Best of the ‘Gest … celebrating the beauty of art while living in poverty?

by Silverback Bill Schubart (Hinesburg SBs)

Lots of questions about what will happen with music, books and art, but no good answers yet.

June 18, 2023, published originally in

Silverback Bill on his ’49 Panhead 1977

[There’s nothing that writers and musicians like to do more than get together with their fellow artists and whine about the state of their industry. Silverback Bill summarizes the situation pretty well in this op/ed piece he did recently for Vermont Digger. In coming days we going to look at the world of contemporary publishing from several different angles. SB SM]

Arts and culture are not exempt from the continuing concentration of great, if not excessive, wealth among fewer and fewer people while the number of poor only grows. 

Orchestra seats at the Metropolitan Opera are about $650 each. When my grandmother took me to matinees at the Old Met at the age of 10, they were $35. And cabbies bought standing room in the upper balcony for $1.

In 1972, when I first chaired the Vermont Arts Council, an exec from the National Endowment for the Arts told me that Vermont had the highest per-capita concentration of artists in the United States. Some 50 years later, I am one of about 400 authors in our small state. One can only imagine how many artists there are today across all genres. Vermont is truly a “State of the Arts.”

But the art world is changing. The former dream of making a living in the arts is vanishing, though it’s always been largely a gamble.

My brother and I started the Philo Records recording studio in a converted pig barn in 1972. For better or for worse, we recorded musicians, made records and sold them internationally. Our artists got them from us at distributor cost and made money selling them too.

Today, there is no more record business. Philo’s recorded assets are owned by a private equity company. Google, YouTube, Apple and Amazon et. al stream all the music ever recorded to whoever wants to pay their monthly fee. They, in turn, pay artists a pittance for the rights to do so. 

Musicians are relegated to teaching and performing to eke out a living while continually being asked to do “benefit” performances. The concept of a “benefit” was once an occasional gift in a nonprofit cause balanced out by paid gigs. Not any longer, as one classical musician told me who is asked for more benefit performances than paid ones.

I’ve written nine books. I’ve self-published, and published with a hybrid press, and with a traditional press, Simon & Schuster. I consider myself lucky in that I eke enough out from self-publishing to cover editing, design, printing and self-publishing. My books cost me time and creativity, as has always been the case. But today it’s the occasional comment or email praising one of my books that is my compensation and, frankly, means more than the paltry sales checks I get from my print, e-book and audiobook distributors.

Counting vanity, self-publishing, hybrid and traditional presses, some 2 million to 3 million books a year are published in the U.S. Yet total book sales have grown barely at all — about 789 million in 2022.

One of the great risks to creatives now is the vulnerability that comes from dreams of writing a best-seller. The industry is rife with scammers feeding on hope and vanity, promising to make budding writers “New York Times Best Sellers” for example. “Let us put your manuscript in front of Netflix producers!” “Let us get your book published by a well-known publisher!” 

Also rife are fake publisher contacts, PR posers, and fraudulent literary agency email ads. All of these demand a significant upfront investment, after which there is no delivery on those promises.

As troubling to me are the number of legitimate trade organizations — such as the Independent Book Publishers AssociationBowker, etc. — that flirt with author egos, offering for a price to provide a paid thumbnail and descriptor with other books on a page bought from Publishers Weekly, or to place a copy of your book on a table at the Frankfurt Book Fair or Book Expo New York, or to include your book in a pop-up catalog going to bookstore owners. 

These are not scams, but they play on the same creative vanity with little or no effect on a book’s success. As a creative person, it’s important to understand that your ego can be your downfall.

1946 was the golden age of publishing

Like the polarity of wealth in the United States that has decimated the middle class in favor of the 1 percent, fewer and fewer authors make more and more money in traditional publishing. 

By way of example, James Patterson has sold some 425 million books during his career. In 2020, he was the highest paid author in the U.S., making $80 million. It takes 16 people full-time to publish James Patterson books.

I’m friends with a number of Vermont authors and have read some of their books and manuscripts. Many are highly credible works, worthy of broader attention than they will probably ever get because of ownership concentration in a publishing industry that focuses on blockbuster sales alone.

Postwar America in 1946 was the golden age of publishing. Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Roger Straus, Bennett Cerf and Arthur Thornhill Sr. were among the lions of a publishing industry that took risks, sought out great stories, and brought us many of the classics we revere today. We can only hope that their mission to seek out and publish great work will someday return.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry has been consolidating, which means the focus is on market power and profit, not on finding and publishing great work.

