By the mid-aughts, a day job was no longer an inconvenience but an aspiration, and attitudes toward it changed. The work writers could get at corporations—as listings editors or fact-checkers—may have remained secondary to artwork in their minds, but that work, so much less reliably available than before, demanded a new level of effort to find and to keep. Not only one’s position but one’s entire department could, without much warning, disappear.
These writers and copy editors were among the many who, faced with limited resources and their own cultural omnivorousness, came home each night eager to download MP3s, PDFs, and other digital copies of artworks and research they would otherwise be unable to access. Around the reality of these thefts a powerful ideological movement emerged, taking as its inspiration not just facts on the ground but also the libertarian, antigovernment, “hacker” spirit of the earliest personal computing and internet communities. The apostles of the Free Culture movement, as it came to be called, argued that stealing digital content was a progressive politics and should be brought into the open. Some of these apostles were hucksters and profiteers, others were merely hypocrites (who preached the virtues of free from their perches as well-paid magazine editors or college or law school professors), but still others, like the freeware hacker Aaron Swartz, were true believers. Congress had allowed copyright protections to be rewritten by huge corporations (most notably Disney) to become a parody of a law. If what was being illegally downloaded was some of the best that had been thought or said by human beings, and the downloaders were people who couldn’t afford the purchase price of the books or movies (some of which were expensive)—wasn’t that a good thing?
Free Culture ideology appeared to be approaching mainstream consensus when the 2008 recession made users feel, both rightly and perversely, that culture–producing corporations were fragile. In book publishing that year, hundreds of midcareer editors, writers, publicists, and other industry workers were pushed out. In the first week of December alone, the Observer reported a “massive reorganization” with layoffs to follow at Random House; a reorganization and layoffs at Macmillan; layoffs at Simon & Schuster; and an acquisitions freeze and layoffs at Houghton Mifflin. Some of these people eventually found new publishing jobs, but the industry had contracted. Many were the twentysomethings who had sold out in the Nineties and now, a decade later, ran up against the possibility that they no longer had anything to sell.
What could a no-longer-young person do in this situation? Many turned to the digital platforms that, even before the recession, had been putting magazines and newspapers out of business. So it came to happen that postrecession digital startups were helmed not only by young people and risk takers but also out-of-work publishing veterans. ...
The Free movement had a few professorial spokespeople and millions of adherents; antifree was a small group of interested artisans speaking up for the dignity of being gainfully employed. As antifree grew beyond the small world of left-wing blogs, it attracted 25-year-olds who objected to being paid $50 by a corporate website that presumed them lucky to get the experience. It attracted veteran journalists who balked at being asked to write for a large, profitable magazine’s website for chump change. And it attracted unpaid interns, who at profitable media corporations (ranging from Condé Nast to Gawker), actually filed suit for violations of labor laws. These were individual stories, but they added up. The entities that had once supported journalists and writers were now doing their best not to pay them for the simplest of reasons: they could get away with it.
What's been interesting to read is how different strands of the Left have differed on whether or not the decline of the middlebrow is even a bad thing. This may be a category mistake because TV and film and mass media haven't gone anywhere. We live in an era in which it's easy to highlight how six ostensibly different country songs all kinda sound the same.
Absent financial compensation artists and writers don't just make work for free, they functionally make it at their own expense and at a loss unless there is what people call "cultural capital". Another way of putting it is that an artist who isn't paid in money might gain some form of exposure or prestige or a recognized role within a social unit.