The Web's Elusive Promise of a DIY Career in the Arts

Will self-managed musicians and artists continue to be rarities, or is that path finally becoming a reality on a greater scale?

Johnathan Coulton (Wikimedia Commons)

Are we finally entering the age of the digital cultural entrepreneur (DCE)? That is, has it now become possible for a gifted artist or writer to control the reins of his or her career from a laptop, scheduling gigs, selling books or recordings or images both digitally and physically, receiving payments, interacting with fans, and avoiding the "middleman" of the whole formal culture industry altogether? And, more to the point, is this possible for someone who doesn't hit the Fifty Shades of Grey jackpot, but merely has a sufficiently large core of faithful supporters and fans?

Savants have been predicting the emergence of the DCE for some time now, and have called attention to the pioneering efforts of writers like Cory Doctorow and musicians like Jonathan Coulton -- or rather, have called attention to Doctorow and Coulton, because there haven't been too many like them. And this is the key question: Will the self-managed DCE career continue to be a rare thing, or is it scalable?

Many smart and creative people want to know, because the life of the DCE seems immensely attractive: Be your own boss! Work when and where you want! Only pursue tasks that excite you! Of course, anyone who has tried living the DCE life will tell you that it's not quite that exciting, and a life in which all the responsibilities are yours has its own considerable stresses. But even someone like me, who has a good academic job and a rewarding relationship with the traditional publishing world, can't help drifting off sometimes into DCE-Dreamland. Wouldn't it be nice....

Pardon me, I was distracted for a moment there. What's happening right now, it seems to me, is that we're in a period of information-gathering. People who think they might want to become DCEs are scouring the web for relevant data points -- and the data points are increasing in number. A pattern might be plottable in the near future.

Consider a few examples. The singer/songwriter Erin McKeown has recently been very forthcoming about how much money she makes through online sales and where it comes from: a reasonable and fair about from iTunes, very little from Spotify, and of course nothing from the default source for online music, YouTube. Robinson Meyer has already written in these pages about a similar breakdown for cellist Zoë Keating.

On the writing side, the Doctorow Model has been much debated -- including by Doctorow himself, for instance in a long Twitter exchange with the writer David Hewson, during which other writers pitched in. This later resulted in some thoughtful blog posts by Suw Charman-Anderson and John Scalzi. The whole conversation might be summed up as follows: Doctorow is a very unusual figure, but let's hope he's not a unique one, because it would be a very good thing if more writers and artists could do what he does.

In light of all this confusion and uncertainty, writers in particular, and some other artists as weell, are thinking less in trms of career paths than of projects -- with Kickstarter as one prominent model -- and collections -- with Etsy as the place to go. But of course Kickstarter and Etsy then just become a new kind of middleman: not alternatives to tradtional publishers or galleries, but new versions of them. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Not really: but Kickstarter and Etsy and Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing are all, in some sense, your boss. What if, for a particular project at least, you want to go it alone, to be a truly DIY DCE?

An interesting recent data point comes from Anne Trubek, a writer and professor currently on leave from Oberlin College, who has put together Rust Belt Chic: a Cleveland Anthology, and has written about how this wholly self-managed project got into the black. And in fact, Rust Belt Chic is just one of Trubek's projects as she explores the possibility of doing teaching, writing, and editing in DCE mode.

Is such a mode sustainable, over the long haul, and not just for one project, by people other than the handful of Special Cases like Doctorow and Coulton and Zoë Keating? That's what we're all waiting to find out. We need more data points to plot this graph, to see what shape the line makes -- which means that we need more people to (a) make the jump into DCE mode and (b) report what happens. You first.