One good sign: Recently, the Justice Department enjoined Penguin Random House’s purchase of Simon & Schuster, which would have created a market-dominant duopoly owned by the German magnate Bertelsmann Publishing.

Vermont has its share of famous authors — Julia Alvarez, Katherine Paterson, Chris Bohjalian, Howard Frank Mosher, Archer Mayor, Major Jackson, Jamaica Kincaid, Alison Bechdel — but also a bevy of little-known literary stars whose books deserve much wider “discovery,” to use a term the publishing industry uses to describe its biggest challenge. David HolmesRobin MacArthurRebecca RuppSteve ShepardLaura Budofsky Wisniewski, Hank LambertDaphne KalmarBernie LambekStephen PayneAngela PattenDaniel LuskPeter GouldMeg Little ReillyJ.P. CoquetteBill Torrey, to name but a few, and with apologies to all the many other Vermont authors of quiet gems.

Unfettered monopoly and monopsony (Amazon) formation have decimated indie bookstores, which, like art galleries, theaters and concert halls, are the cultural centers of many communities.

Yet another obscure Vermont author.

Piracy dominates

Digitization of books, music and even artwork (NFTs) are rendering copyright protections useless. Once a book or musical work is digitized, it can be shared widely without compensation to the creator. 

Google’s early effort to scan and digitize the world’s books ran into some trouble from the American Association of Publishers and the Authors Guild (of which I am a member) because it further enabled digital piracy. However, today it is permitted under a new agreement with copyright holders.

It’s estimated that some 17% of all e-book acquisitions are pirated. E-book pirate sites are rife. When served with a legal shutdown notice, they simply pop up elsewhere within hours under a new domain name.

Piracy has been rife since hard media came into being. “Replica art,” or art forgeries, began in the 15th century, when one could make a living copying and selling the great works.

When I was active in the music industry, a prominent joke ran, “the Bee Gees latest album sold ‘gold’ (500,000) and returned ‘platinum’ (1,000,000),” implying that pirates had made more copies of the album than their then-label Atlantic manufactured.

According to Billboard, the music industry trade magazine, more than 15 billion visits to music piracy sites were logged in 2022. Whereas old pirates just manufactured illegal LPs, cassettes and CDs, a new generation of pirates focuses on streaming fraud.

Another current scam: I recently did an online search for a book of my father’s letters, which he wrote during his service in the Pacific theater in World War II. He died on the USS Cooper in Leyte Gulf Philippines during a torpedo attack. 

I was immediately offered a copy by a pirate in Wyoming who had found, scanned, and printed a dismal copy, offering it to me for an absurd price. I wrote him, asking to see his copyright license — crickets.

UVM initiative

On the good side, UVM recently debuted a pioneering publishing venture that treats scholarly work as a common benefit to humankind in a globalizing environment. Financial and intellectual property restrictions associated with traditional publishing are bypassed to create a transnational knowledge commons based on the Diamond open-access model of publishing.

UVM Press will focus on cutting-edge research work that in traditional scholarly publishing might never have earned its creators any income; in fact, it might well have cost them money to publish.

Could this same scholarly rationale apply to creative works? That is to say, are protecting the financial interests of the creator of a work of art more or less important than the value of eliminating all barriers to their work as a cultural benefit to mankind? In the future, that’s the question we’ll want to answer, assuming that technology hasn’t made the question moot.

Acknowledging the creative and economic contribution of its arts and cultural communities, the European Union has increased its six-year cultural subsidy 63% to $2.4 billion Euros ($2.5 billion).

Meanwhile, over the same time period, the U.S. investment in the arts is half that of the EU’s. The 2024 budget for the National Endowment for the Arts will be $211 million, less than the Defense Department’s $300 million budget for military marching bands.

Given all these trends, are the arts destined to become a vocation without any return on creativity? Will we gather in our attic lofts, like Mimi in the opera “La Bohème,” to celebrate the beauty of art while living in poverty?

And what will artificial intelligence (AI) bring to the world of art — endgame or a bloom of creativity? And if we ever figure out how to regulate it, will we do so to drive profit or to enrich the cultural good and creative minds of all mankind?

6 thoughts on “Best of the ‘Gest … celebrating the beauty of art while living in poverty?

