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Talking Heads

Has the Internet made artists an endangered species?

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"As we get older and stop making sense ... " — David Byrne

I've long been a fan of musician David Byrne. The Talking Heads were my soundtrack for a long time. Byrne, a brilliant artist and thinker, recently wrote an essay for The Guardian called, "The Internet Will Suck All the Creative Content Out of the World." In it, he bemoaned the rise of music file-sharing services like Spotify, which pay musicians a pittance for access to their work.

Byrne made some great points, but he only got it half right. The internet does suck up all the creative content in the world, but then it spews it back out for consumption. The real problem for artists trying to sell their recorded music is not that it's been sucked away; it's that consumers are now inundated with creative content. They've been given a free bag of rice, and musicians are asking them to pick out a particular grain to eat — and pay for it.

Go to YouTube and type in the name of any popular song and you'll get the original, but you'll also get dozens of videos of teens in their room playing the song, as well as lots of wannabe local bands playing their version. It's like music selfies.

The market for what was once a saleable physical product, whether vinyl, CD, or tape, has shrunk radically. Music — the creative content — can now be heard on demand for free or nearly so, streamed via various internet sites, including YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, etc., and stored on our phones or other devices.

Many of us used to proudly display our record collections, then, later, our stack towers of CDs; we gave friends "mix tapes," a CD burned with our favorite tunes. No longer. We share playlists. We forward links. Why bother to "own" music when you can listen to it — and give to others — for free? The internet hasn't sucked all the creative content from the world, but it has destroyed the traditional recorded-music business model.

Of course, it's not just the music business that has been transformed by the internet. Everyone is a photographer now. We are inundated with pictures via Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook. Nobody has photo albums anymore. Kodak is bankrupt. No one's getting a dime from that gorgeous shot of a desert sunset that's being viewed by thousands of people.

Travel agencies? No thanks, I'll just use Travelocity or Expedia. Fight the crowds at the mall? Nah, I'll just order online. Newspaper subscription? No thanks, I'll just scan Huffington Post or local news sites. Free is the new black.

But even in the face of these technological challenges, writers still write, painters still paint, musicians still play their hearts out. They enrich our lives immeasurably, and they need to make a living. So close your laptop, put your phone down for a while. Buy a book, buy a painting, go out and hear a live band — maybe even, gasp, buy a CD. We shouldn't take our artists for granted. They are vital to our quality of life and they need our support.

And we need them to help us make sense.

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