Old Hag is back–and writing poetry!
Archives for November 4, 2003
The moment of truth has arrived. The long-awaited paperback edition of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken is now officially on sale. To repeat myself for the umpteenth time, If each and every one of you clicks on the link and orders at least one (1) copy for gift-giving purposes (assuming you don’t already own a copy of the hardcover edition for yourself, and if not, why not?), my amazon.com sales ranking will explode and I’ll be cool enough to hang out with Maud again. Besides, I think it’s a damned good book, as did the innumerable reviewers quoted on the front and back covers and inside the book. Fifty million critics can be wrong, but not this time.
So get with it, O.K.? Don’t forget, I’m going to buy Our Girl a Really Good Dinner with the royalties…and we’ll even blog about it!
“Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize.”
Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”
From the Denver Post (by way of artsjournal.com, our invaluable host), this story suggesting that pay-per-song Web sites are the wave of the musical future:
Stores will no doubt sell prepackaged music CDs for years to come, but in 2003, the power has shifted….
With at least five major paid sites now offering upward of 300,000 songs, pay-per-song has reached a marketplace mass that will both generate valuable publicity for the owners and create price-cutting competition for consumers.
More big names are poised to join the competition if their marketing surveys pan out: Dell, Microsoft and Amazon have all said they’re interested in selling downloadable songs.
Read the whole thing, including a useful box comparing the various features of the five major pay-per-song sites. What it says doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been predicting the demise of the recording industry in its present form for a number of years now, most recently in an essay published in Commentary last year (it’ll be reprinted in expanded form in A Terry Teachout Reader
under the title “Life Without Records”) in which I argued that the rise of CD-ripping, file sharing, and pay-per-song would inevitably lead to the decline of the record album:
In the not-so-long run, the introduction of online delivery systems and the spread of file-sharing will certainly undermine and very likely destroy the fundamental economic basis for the recording industry, at least as we know it today. Nor can there be much doubt that within a few years, the record album will lose its once-privileged place at the heart of Western musical culture….
Prior to the invention of the LP, musicians usually recorded not albums but specific songs or pieces of music which were released on single 78s and meant to be experienced individually. Perhaps, then, there will be no more Only the Lonelys or Kind of Blues, but only “One for My Babys” and “All Blues.” Or possibly new modes of presentation will evolve…
To be sure, this prospect is understandably disturbing to many older musicians and music lovers, given the fact that the record album has played so pivotal a role in the culture of postwar music. Nor do I claim that life without records will necessarily be better–or worse. It will merely be different, just as the lives of actors were irrevocably changed by the invention of the motion-picture camera in ways that no one could possibly have foreseen in 1900. But one thing is already clear: unlike art museums and opera houses, records serve a purpose that technology has rendered obsolete. The triumph of the digit, and the demise of the record album as culture-shaping art object, is at hand.
This piece did in fact disturb quite a few older readers, some of them musicians who had not yet envisioned the possibility of life without records. I sympathized, as I always do with those who find cultural change disorienting. What I try to do, though, is remember that different and worse aren’t always the same thing. Sometimes different is better, and sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s just different. The thing is to try to understand the nature of the difference–and, insofar as possible, to think of ways in which new culture-shaping technologies can be used in the service of old values. Yes, film has permanently usurped the place of live theater at the center of the cultural conversation. But it didn’t kill live theater–and it also gave us new ways to tell old stories, and to tell them to larger audiences than ever before, as Laurence Olivier did in Henry V and Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing.
That’s how I view life without records: as an opportunity. And I’ll feel the same way when the printed book gives way, as in time it surely must, to the hand-held electronic book-reading device. No doubt the day will come when I stop asking the Great Cultural Dealer to deal me new cards, and decide to spend the rest of my life playing with the ones already in my hand. It happens to us all sooner or later. But I’m not ready for that moment, not yet. Yes, I’m old-fashioned–but my attachment is to essences, not embodiments. And while I’m well aware of the law of unintended consequences, I also believe in the power of free men to shape and reshape those consequences.
That’s why I’m planning to buy myself an iPod for Christmas. It’s time for another card.
I went to Lileks and what did I see? “Curse you, Terry Teachout!” In boldface, yet. And how had I given offense? By mentioning that I’d written a piece about Paul Whiteman without saying where it ran. I’m innocent, innocent! The piece hasn’t run yet, but it will–in next month’s Commentary–and when it does, I’ll post a link in the “Teachout in Commentary” module of the right-hand column.
