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Janelle Brown

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Creatives at a Crossroads

Posted: 07/26/10 05:29 PM ET

Over the course of the last year, a half-dozen of my most creative friends - filmmakers, writers, musicians - have fled Los Angeles. The careers that once paid their bills had dwindled to the point where they could no longer sustain themselves or their families in this city. Most found their salvation in other industries (advertising, mostly) in other states (New York, mostly).

The situation for those of us who remain here is still bleak. Many are working on career changes, like the film producer who talks about opening up a boutique; or the newspaper reporter who is now working for a marketing firm. My own husband, a filmmaker with two Sundance successes under his belt, turned to advertising when the financing for his last film fell through. A close friend with a successful band watched his new music video net a half-million views on YouTube, but sell merely 35 albums; the band subsequently broke up.

After nearly two decades of pursuit of their talents, the creative middle class has watched those talents, like the stock market, lose their worth seemingly overnight. A dispiriting trend has emerged, in this post-recession New Economy, in which the value of our creative content is fast approaching... nothing. Zero. Nada.

I wrote for Wired, and then Salon, at the beginning of the digital revolution, and I remember the rhetoric well: In fact, I helped spout it. The Net was going to give us countless lucrative new outlets for art, music, writing, film: Let a million artists bloom! What I didn't anticipate was this, the dark side of the democratization of self-expression: In a flooded marketplace of ideas, the price for creativity has been driven down by a glut of free supply.

Take, for example, the journalism job listings on MediaBistro, which are riddled with opportunities offering "no initial compensation"; or AOL's recent solicitation for music writers who would produce 1000-word stories for $20. My journalist friends have war stories about major news sites who once paid a buck a word but now expect freelancers to contribute without any payment at all; newspapers who fire staffers and then hire them back as freelancers at a fraction of their previous salary; "content mills" like Demand Media that generate vast quantities of cheap algorithm-based content for Web sites by farming assignments out to freelancers for just a few bucks per story or video; high-profile blogging jobs that pay $25 for a 500 word post (if anything at all). And yet with 30,000+ writers and editors having lost their jobs in the last two years, experienced journalists are actually fighting over these scraps.

This rapid depreciation has extended to every creative industry. Musicians, whose industry was the first to disintegrate (thank you, Napster), find that it's nearly impossible to make a living unless you place one of your songs in an Apple commercial. Even Prince spent last week complaining that iTunes was cutting into his income - "They won't pay me an advance for [my music] and then they get angry when they can't get it," he told the U.K.'s Daily Mirror.

Elsewhere, independent filmmakers -- suddenly completely shunned by the studio system -- have given up on outside financing and paying audiences, instead fronting the costs of their own productions and distribution or giving away their films for free online. And in my own industry, the rise of the eBook -- and the subsequent price wars that are driving the value of a new release from $24.99 to $9.99 -- has triggered a rapid downhill slide in advances for authors. Even respected writers like Debra Dickerson have started to ask readers to front the money to write their books; after all, the publishing industry won't. ("It's time to accept that, two successful books and a solid journalism career notwithstanding, those of us who are not Stephen King will be writing for peanuts," Dickerson explained on her blog.)

This creative frustration served as the inspiration for my current novel, This Is Where We Live, in which the lead characters -- a LA-based filmmaker and musician -- discover that the current economy means the putative end of their respective professions, the inability to make any money pursuing their dreams, and a major rethinking of their life's goals. (Not to mention their home and marriage). Ironically, I recently found a bootlegged audiobook version of my own novel available for free on a file-swapping site. It had been downloaded 9,500 times.

For Los Angeles, a city that for decades has proudly defined itself by its creative industries -- a mecca for film, music, art, and (yes) writing -- this talent devaluation could foreshadow a radical shift in the demographic makeup. Since the inception of Hollywood, young optimists have moved here with dreams of artistic success; if that's no longer a possibility -- if the only real option left is to work in advertising, shilling Shrek 11 or stalking celebrities for TMZ- why would anyone bother to come? Certainly, people don't fantasize about moving to California to make viral Pampers commercials.

Optimistically, though, you could argue that we're at a crossroads moment. The surprising overnight success of the iPad means that we have a new medium in which to redefine our relationship to the value of content. The iPad could be the salvation of creativity, a medium in which audiences and employers and distributors once again get used to paying for their books, magazines, videos and music (already, they happily shell out $1.99 for their Scrabble or Hipstamatic apps). After all, if no one is willing to pay for quality content by skilled professionals, eventually there will be none: No artist, however committed, can work for free forever. Perhaps when there's nothing left to fill the Kindles, the iPads, and the aggregating blogs except home videos of cats eating birthday cake, people will once again be willing to start paying for entertainment.

When that happens, maybe the California Dream -- or something like it -- will stop feeling like a non sequitur, and more like a real possibility again.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned Cory Doctorow as an author who was asking readers for donations. While he has solicited donations, it was as an experiment, not because publishers weren't buying his books.