On the wicked lives and miserable deaths of record store clerks (and the rest of the creative class)

"When artists and other craftsman can’t make ends meet, we all pay the price,” says Scott Timberg.

It’s these craftsman who make up a majority of Timberg’s argument about the US's falling economic fortunes in his book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. Timberg recently spoke at Politics and Prose in Washington DC.

Craftsman are the animators, the musicians, landscape painters, the art gallery staff, the people who work at record stores, book stores. Art teachers and school librarians can also be counted here. So could anyone bringing the arts closer to people.

For every superstar like Kanye West or Stephen King, there are hundreds -- if  not thousands -- of working artists and craftsman toiling away in relative obscurity. Before, those artists could aspire to become part of the middle class: raising families, buying houses. Not anymore. As the superstar economy continues to reach stratospheric heights, the supporting cast find themselves scrambling for paid work and their economic situation has become precarious.

It’s happening in the arts world, Timberg argues, just like it tore apart other industries. Instead of documenting this plight — like that of the auto worker or the US’s shrinking manufacturing sector — the media has remained largely silent on the issue.

Timberg, who also writes at Salon and a blog called CultureCrash at ArtsJournal, admits he came to understand the situation slowly.

At the turn the century he began noticing musicians complaining about losing revenue for their work. He mainly wrote it off as the impacts of file sharing and other economic hiccups of an industry dealing with extreme technological change. It was sad, but what could he do about it?

As the 21st century rolled on, complaints from people he knew in other industries started to pile up. First bookstores, then record and video stores started to fall by the wayside. These were the very places where smart people willingly worked for little pay but held a type of prestige through their industry knowledge and the suggestions they made to customers.

Timberg wrote a piece at the LA Times on one region's last of the great record stores, Tower Record's classical annex on the Sunset Strip. It was extremely well thought of throughout the local arts community, with very knowledgeable staff helping people find even the most obscure pieces.  In the LA Times piece, Timberg pointed out the special place these record store clerks held in America's culture:

Like their counterparts at book and video stores, record clerks shape our experience of culture as decidedly as any critic, curator or culture-industry executive. They're street-level tastemakers, part of a breed that's entered pop mythology: Kevin Smith's first film was set in a New Jersey video store, and Quentin Tarantino went from South Bay video clerk to indie auteur. Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity," which became a 2000 film, was narrated by an obsessive, emotionally stunted London record salesman.

A few years after that story ran, Tower Records went out of business.

By then, the story he was covering was moving inexorably towards Tmberg and his family. Since 2002, he had worked as an arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times. But as the Tribune company of Chicago, which owned the LA paper, posted tidy profits, Timberg lost his job in 2008 during a wave of layoffs.  His wife had just had a baby and the couple had moved into a new house. They lost the house afterward.

He was quickly overwhelmed by the economic devastation around him. During the recession that began in 2008, California was hit incredibly hard, posting an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent in 2010. The creative class most likely fared even worse, Timberg says. The economic fallout had many consequences: Job losses, certainly. But also depression and failed marriages.

Timberg lists a few reasons that brought on the gutting of the creative middle class.

The first is economics. The recent recession hit the arts community hard, cancelling funding, scaling back productions, programs and buildings. Governments reacted to this drop off in revenue by moving into austerity mode, which also impacted schools and other government funding.

Secondly, technology. The rise of the internet has been great for the consumer — and the owners of Internet-based companies, Timberg argues. We know about the impacts of Amazon on other bookstores, both large and small. We've read a thing or two from the music industry about the impacts of file sharing on their profits and the royalties they pay to musicians. Lesser known is the ease at which creative content — words, pictures, video and audio — can be found free of charge, pushing out those who try to sell their work.

Timberg focuses a lot of vitriol on thought leaders of Silicon Valley and internet technology companies, who, he says, profit from the work of others, like writers and musicians. “The cult of the free" — a popular movement from Silicon Valley advocating people give away products and services — "has been as good to the creative class as trickle down economics has for the middle class,” he said.

Finally, there is the changing social norms rippling through the US, a shift in the way we think about arts and culture. The financialization of the US economy means every project or program must be weighed as profit or loss -- just like a business -- and provide a return on investment. Arts are often pushed aside in this equation. "No longer do we think literature, art and culture leads us to a road to wisdom,” he said.

So, what is to be done?

