Much of the big shift in our culture right now is a re-ordering of power. For the past 50 years, mass culture, fueled by TV, has been a dominant power. When success is measured in millions of eyeballs (or ears), quality is a secondary commodity. Mass culture has permeated the ways we think about all culture.
Power in the mass culture model is controlled by gatekeepers – the TV networks, radio stations, record producers, publishers. They had power because they could afford expensive cameras and studios and recording equipment essential to making things and getting them to an audience. Some of the “talent” – the musicians, actors, writers, journalists – did very well in this model if their work found a huge audience. The vast majority of musicians, actors, writers, and journalists did considerably less well.
The mass culture model only works when the means of creation and distribution are limited in some way – a small number of TV channels available, for example. One could think of the record companies or the TV networks as middlemen who were essential for an artist to connect with a large audience.
But the online world has largely been a revolution of plenty. Now anyone can make studio-quality recordings, professional-looking books or movies or radio shows. So goodbye to the middleman, right?
Nick Carr says not:
For much of the first decade of the Web’s existence, we were told that the Web, by efficiently connecting buyer and seller, or provider and user, would destroy middlemen. Middlemen were friction, and the Web was a friction-removing machine.
We were misinformed. The Web didn’t kill mediators. It made them stronger. The way a company makes big money on the Web is by skimming little bits of money off a huge number of transactions, with each click counting as a transaction. (Think trillions of transactions.) The reality of the web is hypermediation, and Google, with its search and search-ad monopolies, is the largest hypermediator.
So the web did away with old gatekeepers and is replacing them with new ones. Gatekeepers have always had power over people who make things. Carr writes that:
When a middleman controls a market, the supplier has no real choice but to work with the middleman – even if the middleman makes it impossible for the supplier to make money. Given the choice, most people will choose to die of a slow wasting disease rather than to have their head blown off with a bazooka. But
that doesn’t mean that dying of a slow wasting disease is pleasant.
So who are the mediators/gatekeepers/middlemen in the arts? At the most basic level, they’re the artistic directors and a system of talent scouts and producers who build careers. Some of this power has waned in recent decades. Gone are the days when a Sol Hurok could make a star or a Tchaikovsky Piano Competition winner have an instant career.
Critics at newspapers, the most powerful of whom legendarily could “close a show” with a bad review also wielded great power. But with arts coverage falling off the pages of the local press and the local press falling off the edge of who knows what, critics are not the gatekeepers they once were even if they’re still around.
Now artists can produce their own work and often distribute and promote it better than the old channels could. But one can imagine so many voices braying for attention that just being able to make and get one’s art out to an audience doesn’t mean that there’s an audience interested in it.
So it’s back to the middlemen. Right now, it’s unclear who or what are going to emerge as the new mediators in the arts. We have access to too much stuff for it to make sense, and no media has grown to dominate the middleman function in the new arts economy. So far everyone’s making do with their own ways of dealing with information overload.
Once, an arts organization that could hype its shows and sell tickets
online might have an advantage in the marketplace. Now there’s no advantage
because everyone does it. It was a novelty for a theatre to be on Facebook or a dance company to have its own YouTube channel. No longer.
Slowly we’re beginning to see familiar behavior reassert itself. We’re told that social networking sites such as Second Life and MySpace are dying as Facebook and Twitter grow, perhaps because some people who have established their online communities want to be able to have fresh starts online the way they do in real life.
If people trade off their online communities are they also becoming less loyal to their offline communities? If we assume that there is still a need for middlemen and that the old middlemen are falling away, what’s going to replace them? And where does the new arts organization position itself, with technology and without it?