or The Start-Ups We’ve Got vs. The Start-Ups We Need
It’s sometime in the late 1950s and Willem de Kooning and John Cage are sitting at a diner having lunch. De Kooning makes a frame with his fingers, he puts it around some breadcrumbs that had spilled onto the counter, and he proposes a thought experiment: “If I put my fingers around these breadcrumbs, it doesn’t make it art,” he says. Cage disagrees. Sixty years later and lets move past the question and continue the thought experiment: If I had those very same breadcrumbs, preserved, in a glass case on my coffee table, how much money would they be worth today? Could anyone question their value or their artistic merit?
The frame is our attention – and it roughly correlates to the size of the audience for a particular piece of art or music or film. So if business models today are only focused on the profitability of two types of frames: the massive mass-market and the and the tiny micro-niche, then there might be some rough waters ahead.
Anyone, anywhere, can listen to Britney Spears, at any time. Culture’s going digital, and as it does, the physical and economic boundaries that once constrained a movie or book or CD – limiting exposure to places where the objects could be bought, and limiting their use to those who can afford them – these boundaries are disappearing. New businesses are being designed to optimize search and to create perfect recommendation engines. By creating a single, massive, interconnected audience, we monetize culture by either connecting huge numbers of people to a few mega-hits – like hollywood blockbusters and Lady Gaga – or by maximizing the profitability of huge amounts of highly-niche ‘long-tail’ materials.
The danger is that we lose the middle. The artistic achievements created by full-time artists and creatives aimed at an audience in the thousands or tens-of-thousands. And these middle-market producers are, possibly, the entire reason that we create.
It’s quite a moment for us in the culture-for-sale factories. The 20th Century culture-pedlar like, say, Random House, could never get off the ground today’s digital markets. Just imagine the pitch: “We want to publish a little of this, a little of that. You know, publish things we like, at random.” Forget the fact that the company would rely on shipping massive amounts of wood pulp, all over the country – the very principle of a randomly curated culture industry is completely ‘unscalable’ in today’s marketplace.
Because selling culture is really just putting a frame around it, companies like Random House (or Hollywood Studios, or TV news) could be successful frame-makers simply by controlling the access to distribution, bookstores, critics, printing-presses, bandwidth and so on. Now that those control are eroding, anyone can start a frame-shop… So why aren’t we witnessing an explosion of independent media? Why aren’t, for example, new publishing houses making headlines with the latest bestseller?
‘Scalable’ is a good hot topic worth hating. Every new media business plan seems focused on being the next Facebook, and not the next Shakespeare and Co.. We’re spending countless hours trying to innovate ways for everyone to have access to the same handful of songs, rather than seeking ways to make an economically viable band that has a few thousand fans. Ever since google proclaimed itself a ‘media company’ it been going down hill…
Well, except for music. There, the big companies screwed things up so royally that they forced a regime-change and created some real openings for independent media.
One of the more interesting movements taking place today in the music is to price products that try and take advantage of the entire demand curve and appeal directly to small groups of passionate supporters – often friends and family. Kickstarter may have been one of the first ‘fan sourced’ companies, but my friend (and cousin) Benji Rogers over at Pledge Music has really refined the system for music acts. Basically, the way that such sites work is by creating numerous levels that people can contribute towards a artifact (book, film, record, etc…). For $5 I can get a .pdf or an .mp3 of the final product, for $50 I can get a signed LP, for $500 I can come to the recording session. Originally, they thought the average contribution, per fan, would be somewhere in the $10-$20 range – they have since discovered that its higher. In many cases, much, much higher.
The other interesting thing about fan-sourced culture is that it seems to take us back to a more ancient and possibly authentic place in the history of art. When cavemen drew bisons on their walls, they weren’t doing it for a million strangers all over the planet, but for their friends and families and the few hundred or thousands they imagined would see them there. With Pledge Music, an album is supported by the few hundred or thousand people who are friends, family, and fans of the band. The people who already know the band’s story, and who want to be part of it, contribute. By contributing, I take a part in the creative process.
