I’m Not Sure What a “Creative Apocalypse” Is, But Here’s How People in Creative Careers Make Money

If you work in any kind of creative field, someone might already have passed you the link to The New York Times Magazine story “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t.”

The thesis? In their own words: “Creative careers are thriving — but in complicated and unexpected ways.”

In my words: A lot of people can make a little money by sharing and selling their creative work online. A smaller number of people can make a living as a creative artist. Many people with creative careers build them by combining multiple types of jobs, which is always how people with creative careers have made money.

Let’s start with the stats. Steven Johnson includes a lot of really interesting data in his article, much of it focusing on the Occupational Employment Statistics Group 27–0000: “Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports and Media Occupations.”

In 1999, the national economy supported 1.5 million jobs in that category; by 2014, the number had grown to nearly 1.8 million. This means the creative class modestly outperformed the rest of the economy, making up 1.2 percent of the job market in 2001 compared with 1.3 percent in 2014. Annual income for Group 27–0000 grew by 40 percent, slightly more than the O.E.S. average of 38 percent.

But look how the data changes when you compare, say, employed vs. self-employed musicians:

According to the O.E.S., in 1999 there were nearly 53,000 Americans who considered their primary occupation to be that of a musician, a music director or a composer; in 2014, more than 60,000 people were employed writing, singing or playing music. That’s a rise of 15 percent, compared with overall job-­market growth during that period of about 6 percent. The number of self-­employed musicians grew at an even faster rate: There were 45 percent more independent musicians in 2014 than in 2001. (Self-­employed writers, by contrast, grew by 20 percent over that period.)

And when you compare income rates of employed vs. self-employed musicians:

According to the O.E.S., songwriters and music directors saw their average income rise by nearly 60 percent since 1999. The census version of the story, which includes self-­employed musicians, is less stellar: In 2012, musical groups and artists reported only 25 percent more in revenue than they did in 2002, which is basically treading water when you factor in inflation.

There are plenty of self-employed musicians who are very happy to be treading water; after all, a lot of people have been essentially treading water since 1999, and The Billfold has been writing about stagnant incomes for years. As self-employed musician Seth Boyer and I discussed earlier this week, being an independent musician is really no different than many other careers. You earn a modest living, and hope you can make it to next year in the same job.

The NYT Mag article comes with an accompanying piece titled “The New Making It,” featuring six Los Angeles artists representing different types of creative careers: the jazz saxophonist who also teaches lessons over Skype, the band member who also writes music for Cartoon Network, the YA author who also makes YouTube videos.

This feels less like the “new” making it than the “how people have always made it;” musicians have always taught lessons to bring in extra income, and band members have long been writing music for television. It would have been interesting to include someone like Boyer in that list, who makes money by performing, selling albums, and crowdfunding his work through Kickstarter and Patreon — and, of course, by taking on part-time employment. Even that, minus the crowdfunding part, isn’t particularly a new way of making money as a creative artist. The writer/actor/musician working in an office or in food service is so common it’s a trope.

The piece the NYT Mag article kind of dances around is that for every musician who finds success with the 46 different revenue streams available to musicians today (yes, they counted), there are a few more musicians putting their stuff on Bandcamp or iTunes or YouTube and thinking “maybe this’ll be the thing that makes my career.” I should know. I’ve been that musician.

It is wonderful that there are 46 distinct ways of making money as a musician, and that 13 of those ways were developed in the past 15 years, but we also know that the best way to make money as a musician is to be a successful musician, which is one of those ineffable things that combines talent, drive, connection, luck, and at least 42 other factors.

(We also know, from successful musicians like Zoë Keating, that some of those 46 ways of making money as a musician — e.g. streaming revenue — don’t pay all that much.)

But creative careers are thriving, at least from my experience working in them. In my case, having a creative career means writing informative articles about A/B testing as well as crowdfunding a novel, and I am quite sure that I couldn’t have built my career without all of the new revenue sources for writers that have sprung up in the past 15 years — up to and including the dreaded “content farms.”

And that doesn’t necessarily mean that every talented person who wants a creative career will be able to make a full-time living. There are more people than there are available jobs (and in the creative world where you often make your own job, it’s called “signal vs. noise”). There are a few more opportunities at the low-paying “entry level” of making your own Bandcamp recordings or Kindle Singles (or writing for content farms or taking an unpaid internship), but only a certain number of people build what could be considered a career — and even then it often includes multiple sources of income, creative shifts, and a lot of worrying about retirement.

Which makes creative careers a lot like any other kind of career, these days.

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