This is the part of the post where you admit listening to the writer is a poor replacement for actually reading the writer. Timberg began his talk by calling it a "rant" -- and he didn't disappoint. He was unapologetically personal, painting a grim picture with statistics, but mostly relaying stories of his family and friends and former colleagues. (During the Q & A, an audience member, a photographer who lived in Los Angeles and also lost her house, opened up almost too frankly about her dwindling economic prospects. )

Timberg's talk was a call to arms -- as much a lament of the US middle class as to the creative class. He cajoled, he riffed, he opined.

Timberg the speaker was convincing. How about Timberg the writer?

 A book should provide more than just anecdotes and broad strokes. Timberg said his book covers each industry (music, publishing, etc.) on its own merits. That's good, because at some level the situations facing culture industries sound similar, but they are certainly not. (For example: From my distant vantage point, the shortsightedness of those who run the music industry is at least partially to blame for its own economic problems.)

Timberg the speaker did end with all call to arms for the consumer, the one person who, by voting with a pocketbook, can help in the short-term rectify some of these issues.

“If you value arts, but you don’t support places,” he said, like buying prints from artists, going to arts movie houses or purchasing from independent books stores, “this ecology will continue to whither.”  

An evening with George Pelecanos: 'Crime is just an engine to get things written'

What I learned from George Pelecanos at Busboys and Poets in Washington DC. Pelecanos, the author of 20 books, writes mostly crime fiction in and around Washington DC, an area where he's lived all his life.

Pelecanos is known for describing the plight of the working class, blue collar District of Columbia, where his books mostly take  place far away from the corridors of power. The crimes he sets his stories around aren’t often graphic, although there are exceptions. Instead, he dwells on the human implications of violence, history and maybe even fate.

His books offer a lesson of the city’s complicated racial history. And it provides a newcomer — like me — a geography lesson of the city’s cultural, historical and symbolic landmarks.

The best writers listen to how people talk. Pelecanos often watches criminal trials — not for the technical material — but to listen to the language of people. He also volunteers for prison literacy and literature programs.

He recently spoke to inmate  for 90 minutes. From that, he said he got a book full of information. Not facts about crimes and guns, but the intimate details on how the person speaks, his character.

"If you’re a white writer writing a black character, they often stop there,” he said. "You have to figure out the character first and then figure out how that person talks."

On accurately translating Washington DC (and surrounding area) to the page. Pelecanos is  one of the handful of writers who gets correct the details of Washington DC, an audience member said.

Pelecanos pointed out that for writers researching on the internet can be a curse. Sure, you can get any information you want,  “but you can’t get the feeling” of a place.

Pelecanos spends a lot of time riding his bike around the metropolitan area. Unlike before when he traveled with a camera and notebook, today he always has his iPhone. “That is my tool,” he said.

On the gentrification of Silver Spring, Maryland (where he lives) and Washington DC.

While the culture and vibe has changed in Silver Spring, you can’t be nostalgic about that stuff. "No one can say that things aren't better in Washington,” he said, pointing out entire neighborhoods — like areas around the H Street Corridor — used to be business wastelands. “Now all those buildings have their lights on. That means people have jobs,” he said.

“It’s nostalgia,” he said of worrying about gentrification. “You can’t get caught up in that.”

On being a crime writer: “I want to write about neighborhoods and people who never get their stories told. Crime is just an engine to get things written,” he said.

"Conflict drives drama and crime fiction is the ultimate drama because it deals with life and death."

On the influence of Westerns on his work. (Check out this scene he wrote for HBO's the Wire.)

Both his grandfather and father — who taught him a love for movies — were born in Greece. “Greeks love Westerns," he said. "They thought that was reality.”

On the influence of music in his books. Pelecanos' books are full of music -- especially from the local DC scene -- said it comes from his love of movies. He often uses a piece of music to help pace a scene.  

The music pulsing in the background of his books come from the type of scenes he writes, bars, kitchens, cars, especially when he writes of characters driving around aimlessly smoking pot. “These are places where people sit around and argue about music,” he said. “That's what we did all day.”

He wanted his book King Suckerman to be the American Graffiti of Funk.

On writing for HBO's the Wire. He coined the term “Hamsterdam” in season three. (He wrote the teleplay for that episode.)

Television writing is much different than writing for print, he said. First of all, people actually read your lines. In season three, show eleven where Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale said good bye to each other on the roof of Stringer Bell’s apartment. “They elevated that to something much greater,” he said. "You won’t hear many writers say that.”

On professional competition in the writer's room. Working with such acclaimed writers on the Wire brought out competitive juices of everyone, which made the show better. "I don't care if it's Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, I am going to kick their ass," he said. "They were thinking the same thing." 

