Books

Can artists thrive in the internet age?

Hip hop collective Odd Future: an embodiment of the Catholic idea of subsidiarity? (Getty Images)

Move Fast and Break Things
By Jonathan Taplin, Macmillan, £18.99

The problem with most books on culture, creativity and media trends is that they’re generally written by authors with a good sense of business (and personal brand management), but no real understanding of what it means to be an artist. They focus only on the most popular – the Beatles, Harry Potter – not realising that the lessons learned from these anomalies are worthless when considering creative endeavour as a whole. They turn creativity into something similar to winning the lottery, rather than the daily soul-searching necessary for the production of good (let alone great) art.

Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things is different. He may use Bob Dylan as an example – another sui generis genius who frequently turns up in such books, often in relation to lessons Apple’s Steve Jobs learned through listening to his bootlegs – but in this instance it’s more than justified, as Taplin worked for him. This alone is reason enough to give Taplin 300 pages. But he has had as much success working in film as music, producing Wim Wenders’s wonderful Until the End of the World.

The book isn’t, however, merely the memoirs of a tour manager and film producer. Instead, Taplin examines how the rise of tech companies has had an impact on the role, lifestyle and financial wellbeing of filmmakers, authors and musicians.

Taplin has an amusingly dismissive opinion of the biggest names in technology, seeing them as a combination of vandals, geeks, socially irresponsible libertarians and, most damningly, failed musicians. He suggests that Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google (who played saxophone in high school and tried to invent a music synthesiser), Napster’s Sean Parker and “perhaps Steve Jobs” didn’t have the talent to make it as professional musicians and turned to technology instead.

For Taplin, the culture clash between “nerds and artists” stems from a difference in their perception of time. Larry Page told Fortune magazine that he learnt “the importance of speed” from his music training. But Taplin believes Page should have paid attention to Louis Armstrong, who “threw away the classical meanings of time”. While nerds crave speed, artists go slow. Or, as Taplin has it, “the time clock in a computer is unforgiving, but a great musician often plays behind the beat”.

This is potentially a fascinating argument, but Taplin muddies the water when he goes on to question the use of computers in music, seemingly not understanding (or believing) that there are just as many great musicians who utilise technology as eschew it.

In places, Taplin’s argument is both too wide-ranging and not informed enough. I am perfectly prepared to accept that YouTube stars like PewDiePie, who make millions from posting footage of themselves playing computer games online, are less significant figures than Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. I am less sure that TV shows such as Mad Men or The Sopranos can be dismissed as mere “decadence” (or, indeed, that they are any more decadent than the films, and lifestyles, of the 1970s movie brats).

That internet piracy has affected the profits of artists is obviously true, even if it’s possible to believe that a listener who discovers a musician’s work illicitly might come good by buying a concert ticket. But Taplin’s argument that the last 40 years haven’t seen as much interesting art as the early 1920s to the 1980s seems questionable at best. Still, anyone arguing for increased profits for artists is ultimately on the side of the angels.

Taplin’s suggested solution might come as a surprise, albeit a welcome one. Film-makers, musicians and writers should, he believes, follow the example of the Catholic Church. Specifically, the Church’s concept of subsidiarity.

He chooses as instructive examples of subsidiarity the bonding together of farmers as part of the Sunkist co-op, and the photojournalist cooperative Magnum. Both, he suggests, allowed individuals to barter greater rights as a group than they would have received alone. More problematically, he cites the example of the hip hop collective Odd Future, who almost immediately imploded, with two of their most successful members, Syd tha Kyd and Frank Ocean, achieving greater success individually than they did when performing as a collaborative.

Taplin’s suggestions for how we can get back on track may seem unrealistic: today’s savvy managers sign deals with Apple Music; they don’t set up “non-profit distribution cooperatives”. But there’s something refreshing in his willingness to play King Canute. His view of the past is rose-tinted, his future unrealistic, but Move Fast and Break Things is a worthwhile manifesto from a fascinating man.