PAY 'EM!

You have to do a lot of work to find a pearl. You think that happens simply because you want a pearl?

You have to do a lot of work to find a pearl. You think that happens simply because you want a pearl?

Maybe you missed this, but Apple recently made things harder for artists. Why? The answer hides in plain sight; you might not realize it even as you see Apple's cool advertisements. Boiled down, it's this: Apple's new operating system costs consumers nothing. It's free. If you own an Apple computer of recent enough vintage, you can go to their online store and download the update for absolutely nothing.

Was it free to produce? Not a chance. Hundreds, if not thousands of highly skilled programmers and engineers labored hard hours and many cups of mediocre coffee over that OS so your computer could sing. It cost millions of dollars to create, and many tens of thousands of work hours. So why is it free?

Apple did the math. In a ruthlessly competitive marketplace, the company can make far more money selling computers than it can selling software. Considering that every other company is doing the exact same computation, Apple needed a way to differentiate its products from its competitors, particularly in terms of making them attractive enough to buy. It needs to differentiate, and it needs to drive it's competition crazy. By making operating system upgrades free, Apple is trying to ever-so-slightly tip the balance of the marketplace in its own direction. Intellectual labor is merely a value-added aspect of Apple's new business plan. Money comes from making devices that physically move electrons around circuit boards. The people who string together thousands of instructions to make those electrons work in logical ways are clearly worth comparatively little relative to the boxes that play their instructions.

Is this fair? The bighearted softie in me says "NO WAY!" People should be paid for what they do, for what they're worth. But the dismal science of economics says otherwise. "Too bad, so sad". To compete, Apple needs to hew to new market realities. Creative work is rapidly becoming worthless.

But of course it's not. We all know this. It's just that in hundreds of ways, creative work is becoming undervalued. People who used to write magazine articles for a living are now finding that the traditional payment-per-word formula no longer works. With endless self publishing solutions available, even top rank publications are finding for more qualified writers then there are spaces for qualified writing. The price paid for freelance work has plunged.

Casual observers of business trends in "big media" -- Hollywood movies -- know that the business model is changing rapidly. Stars are fading; money exists in franchises that play only in global markets; thousands of new voices are entering a wildly diluted marketplace. From a qualitative perspective this is terrific news: the overall, qualitative average is rising rapidly. From an economic standpoint this is dismal news: because there's so much quality, people are willing to pay far, far less for anything. Somebody out there is willing to give good work away simply to get eyeballs in the door, simply to prove their name is worthwhile so that the next time he or she does something commercial you might be willing to pay for it.

The trap should be obvious by now. Creative work done for free in any discipline makes it harder for creative people to continue doing creative work. There are only so many industries that sell physical objects; many, many things in the world exist solely in a world of mind. We all know that the music industry has profoundly changed, but to make a living as a musician, should every one of them be forced to do so by selling tickets to actual, physical shows?

I have no answer. But as someone who spends his life creating things for a living-- indeed, who spends his life creating things because it's simply the natural thing to do--I struggle with the growing trend towards desire for what I can create running counter to the trend for under-valuing what my colleagues and I create so that people aren't interested in paying for it.

No doubt there will always be room at the top for creative work. As much as I like to think that the team at 1AU delivers top tier work, I must also be sensitive to the realities of a fickle, highly saturated market place. If someone almost as good as us is giving it away for free, you might be tempted to look there instead. (Don't do it!) Therefore, the only thing I can clearly assert is this: creative people can only do what they do if the culture around them supports them. The next time you think of paying precisely zero dollars for the work of an artist you absolutely have to have on your iPod, or television screen, or even the walls of your house, consider the real person behind the creation of that inventive act. Consider that he or she lives and breathes and eats and even practices a craft to create those expressions you care about. If you really think those things are valuable, be sure to show your support tangibly. If nothing else, you'll support the possibility that similar things will continue to be created. A lack of such support, conversely, forces creative forces towards a bland mediocrity, and you know you don't want to be part of that.

Do you?

-MS

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