Art has been brutalized by tech’s giants: Google and Facebook chief among them. How can it survive?

Such efforts and proposals are admirable. They are also plainly incommensurate with the scale of the overall problem. That is not their fault, nor does it mean that they’re not worth doing. The problem begins with Giant Tech. Silicon Valley in general, and the tech giants in particular—above all, Google, Facebook, and Amazon—have engineered a vast and ongoing transfer of wealth from creators to distributors, from artists to themselves. The cheaper the content, the better for them, because they’re metering the flow—counting our clicks and selling the resulting data—and they want that flow to be as frictionless as possible. Any real solution needs to start there, too.

Virtually everyone I spoke with on the matter advocates an overhaul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the DMCA, which was designed to bring copyright law up to date for the digital age. When the law was passed, in 1998, Google was five weeks old, YouTube did not yet exist, Mark Zuckerberg was starting high school—and Napster was a year away from being launched. It was not designed to deal with piracy at the scale that was about to erupt.

“Takedown” must become “stay down,” so files cannot go right back up again. A small claims court should be established for copyright infringement, so individual artists, not just media conglomerates, can afford to sue for damages. “Fair use,” the provision in copyright law that allows for limited exemptions (like citation for scholarly purposes, or sampling for purposes of satire), which Google and others have relentlessly been seeking to expand, needs to be kept within traditional bounds. In 2019, the European Union passed a landmark law, as the New York Times explained, that “requires platforms to sign licensing agreements” with musicians, authors, and others before posting content—in effect, to remove infringing material proactively. A comparable rule should be enacted in the United States.

But those measures deal only with copyright. The larger issue is the wildly disproportionate advantage that monopoly platforms possess in the struggle over pricing. To begin with, that pricing is often mysterious. We don’t know what the platforms are paying, in many cases, because they aren’t required to tell us. That is why music-streaming rates (0.44 cents on Spotify, 0.07 cents on YouTube) are just a guess, as is the per-page rate that Amazon pays through Kindle Unlimited (its Spotify for e-books). Artists even lack the information upon which to negotiate: namely, how much money the services are taking in. How much does Kindle Unlimited generate, for example? Amazon’s not talking. And even if we had that information, it’s unlikely that the platforms even would negotiate. What really bothers her, the filmmaker Ellen Seidler told me, “is that no one’s willing to come to the table” from the other side. Instead, she said, “artists have been vilified in a fairly orchestrated way. Our voices have been quashed. It’s David versus Goliath.”

What’s less clear is what can be done to create a more equitable distribution of the many billions of dollars that “demonetized” content continues to generate, to claw back the money that the tech monopolies have clawed away. Workers are allowed to organize for higher wages. When producers cooperate to set prices—even imagining that such a thing were possible here, given how incredibly dispersed the production of content now is—it’s called collusion, and it is illegal. The government cannot fix prices either, needless to say.

But there is one thing the government can do—and as people have increasingly begun to realize of late, absolutely must do. It must break up these monopolies. Already there are moves in that direction. In 2019, the federal government initiated antitrust investigations into four of the Big Five, with the Justice Department looking into Google and Apple and the Federal Trade Commission taking responsibility for Amazon and Facebook. The House Judiciary Committee also announced plans for a probe. That same year, the Supreme Court, in a decision on a lawsuit over Apple’s App Store, signaled a willingness to revisit its approach to antitrust law, a move that was long overdue. [Since this book was published, both state and federal antitrust lawsuits have been filed against Google.] Such efforts to rein in “the apex predators of tech,” in the journalist Kara Swisher’s phrase, must not be derailed. The powers of the tech monopolies to flout the law, to dictate terms, to smother competition, to control debate, to shape legislation, to determine price—all these flow directly from their size, wealth, and market dominance. They are too big, too rich, and too strong. And we need to get this done before it is too late.

The arts, it’s often said, are ecosystems. That means that major talents, with their lasting, transformational achievements, do not fall out of the sky, that their emergence depends upon a host of other individuals: childhood teachers, early mentors, lifelong rivals and collaborators, all of whom must have a way to earn their keep as well. It means that institutions (the local club, the 99-seat theater, the indie label, and the independent press) can survive only with a critical mass of artists to serve—who rely, in turn, upon the institutions. It means that even small or mediocre projects have their value, because they give creators experience, and maybe a paycheck, so they can stick around and work another day. It means that artists cannot do their work if others can’t as well: the lighting technician, the copy editor, the person who keeps the books or checks the coats or sells the beer. It means that artists coexist in networks, helping each other find jobs, cheap rooms, opportunities—but only as long as they’re able to stay in the arts.

As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place.

But all communities are ecosystems, not just the arts. In the broader economic ecosystem, too, the whales are getting fatter by starving the plankton. Consolidation toward monopoly is now affecting nearly every sector, and it is the major cause of falling wages. The trend toward poorly compensated contract work—gig work, piecework, temporary work—is virtually ubiquitous. As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is moving upward everywhere, and everywhere the middle class is disappearing.

Some of the people I spoke with believe that the solution for the arts is better public funding. Others think we need a universal basic income. These may both be good ideas, but I don’t think they would solve the problem. You want the market to have a vote, because you want the public to have a vote. In fact, you want the public to have most of the votes.

Markets, when they function properly, are mechanisms for transmitting the signals of desire—in plainer language, for saying what we want. What we don’t want is for art to be cut off from that, cut off from popular taste; for bureaucrats on arts funding boards to tell us what to want. But markets must function properly. Universal basic income strikes me as the wrong answer to the right question. Yes, we need to put money in people’s pockets, but better to do it organically, not simply by fiat—better to do it, in other words, by restoring the entire ecosystem, by rebuilding the middle class. That would mean undoing much of what we did to get here: breaking up monopolies; raising the minimum wage; reversing decades of tax cuts; reinstituting free or low-cost higher education; empowering workers, once again, to organize, rather than persistently obstructing them. It would also mean updating laws and regulations fashioned for a bygone economy to reflect the one that actually exists: most obviously, by extending the kinds of safeguards that full-time employees enjoy—health and other benefits, protections against discrimination and harassment, the right to engage in collective bargaining—to the growing army of gig and contract workers. You shouldn’t have to be a winner not to be a loser.

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