On the future. He sold his Derek Strange character to HBO. Hard Revolution will the first season. “All I have to do know is write it,” he said,  deadpan. HBO will then decide if it wants to fund the production.  

He also announced he’s about to start working on a short film with a young director from Baltimore.

On building a film industry in DC. He's spoken to politicians in Washington DC about exploring the ideas of providing tax credits for film work. Looking to New York City's film industry, Pelecanos points out that Law & Order kept people employed for two  decades. Those who worked on the set raise their families from that show.

Photo of George Pelecanos by David Shankbone.

As information becomes free, those who create it face dangers

Joel Simon, the Executive Direct of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has a new book out, The New Censorship: Inside the Battle for Global Media Freedom.

On Monday, January 5, he spoke to Rebecca MacKinnon at Politics & Prose, in Washington DC. MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices (where I once did some work), is the author of The Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

Unrelated -- but more than a bit prescient -- the talk took place just two days before the killings of 12 journalists and staffers at the Paris weekly, Charlie Hebdo.

Simon wanted to explore the paradox that we live in such an information-saturated age that we’re actually dwarfed by it. But the people who bring us that information “have never been more vulnerable.” Today, some 200 journalists are in prison, a number that has held steady stayed for the past three years, equalling the highest number of imprisoned journalists since the CPJ started keeping track.

At the same time, People are so dependent on information that we are blind to our gaps of knowledge and we don’t have a very good understanding of the system that brings us our information.

That traditional delivery system – the professional press – is becoming more and more diminished. The information monopoly that journalists once had is gone, which makes them more vulnerable in a number of ways:

One, political leaders, especially those who Simon calls Democrators – elected to power but don’t respect democracy’s institutions (Russia’s Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) -- don’t have a need for journalists.

Simon tells a story of meeting with Erdoğan in the capacity of his head of CPJ. Generally, the meetings with foreign leaders start out with the head of state stating how much s/he respects the press, leading the visiting CPJ team to  ask: why, then, do you jail these people, listing off the journalists in prison. It's this point where the argument begins.

Not so with Erdoğan, Simon said. He immediately went on the offensive on how he doesn’t like journalists, finds them oppositional, and claims they don’t tell the truth.

He then broke another taboo: The Turkish leader even went to say that journalists at the New York Times and CNN were the worst offenders, an uncommon complaint for heads of state, who generally take their anger out on local journalists, ignoring the foreign reporters.

The problem with these Democrators is that they’re popularly elected, and often, quite popular, Simon says. In the case of Turkey, many people applaud the jailing of journalists, who they see as part of a political problem. (During the Q & A section, someone pointed out that he knows many Turks who have many complaints of their press.)  

Secondly, terror groups don’t have a need for journalists, either. Both terrorists and governments  have alternative ways to speak directly to people, to get their story out. Conversely, the people often doing reporting in areas held by terror groups are largely citizens (and may not think of themselves as journalists). These people lack the institutional network of full-fledged reporters who often have the help of their parent organization, their foreign bureaus, lawyers, administrative support, to fall back on.

Finally, it’s easy for governments to use journalists’ tools against them to track them, to watch them and break into their gadgets  to more closely follow their work. Discussion ensued on the how the revelations of internet surveillance in the US and elsewhere has lead to writers and others to self-censor their work, their searches and their writings.  “Surveillance is like drone warfare," Simon said. “Nothing seems safe from the NSA.” The problem is, attempting NSA-type surveillance is getting cheaper and easier for others to do.

So, why is this important? Simon argues for those who feel they benefit from information moving across borders, this is an important issue. We need people to inform us, and we in the US and other Western countries depend on journalists from around the world to tell us our news. In some countries — Syria, for example — local people are reporting by any means necessary because it is far too dangerous for Westerners. Thus, we need to insure their protection  and help those people protect themselves.

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In light of last week's massacre at the Charlie Hedbo office, I'd say Simon's and McKinnon's talk has even more weight. The Paris killings took place in a Global Media Capital, so the shock reverberated throughout that world: mostly Western, media savvy, liberal and educated.  But the people Simon is most concerned about feel different.  These are the local journalists, bloggers or citizens who often toil under relative anonymity, working to uncover the stories of places many of us don't know or would never travel to. Instead of a being gunned down in an audacious terrorist attack, these people are quietly bullied into submission, imprisoned or disappeared. 

Photo: Journalists on duty by Yan Arief Purwanto