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Let's say you wear a big hat and had one of the most infectious, popular songs of the year. You're Pharrell Williams, and your song Happy was played 43 million times on the music-streaming service Pandora. Pretty sweet, huh? Except, according to the website Fusion, Mr. Williams made about $25,000 in royalties from Pandora for those 43 million clicks.

And that's Pharrell, who sits atop music's golden throne. If he's earning tiny digital royalties, what does that say for the artists further down the chain, in the grubby realm of mere mortals? Toronto songwriter Diana Williamson, who recently moved back from L.A., told me about a song she'd co-written that had reached 260,000 downloads and made it to No. 3 on the Billboard dance chart. She hadn't seen a penny in royalties. To complain about rip-off downloading, she said in an interview, is to invite "abuse from the mob. But if those fans were bakers, they wouldn't be giving away their croissants for free."

After 20 years in the music business, she says she's seeing songwriters "leaving in droves. If you can't make a living, if you can't afford go to the dentist, you're going to leave." This is a lament you'll hear from artists everywhere these days: We can't afford to do this any more. The well has dried up. Freelance rates are what they were when the first Trudeau was in power. Rents rose, and royalties fell. Novelists are becoming real-estate agents; musicians open coffee shops.

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The evidence of this culture shock is in front of our eyes, in the shuttered book shops and video stores and music clubs, yet it's remarkably unremarked upon. Artists don't actually to like to complain publicly about their lot in life, knowing the inevitable backlash from those who still believe that creating is not "a real job."

I mean, they're artists. They're supposed to be suffer, right? It's this very prejudice that has allowed "a great Depression" to go on right under our noses for the past decade without any outcry, American journalist Scott Timberg argues in his new book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. All the other victims of the ragged economy receive sympathy, apart from artists. "We produce and export creativity around the world," Mr. Timberg writes. "So why aren't we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? … When someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, it's easier to dismiss or sneer at their plight than when it happens to, say, a steel worker or an auto worker."

Mr. Timberg outlines the gutting of the average artist's income over the past decade. With most attention focused on the lucky, minuscule minority – the Rowlings, the Beyoncés – what has gone unnoticed is that a weak economy and rapid technological change have been ruinous for many creators. Incomes have fallen, jobs have disappeared and the formerly grotty centres of cities are now too posh for all but the wealthiest artists (at one point, he interviews a violinist with the Santa Barbara Symphony who cannot afford to live in Santa Barbara).

When the artists go, a whole ecosystem goes with them – publicists and roadies, critics and video-store clerks. Yet it's gone unlamented, for complex reasons. Artists don't generally like to moan about their economic plight, for fear of seeming ungrateful or mercenary. They are perhaps the only class of humans, apart from criminals, whom we begrudge a decent living. Their work should be reward enough, suffering is their historic lot, and on and on. This, Mr. Timberg rightly argues, is BS.

Do we value the role of artists (and their handmaidens) enough to ensure that they can actually continue to create? Or do we just want to be left with the American Idol winners and the trust fund babies? For things to change, we'd have to acknowledge that artists have a right to aspire to the security of a middle-class life, as much as any accountant or teacher. Second, we have to return to a place where people are paid for the fruits of their labour, whether they're making a car or a song.

Because I'm not Merlin, I'm not entirely sure how that will be accomplished. But we can start with the words of David Byrne, genius songwriter and outspoken advocate of getting paid, who put it this way: "Philosophically, I think the issue is: Do we always do what is best for the consumer in the short run, or do we think more long-term about our culture and quality of life?" That's not a question for people who make the art, but for the rest of us who have become used to not paying for it.

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