OK, we all know the chances of success as an artist are slim, but apparently, it’s not just a matter left to chance, it’s almost a mathematical certainty.

This article on Baumol’s Cost Disease centers on the high cost of being a performer, and the low return on that investment.

Baumol’s cost-disease (sometimes more prosaically referred to as the Baumol-Bowen effect) is well-known among economists and arts administrators, but not many working musicians have even heard of it. First described by economists William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen in 1966, the main symptom of the disease is this: labor costs in the performing arts will always inexorably rise, and at a faster rate than other industries. That’s because in most industries, technological advances allow for increased productivity without an increase in labor. This doesn’t happen in the performing arts, though. As Baumol and Bowen famously describe it in their book Performing Arts: the Economic Dilemma:

Whereas the amount of labor necessary to produce a typical manufactured product has constantly declined since the beginning of the industrial revolution, it requires about as many minutes for Richard II to tell his “sad stories of the death of kings” as it did on the stage of the Globe Theatre. Human ingenuity has devised ways to reduce the labor necessary to produce an automobile, but no one has yet succeeded in decreasing the human effort expended at a live performance of a 45-minute Schubert quartet much below a total of three man-hours.

Technological advances have allowed cartoonists to produce a certain type of artwork at greater speed than before, if you are the sort of artist who uses Photoshop for all of your background work, that is. But that doesn’t actually seem to have resulted in faster artists, unless you happen to be a cover painter. It takes a heck of a lot less time to Photoshop a cover than it does to paint an original oil.

The technology appears to have created a demand for more intricate, polished comic art. You can create more impressive images with less effort, but on the whole, I don’t know if it’s actually making most artists faster. They are simply taking more time to produce flashier images.

And of course, if you are Jeff Smith, you’re not using a computer to draw anything. It takes Jeff Smith just as long to draw a comic page now as it did 20 years ago. And there will always be an audience who chooses to follow the work of artists who draw sans machine.

The computer has lowered the rates of some artists and forced others out of the business. Letterers now get paid what they did more than 20 years ago. And tight pencilers no longer need inkers. That work can also be done on computer. The tales of ex-top inkers who now work at the Subway Sandwich shop are not mere anecdotes.

Of course, the computer has turned some cartoonists into designers, colorists, inkers and letterers, whereas before, that same artist might have been a penciler. The labor necessary to produce a comic has not decreased. If anything, many artists are now doing more of their own work instead of parsing it out to a team of people. The result: fewer jobs to go ’round. However, one artist is doing the work of a team, but is often doing it for less money than the team would have been paid as individuals, especially if you consider shipping costs and time delays getting the work delivered to all the artists.

The job training artists require never seems to end. With new software popping up every time you turn around, the learning curve goes ever on.

Your typical doctor is not going to start training as a physician at the age of five, but a ballet dancer will. Any artist will spend years outside of a formal classroom setting learning their skills from an early age. Yet, a doctor will train himself for a job that will last her a lifetime. An artist has a small window of opportunity for success and there are few jobs available. And even if there is a shot at professional opportunity, most artists do not have careers that last. Usually, a performer is done by age 35. Of course, a doctor will have to retrain herself over time, but one thing is certain: that doctor is going to get a return on that investment. The world always needs doctors. An artist can never be certain if anyone ever wants their work enough to pay for it.

The human effort to produce art does not decrease, yet the demand for it is endless, and the resistance to paying for it remains constant.

Laissez-faire types might insist that if labor costs are too high, it just means that performers are being paid too much, and either salaries should be lowered or ticket prices should be raised. Lowering pay, though, is pretty much a death knell for professional performance: musicians, actors, and dancers are skilled workers, and in order to make sure enough people stay in those careers, wages have to at least somewhat keep up with what skilled workers earn in other industries. (The fact that they hardly do is testament to the dedication of artists.) More importantly, performers have to be able to earn a living wage, and the cost of living is not going to be determined by how much artists take home, as they’re in a significant minority; rather, the spending power of workers in more common industries will set the pace.

Maybe I am stretching a point comparing cartoonists to performers, but that is what we do. We perform at the rate of X number of pages per month. And if you can’t draw any faster than X to meet your expenses, you have a future as a talented amateur.

Musicians rarely make money off of recordings, because the record companies’ overhead and profit take precedence; some performers have tried to keep more revenue for themselves by starting their own recording ventures. Success isn’t automatic: the risks remain high, even as the costs of creating and manufacturing recordings have declined. Internet technology, however, has lowered the barrier-to-entry even further, cutting the distribution costs involved in selling recordings to almost nothing. The demise of Tower Records is lamentable, but the economic forces that shut their doors are creating opportunity: for a historically miniscule start-up investment, performers can control content, manufacturing, and distribution in a vertically-integrated way. In this model, live performance becomes not just an end in itself, but also a marketing tool that funnels money into your record business.

