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Present at the Creation

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By William Deresiewicz


 

For creators of intellectual property, the Internet, as everybody knows, is a financial doomsday machine. No one’s going to buy your stuff if they can get it free, and pretty soon, if they can’t already, they’re going to be able to get it free. Musicians are already screwed. With the move to e-books—a rush that’s becoming a stampede—how long will it take to discover how to pirate those, as well?

My younger, digital-native friends say no, you don’t get it—the Web is great for creative types, because it helps them publicize their work. True, but if you never reach the point of getting paid, what difference does it make? A million times zero is still zero. The Web enables you to circumvent the gatekeepers, my friends reply. Yes, but for every celebrated self-publishing success, there are a hundred thousand failures no one ever hears about.

Eventually, the system will adjust. People want good art; good art needs full-time creators; creating full-time means getting compensated adequately. Somehow, a mechanism will emerge to enable that to happen. Still, it’s not at all clear where the equilibrium will fall, or how much freedom artists will enjoy under the new dispensation. Will we return to the days of Grub Street penury? Of patronage, with all the limitations that involves? Will making art become the province of the leisure class?

Already, strategies are emerging. One in particular is marvelously counterintuitive. Musicians used to tour to support their album sales. Now they put their work online to promote their live shows. Performance is where the money’s at. And the strategy is spreading to the written word. Bookstores are beginning to charge admission for author events. For writers themselves, a book can put you on the lecture circuit, where people will pay a surprising amount to see you in person. (I should know; I just bought seats for David Sedaris.) But why would anybody pay to see a writer live if you can find their work for free online? That’s the beautiful irony. Mediation is destroying the old creative economy, but in doing so it’s bringing forth a new one, in the form of mediation’s own negation. What people are paying for now is presence—the very thing the Web enables us to do without, and the one commodity it can never supply. Bereft of experience, we pay for experience: for contingency, for unrepeatability, for the aura of the thing itself.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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