And I think this is important. I think it might even fulfill some deep evolutionarily derived instinct in human nature. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After we are healthy, safe, social and psychologically secure, we are programmed to be creative. Perhaps this itch can be scratched by outsourcing – the way that I, for example, outsource my views on Israel/Palestine to my cousin Ali because I can’t possibly keep up with all the material and because he does…
Maybe we can start dreaming up more business models that allow wealthy patrons to subsidize the economic realities of creatives – bring back the patronage model, in a sense. It never really went away (German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provided sizable stipends to numerous poets and artists to subsidize their work – without his patronage, we might not have Trackl’s poetry or Rodin’s sculptures) but we need new start-ups that allow people with considerable disposable incomes to discover and subsidize those who are engaged in full-time creativity. It would also, incidentally, be good for domestic unemployment.
So we should stop thinking of content as a scaleable enterprise, and start trying to innovate and encourage ways to create conversations (around any kind of culture) that number in the thousands. Digital capitalism has a tendency to aggregate businesses towards the blockbuster and the very niche at the expense of the middle – so we need new, walled markets that promote that center space.
As a warning, think about poetry. For most of human history, poetry was the highest of arts. Today, you can count on one hand the number of working poets who are neither part-time teachers nor independently wealthy. And you probably wouldn’t need your thumb or index-finger.
Poetry is neither niche-enough to be provided for by fringe grants and specialist publications, nor mainstream enough to be ‘scaleable.’ It’s somewhere in the middle – and it’s in trouble.
We’re in danger of loosing that middle. That place where society takes a turn for the weird, tries new things out… The place where subcultures are born. Get too few people involved in a conversation and it’ll turn to inside baseball or discussions of aunt Alice’s pumpkin pie. Too many people, and it’s just becomes vapid. Somewhere in the middle of this demand curve, with just the right number of people involved, and cultural can serve the function that it was evolutionarily designed to serve. It can become more than a song – it becomes a possible future. That is, if it excites the right group of people at the right time, culture can become a subculture, or an ideology, or a movement.
Remember – I’m talking about audience and market-share here – these are the things that culture is made of – and not about any mythical properties of beauty or aesthetics. Cage proved it with his breadcrumbs, and it’s even more elegantly displayed in the youtube clip of his 4’33 performed at the Royal Albert Hall (go check it out – be sure to watch the whole thing). There, silence (or nothing), marketed appropriately, is elevated to the highest of arts. Since all content is more-or-less the same, I’m really talking about the size of the frame that’s in danger – and that our business models need to consider.
Think of the polynesians for a minute. There they are, in this gorgeous island paradise, surrounded by coconuts and dolphins and great surfing and fresh shellfish and a group of them gets together and decides, ‘Fuck it – let’s build some canoes and sail off in some random direction for gods-know how long on the off chance that we just might find another empty, gorgeous island paradise.’ Hundreds of miles, in open outriggers, through shark-infested waters. And they did it again and again – settling almost the entire South Pacific in a few hundred years. A lot of small bands of Polynesians probably died along the way… But imagine if the whole lot of them went in the same direction at the same time (or just one or two)… The result would’ve been pretty different.
If culture is the exploratory arm of human progress, if it builds the frames that we use to understand our possible futures and better appreciate our present, then it may not matter what the contents are as long as we have all different sizes of frames.
In music, the failure of large labels to adapt quickly enough opened a huge opportunity to reverse the trend of the late-nineties and revive numerous mid-frame industries and business models. Independent labels cater to smaller audiences and sell fewer albums, while bands supplement a larger amount of there income through touring. New web-business like Pledge Music are creating other interesting ways to fund mid-framed music. Today, despite album sales that are less than half what they were just ten years ago, we’re experiencing a renaissance of interesting, independent music and musical forms. But will the same hold for books or independent films or any of the smaller culture industries that are yet to undergo the digital transformation?
Although some companies, like O/R Books ,are beginning to rise to the challenge, we haven’t quite figured out how to encourage and support the small- to medium-scale writers. And we certainly haven’t figured out how to save poetry. The human instinct for creativity, combined with our unquenchable need to waste time and talk about it, will always ensure that there is money out there to support independent arts – and it will ensure that there are always artists. Entrepreneurs, however, need to stop trying to be the next Facebook and focus on creating pathways that will allow investors, and those with large amounts of disposable income, to outsource their creativity. To support the middle section of the demand curve, to create new ideas and new subcultures, and to explore our collective future.