I promise. Really. Anything to keep Gnat’s dad happy.
P.S. If you’re a Lileks reader who is new to this site, click here to find out what we’re all about.
Drudge (who has been way out front on this story) quotes an unnamed “top source,” presumably from CBS, as saying that network head Les Moonves made “a brave, decisive move” in personally choosing not to air The Reagans.
Now that’s what I call brave and decisive: having your boots licked by an anonymous source inside your own shop.
Here is CBS’s official statement about its decision not to telecast The Reagans:
CBS will not broadcast THE REAGANS on November 16 and 18. This decision is based solely on our reaction to seeing the final film, not the controversy that erupted around a draft of the script.
Although the mini-series features impressive production values and acting performances, and although the producers have sources to verify each scene in the script, we believe it does not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans for CBS and its audience. Subsequent edits that we considered did not address those concerns.
A free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view. We do, however, recognize and respect the filmmakers’ right to have their voice heard and their film seen. As such, we have reached an agreement to license the exhibition rights for the film to Showtime, a subscriber-based, pay-cable network. We believe this is a solution that benefits everyone involved.
This was not an easy decision to make. CBS does tackle controversial subjects and provide tough assessments of prominent historical figures and events, as we did with films such as “Jesus,” “9-11” and “Hitler.” We will continue to do so in the future.
As a Media Person, I see a lot of press releases, and thus have learned to take most of them with a cellar of salt, but this one is striking for its comprehensive lack of candor. If you were born earlier than this morning, you don’t need me to tell you that CBS decided to pull The Reagans solely and only because of the “controversy.” They didn’t give a damn whether it was “balanced.” All they cared about was whether enough people would watch the series to make it worth broadcasting–and the firestorm of outrage among conservatives, whom one would assume to make up a large part of the target market for a network miniseries about Ronald and Nancy Reagan, left little doubt that such would not be the case.
I’m sure that everybody and his sister will be blogging about this one, and they’ll mostly be right. Of course it’s a new-media story, and of course it wouldn’t have happened five years ago. I’ve been following Big Media’s coverage of the flap over The Reagans, and just two days ago I noted with interest and amusement a wire story claiming that CBS would be pleased by the controversy, since it would inevitably increase the series’ ratings. That is soooooo last year. Those of us who blog, whatever our political persuasions, know better. Boycotts of Big Media have always been feasible in theory. (Newspapers, in case you didn’t know, take cancel-my-subscription-you-bastards letters very seriously–if they get enough of them.) In practice, though, they rarely worked, because it was too difficult to mobilize large-scale support quickly enough. No more. Fox News, talk radio, and the conservative-libertarian sector of the blogosphere have combined to create a giant megaphone through which disaffected right-wing consumers who have a bone to pick with Big Media can now make themselves heard.
All that, as I say, is pretty obvious, and need not be belabored further. Besides, this is an art-and-culture blog, not a political blog, so I want to turn to what I regard as the really interesting part of the story, which is that by relegating The Reagans to Showtime, CBS has publicly acknowledged, albeit implicitly, the growing weakness of Big Media. Now that the common culture is a thing of the past, lowest-common-denominator programming is harder and harder to pull off, as is lowest-common-denominator editing. To do it, you have to keep lowering the denominator further and further. When your overhead is as high as it is at CBS, you can’t afford to give offense, nor can you afford to be sophisticated. Above all, you don’t dare try to lead the culture anywhere it doesn’t care to go–not if your job is to keep your numbers in the black.
The new media impact on Big Media in two ways. The first is the megaphone effect I spoke about a moment ago. The second, which is of at least equal importance, is that they compete with Big Media. If you’re reading these words, you’re not watching CBS, or anybody else, nor are you sitting in a movie theater or reading a print magazine. If you’re using iTunes to download two tunes off Radiohead’s last CD, you’re not buying the CD–though you might do so at some point in the future.
Five years ago, opponents of The Reagans would have failed to sway CBS because of their inability to make enough noise. The network would have taken the “high road” and stared them down, and been praised for its courage by other Big Media outlets. And if it were only a matter of noise, CBS would have done the same thing today…but it isn’t. Today, CBS is fighting for its corporate life. So are NBC, ABC, Time, TV Guide, the Reader’s Digest, and all the film studios and record labels. They can’t afford to ignore the noise anymore, no matter which side of the political fence it comes from. And they won’t.