  1. Exceedingly well-written. The moral of the story is “don’t quit your day job” I think. Don’t have a day job? Marry rich! Oh too late? I have many thoughts but can’t share – my parent company owns two of the prominent publishers listed, so I have a couple of conflicts of interest. But a couple of thoughts – as an artist, a photographer, it is unacceptable when people lift photos from my posts without prior written permission from me. That is stealing. If someone needs art for their blog posts, there are all kinds of free services – pixabay and even WordPress has their own. All art displayed on any post must give credit to the source, that is part of the deal. Similarly with quoting others – I occasionally use fragments from poems and I ALWAYS link to the source so that others have an opportunity to buy the books. Same for people who embed YouTube music in their posts – is the artist getting any compensation? I have on maybe 3 or 4 occasions wanted to include music over the years, and what I do is include a link where the reader can click to listen and also buy the music so the artist can benefit. And speaking of music, this post was a delight because it brought the sounds of silence, thank you for no autoplay music today. Some of us like to choose our ambient background music, and it ain’t pomp & circumstance. Anyway, excellent post today. We all try as parents, I think, to encourage our children to become “readers.” Encouraging them to become “writers” without a fallback means of support is fraught. The self-published community on WordPress is a sorry indictment of the hunger so many writers experience. Thr vanity presses of the 60s and 70s aren’t gone, they’re now wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  2. Good thoughts on a thoughtful piece. Audio and video on my devices do not begin until I click on them. They do not start automatically. Are you sure this isn’t a matter of settings on your own devices that you can control? Regarding use of artwork, you say “that is part of the deal,” but I think there are others who are defining “the deal” differently. Today’s media world is so confusing, because the rules are unclear and there are no referees. Or, too many referees. Or, too many referees with no whistles. Or, too many referees all blowing their whistles at once. Or …

  3. The “part of the deal” I meant about art that is included in posts is that UNLESS the author, themself, took the photo or created the artwork, a blogger must always state beneath the artwork the actual source that created it – in other words proper attribution. Here’s an example of the way it should be done People ignore copyright verbiage far too often. In terms of autoplay, mobile uses the coding in the embed placed by the author. But the question remains – is the musician getting compensated? Instead of an embed, placing a link that the reader can use to choose to listen and order the music is one way of making sure the musician gets fair more fair treatment (unless of course the record label has screwed them first). Sorry if my original comment was too vague about the phrasing used in “part of the deal.” Part of the deal for those free art sites like pixabay and pexels is that the artist name and hosting site are explicitly stated whenever a work of art is used. My bad. Thanks again. Great post today.

    1. When I started Silverback Digest this is the type of dialogue I hoped to encourage. Permissions and attributions are really muddled today. How to request permission on an Instagram post? In a YouTube video using and Elvis song from 50 years ago written by Pomus/Shuman who deserves to get paid. What about the dancers in the video? I’ve evolved to “If you post it, and don’t protect it, I can use it.”

      1. Thanks Stephen. Sorry but I disagree – I protect my stuff and still find it on other people’s blogs without my prior permission and even worse – in Pinterest. Pinterest is a challenge in my opinion and filing DMCA take down requests is a PITA. To answer your question about who gets paid? It’s not difficult. For your Pomus/Shuman Elvis a very quick search came up with Viva Las Vegas. Just link to the video or music on Amazon and let people buy it. The accounting gods take care of who gets paid – you don’t need to worry about that – musicians, songwriters, dancers, back-up singers, everyone involved had their own contracts established regarding rights or lack thereof. Instagram posts have authors, right? What people do that is really bad is perform an image search with a browser, find an image they like and copy it and use it – totally ignoring the fine print that mentions subject to copyright and totally without attribution to the original creator or source. In the old wild wild west days of the internet, people routinely stole images that way. But in 2023, it’s not the wild wild west any more. And nobody should be sourcing images that way. This is a topic near and dear to me as a visual artist, and it is because of the proclivity of people misappropriating my art that I absolutely NEVER EVER post my best images online – they are strictly for gallery display. An image for gallery display instantly loses dollar value if it is served on the web. It becomes worthless. Copyright protection for text content is more advanced that that for art, sadly. People seem to understand plagiarism as a concept with it comes to the written word. And don’t get me started on AI. Like I said yesterday, great post. Thanks for the food for thought. And it’s not fair game for you to use something without verifying the source just because someone else posted it.

      2. I’m not sure that we are disagreeing. I’m all in favor of proper accreditation and paying artists for their efforts. And I’m also not trying to be argumentative. My point is that these things have become more complicated in today’s media world. If I follow your link it takes me to an Amazon page offering DVDs and CDs for the movie “Viva Las Vegas”, which do not contain the piece of music used in the video. As for the video itself, I have no idea who the filmmaker or the performers are, or if they are claiming copyright protection. In theory, these folks seem to me equally deserving of credit and theoretically compensation as Elvis, but I have no idea who they are or how to reach them.

Comments are closed.

Powered by

Up ↑