In an uncertain world, the creative industries are an uncertain path to success and riches. There is often no way of market testing many of their products before they are brought to market. The music industry moves too quickly, with tastes constantly shifting. What goes down well with your focus group today will likely tank by the time it's on iTunes. By the time you're ready to market test your movie most of the money's spent. Similarly with a painting. And in the acting profession, uncertainty and insecurity are demonstrated by the high proportion of actors who are unemployed at any given time, and the low average incomes of many. There's a story about Michael Caine, in which an interviewer asked him a few years back why he appeared to be in every movie being released at the time. Because, he replied, you never know when any given call will be your last, so you say yes whenever you get one.
In Creative Industries, Richard Caves analyses the issues surrounding this uncertainty and how the creative industries tackle them. A film studio will effectively take out an option contract on the personnel and resources for a movie in production, constantly reassessing its viability, treating past expenditures as sunk costs and proceeding on the basis of their ability to recover costs not yet committed. Art galleries and record companies rely on their own experience but also on gatekeepers who one way or another have influence over what is noticed by the wider public: specialist magazines, affluent socialites and DJs, for example.
Art galleries, he tells us, have only a 25% chance of surviving past five years. 80% of albums and 85% of singles (the book dates back to 2002) fail to cover their costs, the "stiff ratio". The technologies may be dated (he also talks a lot about video), but the principles remain the same, although the rise of online music downloads has shifted the economics of making money in the music industry to trying to make more money on the road. It seems unlikely The Beatles could have existed, as they did during their later years, as a studio band only in the current climate. Acknowledging the way in which technologies can be disruptive, Caves gives the example of the fading of B movies into TV production (lately, of course, everyone wants to be in TV, and not so much the movies). He also shows how practices can change, as in the film studios where large, permanent staffs have given way to project-based teams.
One of the real strengths of Caves's work is the toolkit of concepts he provides for analysis: "nobody knows" for the uncertainty principle; the "motley crew" property for the creative activities involving complex teams, and the "time flies" property for the idea that the more time something takes, the more money is spent and/or lost. Time flies is a key reason a "difficult" actor may find it hard to find work if he repeatedly fails to show up on set, or shows up drunk. While he's busy not acting, a large expensive motley crew is standing round not producing anything.
This toolkit enables readers to analyse specific examples of their own: I had fun applying the concepts to what was going on week-by-week in the TV series Nashville, made even more interesting by the fact that some of the very dynamics being depicted in fiction would also be playing out in fact.
As with any performance, Caves often leaves his readers wanting more. There's a tantalising thought, for example, in the final paragraph of the final chapter in which he talks about the position of popular songs from musicals, which gained traction with audiences with their formulaic 32-bar AABA convention (a target for Adorno, incidentally, who blamed such standardisation on broad diffusion of songs through sheet music and recordings). He contrasts this with rock songs, which follow different conventions, and sometimes no conventions at all, but does not follow through on the thought. For that the reader has to go to the likes of Lloyd Whitesell's The Music Of Joni Mitchell, which details the variety of forms used by that one writer alone. But the economic reason Mitchell was able to innovate as she has done, whilst the entire opera field, for example, lacks much innovation at all, is made quite clear, and explaining such things is the book's key mission.