"The Value of Creation In a Sea of Content" (Essay)

March 14, 2019. A dinosaur planning his next project ponders those who create, and the value of those creations, and has a couple questions for you.

I watch the night sky for meteors anytime I can. The little kid in me still "wishes on a star", while the middle-aged guy wonders if the next "big bang" is going to sneak up on us. I'm pretty sure that T. Rex missed all the cosmic signs of his imminent demise even as he hunted his next meal. I think I can relate.

Mostly lost in the news of the world was the recent announcement that Spotify and Amazon were challenging the Copyright Royalty Board's recent decision to raise royalty rates to songwriters and publishers 44% by 2024. (Read more about that here at Digital Music News or Fortune.)

As a songwriter and publisher, I've gotten paid for the use of my creations on broadcast (radio and TV) since my first recording in 1995. Digital music services that provide streamed content for a monthly subscription currently are paying fractions of a cent per stream, while these services have largely succeeded at replacing purchased music in a sizable and growing percentage of American households. Personally, my own lost income from yearly CD/download sales over the last decade amounts to 20-25%. For an "independent" artist, this is a hugely significant hit that streaming income doesn't come close to making up.

I've long thought about the value of and the balance between those who do the work and those with the means to make that work possible and possibly profitable, and how that continues to change in the Digital Age. I'm not going to assume that those companies and their competitors at Pandora and Google Music are making crazy profits off streaming music (note that Apple Music is NOT contesting the rise in royalty rate). Amazon and Google could do this simply to corner the market as they are hugely profitable from other sectors of their business, while Pandora and Spotify are much more dependent on making streaming profitable.

My calling has undergone radical transformation in this era of 1s and 0s, but so have the worlds of most "content creators"; photographers, journalists, writers, to name a few. And yet here I am, writing these words as I embark full throttle into the biggest content creation project of my young life! A recording and more, in a time when there has never been less need to "own" a piece of art in order to enjoy it. Along with that, one might surmise there is less commitment and longterm connection to that art piece and its creator.

Perhaps I am that T. Rex staring at the mud puddle in the dusty darkness, not quite yet ready to lay down and accept my fate. What on earth could I be thinking? Record another CD, or a containerless collection of songs, so that Spotify can pass along $0.00037 every time someone streams it?

Even as I consider my situation, what I realize is that the Digital Age has enormously denigrated "content creation", inadvertently or otherwise. The ubiquity of devices and apps allow anyone to become a content creator irrespective of talent and skill, and it affects nearly every facet of modern life - journalism, photography, visual arts, etc.. Uncle Joe has an iPhone but he's not a wedding photographer. But he's free and he's family, so we don't need to spend the money on that. Anyone can be a photographer, a recording artist, a videographer, a blogger. Of course, not just anyone will be good at it.

When we find ourselves awash in an infinitely rising tide of quantity, how then do we distinguish the work that is of a high quality? How do we even find the thought leaders and content creators who really move us in some way? If we never even are exposed to it, how do we know it exists?

I don't know what to do or think about the royalty battle. Sure, I hope it turns out ok for me. But this bigger idea about the value of "content" raises a more fundamental point. I've written more than once that we're returning to an "Age of Patronage" like a few centuries ago, when content creators (particularly artists of all stripes) were supported by a wealthy patron, usually some middling duke or earl commissioning works in their honor. Except now, anyone can join forces to support content and creators that they enjoy. Thankfully you don't need to be a Duke or an Earl, or a Sarah or a Margaret either.

You've likely heard some of this new material I've written that comes from my family history project which I am planning to release this year. Maybe you've read my blog and learned a thing or two about researching your family history, or how to get the most out of your DNA test. Perhaps you've been inspired by some of the incredible stories I've shared.

So, what might my new work be worth to you? What might compel you to be a "Patron Saint of Andrew's Art"?  The entertainment value? Inspiration? Education? And what might that work look like? What would you find worth owning? A CD? Some easily downloaded 1s and 0s? A book with photographs? Something I haven't thought of yet?

I do this work because I simply can't not do it, because over the decades you have in some way showed me that it has value, and I believe you. I make this art with the hope that you'll continue enjoying it, that you are enjoying coming along on the journey, and yes, that you feel like you are a part of making it happen.

Because you are. I do indeed do this for you too. And I'm grateful to you for that gift! I'm hoping this next one is the best yet - that's my goal and my minimum requirement for myself as an artist.

So what exactly will that be? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

For more about recent developments in music copyright and royalties, the Music Modernization Act signed into law October 2018 changed the balance for the first time in the digital age. For an overview of the MMA check out The Verge, or for a bit deeper dive, check Copyright.gov.

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