What made the creative industries different then, may not be so potent now.

Management consultants tend to come in two types; generalists and industry specialists. I’m the second type. If I was of the first type, I might tell you (as many have told me) that all businesses are essentially the same – you can consult as effectively to a chair maker as you would to an international arms dealer, because all businesses boil down to the creation of profit via a production process of some kind.

I have always maintained that creative industries businesses are different (well, I would, wouldn’t I? I’m an industry specialist). My point is that a creative work constructs value in a very different way. The profit generated by a chair can be traced through the cumulative addition of each of its components, up to completion when it can be sold for an amount which covers the cost of its production and then some. The profit created by, say, a hit song, is a dependent on a far more complicated formula, with many more unpredictable variables.

Richard E. Caves’ (dauntingly brainy but still pleasingly readable) book Creative Industries: Contracts between Art & Commerce starts with tackling this issue of what makes the creative industries different from all the other industries. He takes an economist’s view of this question, dispassionately considering the sellers and buyers of creative transactions and assuming the perfectly rational decision-making process which underlies economic theory. He lists 7 basic economic properties of creative industries, which, I think, describe the unique combination of complexities which influence the production of creative work.

Caves’ basic economic properties of creative industries

Name of property Summary Detail
Nobody Knows Demand is uncertain. It is almost impossible to tell how a creative product will be valued until it is completed, and by then the costs of producing the good have already been met.
Art for Art’s Sake Creative workers care about their product. Creatives are not indifferent to the traits and features of their work. Instead, they are deeply invested in aspects such as originality, technical prowess, resolution and harmony. In short, artistic achievement.
Motley crew Some creative products require diverse skills. A creative work such as a film requires the cooperation of many different collaborators. But unlike some other collaborative endeavours, a creative work is more than just the sum of the efforts of each part of a production line. It has a “multiplicative production function”, where each input must be present and “do its job – if any commercially valuable output is to result.”
Infinite variety Differentiated products. Creative work can be simultaneously vertically differentiated (a buyer will choose between two similar products on perceived quality) and horizontally differentiated (a buyer will choose between two similar products on personal taste). And the array of choice an artist has in producing a work, and the array of creative products a buyer can choose from, making this variety infinite.
A list/B list Vertically differentiated skills. Creative producers are ranked based on quality, reputation and so on – creating a hierarchy of artists.
Time flies Time is of the essence Maximising profitability of a creative product is dependent on it being finished by a certain date.
Ars longa Durable products and durable rents Creative work can continue to generate revenue after its initial production with no additional inputs, through the exploitation of copyright.

 

I can’t recall seeing these characteristics of the creative economy expressed so clearly. I can add one more:

Name of property Summary Detail
Inspiration knows no timetable How long it will take to come up with a creative concept is unknown. Unlike other industries, where the time taken to produce a good can be accurately predicted, creative concepts can emerge quickly or slowly, and you can’t tell which it will be. This matters because the creative concept is often the component of a creative work which consumers value most and increases profitability – but it’s the part of the process which is the least predictable.

 

Meanwhile, I have been prompted by my tutorial class of Management Consulting students to think about startups and their relationship to entrepreneurship. They have been asking about the threat which start-ups might present to bigger, more established companies, and the predilection of some multi-national corporations to acquiring start-ups. I suspect that this conversation, as with so many on this topic, is actually defining “start-ups” as newly established tech companies. It’s that subset of companies which we, as a society, seem particularly enamoured of.

That particular definition, personified in sneaker wearing, tablet wielding, young tech nerds, successfully raising capital to accelerate their SAAS product’s growth, has become an early 21st century archetype. That archetype is a kind of start-up rock star; the version of an entrepreneur where everything has gone right. I worry that the far more common experience of tech start-ups – the long, lonely slog with no money, no angel investors and time rapidly running out before they need to go get a job – is rarely talked about. If there’s a rerun of the 1990s dot com crash, this time starring exhausted start-ups which never accelerated beyond a brief canter, and with investors looking for their money back – what will this do to our current idolisation of entrepreneurship?

But putting that aside, it struck me that when Caves was writing about his economic properties of creative industries, it was in the immediate shadow of that dot com crash. Caves sought – as I have done – to differentiate the creative industries from the non-creative industries, and in 2000 he could clearly do that.

Would it be so easy now? Because if we consider the new breed of tech industry startups, typically pushing an online software product, across multiple platforms but addressing distinct, almost niche, customer needs… don’t all Caves’ properties apply to them? Is it possible that the distinction between creative industries and non-creative industries (the definition of creative industries, as I’ve been describing it) is actually getting harder over time?

If so, the reason why may be that today’s emerging industries look and feel more like creative industries than traditional industries; that the promising, rock star tech industries which we all have such a crush on, actually operate more like creative industries than anything else. In which case, studying what makes creative industries tick may have much wider future use and significance.

Caves, Richard E. Creative Industries: Contracts between Art & Commerce, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
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