The Curtain 81: Investing in Artists, Platforms vs Publishers

I know: also, there's an election going on.
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Gus Cuddy
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S01-81 (Issue 81)
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Hi all –

This is The Curtain, a newsletter about arts, media, culture, theatre, and the weirdness of the internet. I’m your host, Gus Cuddy.

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# I

Well, apparently, there’s an election taking place here. I tried to write this while also having Twitter open on election night, and I think I lost a few hundred brain cells. The stress and collective anxiety were a little much for me.

Suffice to say: America is a racist country, and those roots run very deep. As I write this there are still plenty of unknowns, so we will see what happens.

A quick note on polls: as Zeynep Tufekci wrote this week, “presidential elections are rare events.” They are challenging to predict and model, especially because every four years conditions are wildly different; this year, we have a god damn pandemic! Polls are not great data, as has been proven before. They are incomplete models, and we can’t completely trust them. Worse, they could contribute to negative narratives surrounding the perceived “favorite” of an election that can affect voter turnout.

Okay, I hope you’re not too stressed out. There’s so much work to be done.

I’ll continue to put these out every week, covering the constantly shifting landscape of arts, media, theatre, culture, and the internet. Let’s get to it.


# II – Investing in Artists From Three Dimensions

Productions Are Ephemeral, People Are Not.

Ramona Rose King wrote a lovely piece about her experience being the HowlRound producer and administering the National Playwright Residency Program. The program salaries playwrights at theaters around the country for three years, giving them benefits, a production, and an extra discretionary fund to use as they wish on professional development.

This type of support for playwrights is exceptional. Theaters’ relationships with artists are, for the most part, relatively transactional: they are hired or commissioned, and when the production is finished, it’s all over. Fortunate playwrights may become artists-in-residence at a theater and receive additional benefits, but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. King writes about the importance of giving playwrights money (they tend to spend it on other artists) and holistically and sustainably compensating artists for the totality of their work, not just their output.

Similar to the two-dimensional view of race many theaters have, arts institutions often have a two-dimensional relationship with their artists: they don’t last beyond the current, ephemeral project in front of them. But, as an artist, creating art while worrying about money is simply not sustainable. When artists are lifted from the burden of thinking about how to survive, they are able to create from a place of security and trust. Profitability is not the point of art; artists’ worth can’t be tied to their productive output like they’re a manufacturing plant.

15/ Artists should be paid enough to make their work and live comfortably, as stress-free as possible. It takes great unconscious energy to make great art, and when you are constantly worrying about money and surviving it is very hard to unleash that energy.

Of course, in order to give artists money, theaters need money, and that’s not always an easy task. Funds like the National Playwright Residency Program or Soho Rep’s Project Number One are superb examples of this type of support, and I hope they are more widely replicated throughout the industry. But solving the problem of paying artists more—and making theatre cost less—is one of the most significant puzzle pieces to solve in the future of a sustainable theatre. That’s why it’s so interesting to see what Jeremy O. Harris is doing with the discretionary fund he has received from HBO as part of the deal he struck with them, to be used to produce weird theatre. In an interview published with Helen Shaw in Vulture, he talked about producing the online versions of Circle Jerk and Heroes of the Fourth Turning:

“Look, this is doable.” It’s relatively easy. Artists are ready. We don’t actually have to sit around watching Zoom for the rest of our lives. The most obvious people who have that $50,000 sitting around are the major commercial producers, who are sort of like twiddling their thumbs and not knowing how to help artists right now. You know, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Greg Nobile [theatre producer] was one of those commercial producers that helped out with Circle Jerk as well.

Harris is given $250,000 from HBO per year to invest in theatre, he discloses; he gave $50,000 of that to Circle Jerk and $20,000 to Heroes. (Talk about re-investing your money in artists!) Everyone was paid for each, with Heroes raising over $33,000 in donations, despite being “free” to attend. Both shows were seen by thousands of people. It’s unquestionably a success and a potential model for future theatre productions. (As Helen Shaw rightly points out in the interview, however, both shows already had received a serious investment of time and money from the theatre community in previous years.)

The biggest leverage points for theatre are money, marketing, and access — potentially in that order. We need institutions and individuals (barring government funding) to support artists in profound ways with money, holistically investing in them as artists, and trusting that they will then invest that money in other artists in turn. In order to get people to come to theatre, we need better marketing; figures like Harris, who have used the internet and their platform so well, are exemplary figures in doing the work to get more high profile people interested in theatre. Finally, we need better access, which translates to more affordable tickets and easier ways to view theatre. The internet opens up entirely new channels for access, and because of its economics—theatre can now exist for as many people as can attend its live stream!—it’s often much cheaper (or free) to attend.


# III: Glenn Greenwald goes to Substack, and the continued debate of platforms versus publishers

In big media news from the week, divisive journalist Glenn Greenwald resigned from The Intercept, the publication he co-founded, and brought his work over to Substack, the popular email newsletter for individuals (which this very newsletter is sent out with!). Substack’s tools enable writers with a broad audience to monetize quickly; influential journalists can move to publishing independently smoothly. Greenwald joins Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, and several other prominent writers on Substack (I’ll let you determine what they all have in common). They seem to have a common complaint: cancel culture and what they see as the stifling of free speech.

