be viewed compared to its cost. Every project, Netflix said, is assessed differently.

But why, really? Any studio makes a series of calculations when deciding on what it will buy. Netflix, by virtue of the granular way in which it can chart audience behavior, undoubtedly has the data to be able to algorithmatize the process to its benefit. What does it say that Netflix feels the need to deny it about how we think about the artistic process?

A Different Frame For Arguing The Value Of Art?

Arguments trying to make a case for the value of the arts usually come down to two ways of thinking about them: their intrinsic value as something inherently good or their ability to improve society in some way. David Ian Moss argues in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that this is an unproductive frame for the argument:

One problem with the intrinsic vs. instrumental distinction is that it’s something of a false dichotomy: Interrogate a dedicated arts supporter about why she believes funding is important, and you’ll eventually uncover reasons that are not specific to the arts. The arts teach us how to see and understand the world? So do history books. The arts provide a space for exercising creative potential? So does electrical engineering. One could reasonably argue that all the benefits of the arts are instrumental at some level, in service of some larger goal. But what is that goal, exactly? When we try to maximize the good in the world, what does that actually mean in practice?

Instead, he suggests:

If we think of wellbeing as a holistic measure of what is good in the world, then we can justify philanthropic support for the arts ever so simply by: 1) the arts’ contribution to wellbeing; and 2) philanthropy’s enabling of that contribution. Seen this way, the false distinction between intrinsic and instrumental benefits falls away, and instead we can think of them as direct and indirect contributions to wellbeing.

Makes sense. Particularly in a time when we’re obsessed with defining metrics to quantify engagement, impact and value. The problem with insisting on standardized measures for valuing art is that value is a relative and personal thing. Worse – standardized measurements might incentivize the wrong things. For example, measuring number of students served doesn’t measure the quality of that service. And yet, arts education funding is often dependent on numbers of experiences rather than depth of impact.

The Globalization Of The Movie Business And Hollywood’s Creative Low Point – Here’s The Link

China has been buying up Hollywood assets as it develops its own movie industry. The idea is to be a global movie super-power, and given that Hollywood’s financial success now depends less and less on domestic box office and more on international ticket sales, today’s movie-makers are in the business of finding movies that translate internationally.

Don’t think you’ve seen evidence of China’s influence on Hollywood? The reason there are so many superhero movies these days is because they sell well internationally. Romantic comedies, not so much. Nor dramas with subtle complexity. Indeed, the entire mid-level tier of movie-making has disappeared because it fails to sell internationally.

But now China is getting even more ambitious, producing what it hopes will be a global blockbuster starring Matt Damon in a Chinese story. “The Great Wall,” the New York Times reports, is a $150 million production that aspires to compete with the biggest Hollywood can offer.

Before its release, expectations for the film had become as considerable as the epochal structure for which it was named. Marketing efforts included two trailers, three music videos, 60 online video ads and stunts in 260 shopping malls owned by the Dalian Wanda Group, the Chinese conglomerate that bought Legendary for $3.5 billion in January.

The stakes for what makes a movie a financial and popular success are now defined in global terms. And with the heightened expectations, we’re seeing a shift in the kinds of movies that get made (and no longer get made) by Hollywood studios. Critics say that Hollywood movie creativity is at a low point. The globalization of Hollywood product is one reason why.

As The Music Business Re-Consolidates, The Promoter And Platform Become One

The Wild West of business models since music went digital hasn’t worked out very well for musicians. The old record labels that controlled the industry might have been good for the artists they turned into stars, but they weren’t particularly good for the average musician. When musicians suddenly could record, release and promote their own music, reaching fans directly, there was the brief hope that artists would have more control and that more musicians could make a good living. Hasn’t turned out that way so far.

And now, the big streaming companies and social media platforms are consolidating their power, and it’s starting to look like a new set of power brokers are emerging. Apple, for example:

Since its debut in the summer of 2015,  Apple Music has separated itself from Spotify, the industry’s streaming leader, by trying to become a one-stop shop for major artists — part platform and part promoter.

“I don’t think anybody could argue against the incredible value of Apple marketing,” said David Bakula, a senior music analyst for Nielsen. “There are artists they latch onto and say, ‘This is something we are going to heavily promote.’ It makes one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world a sort of tastemaker.”

So Apple is both the platform and the promoter. Meaning? Meaning that Apple is increasingly owning the front and back ends of the business. Be an Apple artist and you get preference and prominence in the huge iTunes/Apple eco-system. So if you’re not part of the Apple family? Will anyone be able to find your music?

