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.”