Precarious Labor in Creative Business and Fandom

Creative business today is a dynamic, global and innovative field to be in, but it also has a dark side. The open-access collection Precarious Creativity (Curtin & Sanson, 2016) is filled with highly critical essays on the gig economy, gender, power and difficult (legal) circumstances in creative business world-wide. Indeed, it is the editor’s aim to move “past romanticized assumptions about creative work in favor of more incisive discussions about power, equity, and collective action”.

The lure of creative freedom, flexibility and doing agile team work is what draws workers to creative business. The natural flip side is – no stability, no insurance, few rights. But it doesn’t end there. Creativity is often misused today. Caldwell, for instance, is highly critical of “spec-work”. Other people’s ideas, ideations and brainstorms being exploited. One example he mentions:

‘The star showrunner of a blockbuster TV series rarely sets foot in his “writers’ room,” where a dozen staffers and uncredited writers’ assistants all contribute story elements. Yet press and fans alike hail the narrative as the showrunner’s expression.’

In times of design thinking, when ideation is celebrated above all, we should also be weary of this exploitation of ideas under the flag of co-design and collaboration. Innovative creative labor (“venture labor”) is not well-supported in many countries. Governments and the industry should pack together to deal with this runaway innovation, and create safety nets. It is possible to give workers support, stability and predictability, if we team up.specs

Is this labor or a “gift”, an idea, a “spec”?

Precarious labor is out there. Yes, on occassion it is appropriate to call some aspects of fandom a gift culture or economy, or to call certain types of spec work an idea. But let’s be weary, because these ideas and gifts are co-opted all the time. One of my favorite examples from fandom is how a Heroes contest for season 2 was used to get ideas/pitches going, without crediting the fans (Marina Hassapopolou wrote about this). Just analyzing fandom as gift culture is dangerous – if we focus only on gift/commissions/fair use, it’s just hobbyism/amateurism anyway and labor shouldn’t be considered. Focus on the specific why, instead of the how, and on individual instances in which labor is complicated and even exploited.

The gift culture discourse is problematic today.  Fans are going professional. They become influencers for brands and businesses. Their UGC is sold without them realizing it, or profited upon by the new empires of Facebook and YouTube. Their data is sold and used all the time. We can’t stay techno-optimistic and democratic forever because a massive economic shift is happening and fans/users/creatives are in the middle of it.

Are academics complicit to the discourse?

This essay collection made me  highly aware that we academics should remain critical of the changing economy. Innovation influences our research agendas as well, and the top-down funding schemes in many countries. (In academia, we need to increasingly valorize, innovate, co-design and follow corporate agenda). Caldwell argues against the constant pressure to marry academia and (innovative) corporate agendas (e.g. transmedia, viral marketing), in favor of traditional arts and media. ‘Of course, this innovation/craft split may seem commonsensical. Corporate sponsorship and academic politics – when married – make innovation bias apprently the only goal worth pursuing in media studies (and digital corporations)’ (p. 38).

That is not the only criticism on media studies that the collection contains. It had  had some earnest criticism on fan studies, which goes beyond arguments that fandom is low culture, niche and not worth our time. Toby Miller especially talks back to the new wave of media studies which hails the new wave of creativity as a good thing. Media scholars increasingly celebrate active audiences in different disciplines. We all, in the spirit of Toffler, become producers and consumers (prosumers). Miller thinks these arguments blind us to the dark side of the gig economy, and describes this as this as techno-optimistic or “cybertarian” discourse.

Miller warns firmly against this movement in media studies:

cybertarian discourse buys into individualistic fantasies of reader, audience, consumer, and player autonomy—the neoliberal intellectual’s wet dream of music, movies, television, and everything else converging under the sign of empowered and creative fans. The New Right of communication and cultural studies invests with unparalleled gusto in Schumpeterian entrepreneurs, evolutionary economics, and creative industries. It’s never seen an “app” it didn’t like or a socialist idea it did. […] Welcome to “Readers’ Liberation Movement” media studies.

I’m sure that many of my colleagues will rally against the quote as much as I did, but at the same time, I do like being disrupted. Miller is right that we need to keep moving, and shouldn’t embrace innovation at the expense of criticism.

What’s the way out? Less forecasting, Miller argues. More political and economic research is needed, paired up with ethnographic research on actual informants. We need to find out what labor and creativity mean to people, and what we could do to better the future. This also means that fans sometimes need protection, not exploitation, and that we need to distance ourselves to take on that global helicopter view. Alright, fan scholars, let’s get critical. Do you agree?

Categories Fandom

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