Orchestras Are Charities? Not Compared To Museums

The estimable Adrian Ellis writes about potential pressures on New York’s major art museums in the Trump era, warning about potential tax changes and financial instability:

The outlook for New York’s largest art museums is a little unsettling. A Trump presidency is anxiety-inducing not because of any direct financial impact, but because of its potential impact on the world economy, and therefore on New York philanthropy and tourism. Perhaps more significantly, a culture war between scapegoated elite liberal and humanities institutions and a populist presidency seems likely. This climate may in turn affect both their overall appeal to the narrowing band of philanthropists and put at risk the fiscal privileges they enjoy under section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code.

But what caught my eye is one of the accompanying charts showing what percentage of their budgets New York’s major museums earn in revenue:

Yes, that’s right – even charging $25 admission, the Whitney only earns EIGHT percent of its budget from admissions. The Met is close behind at 12 percent and MoMA is at 17 percent.

Compare this to data about symphony orchestras, released a few weeks ago. On average, earned income accounts for an average 40 percent of  orchestra budgets. In fact, one of the key headlines in the report was that for the first time philanthropic income exceeded earned income making orchestras “charities”, in the words of the New York Times.

Arts business models are constantly adjusting. The financial mix that was considered healthy 20 years ago is different than what is now considered normal. One key factor is balancing the cost of attending (ticket price) with accessibility. Is $25 “accessible” for a museum? Is $150 for an orchestra seat? Why not $300? Or $5?

The point is that they’re all philanthropic models. The only question is how much of a subsidy can be justified or practically raised. And, as earned income declines as a percentage, that is increasingly a political question about who we want our audiences to be.

What Good Are The Arts? A Review Of All The Studies That Try To Measure It

It seems like almost every week there’s another study about the benefits of the arts. It’s a long-running trope that feeds the need of arts people to justify the worth of the arts. The arts make us better people, help build communities, make us smarter, more empathetic, reduce stress, help our memories, promote learning skills, help the economy…  The most famous of these studies is probably the Mozart Effect, which suggested that listening to Mozart stimulated the brain and made us smarter.

Whether the benefits are psychological, sociological, physical or economic, we’ve bought into the idea that art needs to have some measurable result beyond its intrinsic value. This as opposed to listening to music or looking at paintings because we like to. As recent efforts by Arts Council England to create standardized measures of “accomplishments” of the arts it funds have shown, trying to assign relative value to arts impact is a very tricky slope indeed.

The people at Createquity have compiled a list of all the the arts studies they could find that purported to measure the value of the arts under the heading of how the arts improve lives. The studies are organized into four main categories: physical and mental health, education and personal development, economic impact, and social cohesion.

There’s lots here, but:

This review likewise highlights where additional investments in research would be especially productive. Experimental and quasi-experimental designs are extremely rare in the research on the economic and social impacts of the arts; initiatives to fill this gap, though likely expensive and difficult to implement, would prove enormously helpful in resolving many of the causation vs. correlation conundrums that currently pervade this literature. Even in the health and education areas where these techniques are more common, however, there remains considerable room for further research and greater methodological ambition. There is a strong need in these areas for studies that examine the effects of arts participation over a long period of time, and for randomized controlled trials that use larger sample sizes.


Populism’s War On Elitism (And On Quality?)

There was a time when to be elite meant to be something special – to be “chosen” or “select”. The OED says the English noun is “The choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of persons)”. But 2016 has not been a good one for elites, and the term has become a junk condemnation – “people with unearned privileges who keep honest folks from getting a fair shake.”

America has always had a distrust of experts, and in recent elections those who are expert or elite have been blamed for anything that hasn’t worked when it should. Politically this has been an effective tactic, but it also speaks to other sectors of our culture. Critics are elites who aren’t in touch with common opinion. “High” art is elitist because it holds itself out as better than popular culture.

Elites are suspect because they suggest complexity, nuance and ambiguity in a reactive age that demands simple answers.

Populist anger is hardly surprising: elite financiers tanked the global economy, elite economists failed to foresee it and political elites failed to respond effectively enough. Those elites in the crosshairs had to find other elites to blame, and they did so. Elite scientists and Hollywood liberals whining about climate change cost coal miners their jobs. Elite London journalists noshing on sushi ignore the problems that hard-working northern Brits suffer as a result of immigration. Cultural elites police what can be said about minorities. And so on. But the rush to blame elites has nearly everyone in the crosshairs

The populist uprising against elites threatens also to be a war on excellence, on achievement, on accomplishment. As we increasingly define quality using algorithms that really measure popularity, the meaning of elite as special or choice are in danger of being marginalized.