While the gatekeepers of the old publishing models are going dinosaur, we have yet to create a solid model for making money from the internet (certainly not with comics), and until that happy day, a lot of people are going to continue to work for chump change.

A friend suggested that even if the comics couldn’t make money, more merchandising would help, which is not convincing me. If you’ve got 50,000 dedicated readers of your web comic, only a small percentage are going to buy the T-shirt and the coffee mug, certainly not enough to sustain you.

So, don’t quit the day job. Yet.

However, yeah, I really ought to have some T-shirts. And coffee mugs. Couldn’t hurt.

UPDATE: Years after this original post, my web traffic finally did go up, and so did my sales. But unlike almost all webcomics, my sales are in art and books as opposed to t-shirts and coffee mugs. And unlike most webcomics, the percentage of my sell-through to my online readership is higher than normal. I think this may be because many of my readers online are dedicated print readers as well. They still want books. So I sell more books than most webcomics.

c

Comments saved from original post below:

Dan: I believe (but I’m not sure) that the guy who does questionablecontent.net lives off of the stuff he sells. That’s the only example I can think of, but I don’t really read webcomics.

Re: the music industry, etc – I think value is distorted by non-laissez-faire forces, like monopolies. That musicians are not making money off of their recordings is not intrinsic to the mass-production model (it’s as silly a thing as if I were to mass-produce the proverbial better mousetrap and could somehow only make money trapping trained mice on stage for an audience!), it’s the result of criminal behavior (and, I suppose, government complicity).

Re: people working for chump change – low entry barriers do mean more competition, depressing wages. However, gone with the old model is intermediation (though the comic industry wasn’t good at it anyway). How do you find the good stuff? Replacement methods of intermediation will presumably bring large numbers of people to particular producers, directing money where it belongs, instead of diffusing it across lots of mediocrity because the good stuff is languishing in obscurity.

IMO this is what folks in the IP business need to work to overcome in the short term. The more entrepreneurial you are, the better. Sell stuff! Advertise! This blog is good – have you thought about Flickr or anything somewhat social-networking-y? I think they’ve become more illustration-friendly recently. Just a thought.

Colleen:

This discussion harkens back to what we discussed on an earlier thread. Artists cannot afford to be just artists. They must be entrepreneurs as well. The days when you could just expect an editor to call and give you a gig with a page rate may be coming to a close.

But then, in real terms artists have ALWAYS been entrepreneurs. We are small business people running key person businesses. As an artist, you cannot afford to rely solely on the kindness of your publisher, or on the whim of the public.

I don’t believe that mediocrity gets winnowed out by the marketplace. If anything, mediocrity thrives because whatever appeals to the lowest common denominator – the widest possible taste – will be more successful than something which appeals to a refined sensibility. The best doesn’t always succeed, the most appealing material marketed the best way succeeds. That does not mean quality wins.

While music industry contracts are within the bounds of the law, they sure as heck ought to be criminal.

The problem with all of these internet sites and social-network newsgroups, etc. is that they can quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. You can spend so much time networking you don’t get any work done. If the blog or the MySpace page is taking up too much time, and the drawing and the comics aren’t being completed, there really is no point to the blog or the MySpace page. Editors wail about freelancer who have time to blog and newsgroup when they are behind deadline. I can’t get away with anything! My editor can always see what I am doing here!

However, the one thing I am seeing a return on lately is the blog. The traffic on the blog is really going up. I did not see a professional benefit to being on The Engine or to most other sites I spent some time on. I found myself getting involved in pointless discussions and not using my time effectively. I am a lot more disciplined about time management when I stick to the blog.

And frankly, some of the message boards out there are so vulgar they turn my stomach. I don’t know why people can’t have civil disagreements or why they feel compelled to post images of things like the infamous Tub Girl. I don’t want to endorse that sort of thing by participating.

That doesn’t mean I am not going to produce a Bast blow up doll. It will be in the best of taste, of course.

Ray: Prince gets a lot of stares as a “weirdo” artist, but after leaving WB in the early 90s, he found out that WB had trademarked his own name, which is why he went by the symbol name for a few years. (Once his contract expired in 2000, he went back to his birth name. His real name is Prince Rogers Nelson, named after his dad’s band.)

He insists on owning the masters of his records now. He doesn’t sign away rights anymore. Any record company that does business with him only gets short-term distribution rights. He maintains ownership, and encourages other artists to do the same.

It’s weird when you realize that every musician with a big recording contract is actually doing work-for-hire, and even worse, responsible for any debts rung up while promoting their own work while not getting any of the benefits of ownership.