I’ve gone back and forth the last several years on the merit of Glenn Greenwald, but he was, at one point, a fiercely independent journalist who broke great stories. He’s always, however, been a bit of an annoying asshole on Twitter, pissing off a lot of people (sometimes in the good way, often in the bad way). Now it’s gotten to the point where he seems to argue with anyone that disagrees with him; like Taibbi and Sullivan, he’s fled to a place with no editors partially so that he can rant about what he sees as the damaging effects of so-called “cancel culture”. Here he is dismissing Kyle Chayka and the excellent media worker newsletter Study Hall, clearly without ever reading it:

today just got even more exciting because Glenn Greenwald described me as an “authoritarian cretin”

For their part, The Intercept took a brutal parting shot at Greenwald:

We have no doubt that Glenn will go on to launch a new media venture where he will face no collaboration with editors — such is the era of Substack and Patreon. In that context, it makes good business sense for Glenn to position himself as the last true guardian of investigative journalism and to smear his longtime colleagues and friends as partisan hacks. We get it. But facts are facts, and The Intercept’s record of fearless, rigorous, independent journalism speaks for itself. ))

In many ways, the platform of Substack is fantastic for writers, allowing them to publish their own work and share it with others. But as The Intercept pointed out, the era of Substack and Patreon is one where big-time writers can break free of traditional editors. The role of editors, though, is not some sort of censoring gatekeeper—Greenwald’s editor was preventing the spread of disinformation.

This tweet by @espiers has been deleted. You can try this internet archive snapshot, though!

But with the number of prominent writers (and small publications) flocking to their platform, the role of Substack has come into question. Are they a platform, or are they a publisher? (In reductive terms: Youtube is a platform, while Netflix is a publisher.) All these pro “free speech” writers move there because they think it’s a platform: they want to be their own publisher, beholden to no one. But as more and more “legitimate” information starts to pipe through Substack, and as they continue to ramp up their offerings for writers—including legal support—at what point do they have to take some amount of responsibility for what’s being published on their platform? Where is the line there? That’s the ultimate irony for me.

The same platform vs. publisher debate is happening with Spotify as they move into the world of podcasts. This week, hyper-popular podcaster and provocateur Joe Rogan—who signed a ludicrous exclusive deal with Spotify earlier this year—had on far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Jones, ironically, was recently de-platformed from major tech companies, including Spotify. But Rogan nevertheless had him on his show, albeit interrupting him frequently for awkward fact checks. Now that Spotify is effectively producing content like Joe Rogan, at what point do they need to be held responsible? It’s more difficult for them to remain neutral, as much as I’m sure they’d like to be. (Part of why Rogan’s move to Spotify was so weird is for precisely this reason: you knew he was going to have on some dangerous nutjob like Jones sooner or later.) As we press on forward with this bizarre experiment called the internet in 2020, the line between platforms and publishers is becoming hazier and hazier.


Interviewed by Nick Quah in Hot Pod, tech writer Casey Newton had a dark take on Spotify’s position:

I’ve seen this play out so many times before, and I feel like I’m watching the first act of a movie I’ve already seen. Now, the second act of that movie is: there will be more controversies about more podcasts, and then there will be a series of articles laying out the most problematic podcasts on Spotify and how much is being paid for each of them, and then there’s a continuous drumbeat of leaks from inside Spotify. Some employees quit, some employees write Medium posts about why they quit and how toxic the environment has become, and then Spotify comes out and says, “We hear you, we’re going to adopt some real community standards now, here are the new rules going forward.”


Speaking of Nick Quah and his great newsletter Hot Pod, there was a big profile of him written recently with a very dumb headline and slant, positioning Quah as some nifty Malaysian Immigrant outsider. Delia Cai’s short teardown of that profile is well worth a read.


# notes from the week

—👾 I loved Celine Song’s The Seagull on The Sims 4, which I touched on briefly last week. Celine really did try to recreate Anton Chekhov’s famous play on the popular video game, and it really was something. It’s still available to watch on her Twitch, though I assume you’ll miss out on a big part of it, which was the experience of watching it live with the chatroom. It definitely pushed the boundaries of is this theater?, but I enjoyed it as both an experiment in liveness and a fearless exercise in adaptation. Twitch remains an underutilized platform for theatre companies. I also learned from my friend Cassidy, who used to run a Tumblr of creating the Radiohead lads in Sims, of the term Machinima – referring to digital art made from games, of which this kind of The Sims roleplaying might fall into. It’s a weird world out there, folks!

—📬 I’m into the idea of temporary “pop up” newsletters like Craig Mod’s new daily one entitled Pachinko Road. It follows Mod’s walk along the Tōkaidō highway in Japan; each issue, he sends a photograph and some short writing and asks for an anonymous response and a picture. At the conclusion, some will be responded to with more extended essays, and some will be shaped into some sort of book. Weird internet/analog lo-fi crossover stuff like this is great.

—🗺 Speaking of mixing the internet and analog, I loved this great little personal piece about the author moving back to Wisconsin, featuring an excellent use of maps and interactive web design.

—📹 Jason Concepcion is leaving The Ringer and going to Crooked Media. He leaves behind the great NBA Desktop and Binge Mode, but I’m excited to see what strange internet concoctions Concepcion cooks up next.

—🦠 A fantastic visualization of how COVID-19 is transmitted through the air in different settings.

—🛰 SpaceX’s Starlink promises to give high-speed internet to the entire world delivered from satellites in space…no cell towers required. Apparently, it works?.


# end note

Lovably, here’s what happens when you feed the Windows 95 startup sound into OpenAI Jukebox algorithms and have them attempt to finish the song.

⫷⫸

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Till next time,

-Gus

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