Does culture need an industry?

Louis CK, who is selling his recent stand-up special for $5 on his website

Greetings from an unusually relaxed Monday around the Combat! blog offices, where we have been drinking coffee and arranging terrariums to catch some unusual Montana sunlight. Even my relaxation takes the form of compulsion, but at least everything is nourished. As any homosexual shut-in will tell you, plants make food from sun and water. I tend to think culture works the same way, in that out of the dirty, damp business of society grow a few arts, works and artists that are rad. Really, it doesn’t happen like that. Culture comes from a culture industry—or it has for the last sixty-some years.

Consider the music industry. When I loved nothing above punk rock, the phrase “music industry” was a sort of epithet for all forces opposed to human endeavor. The Blue Meanies would be a hugely successful band, were it not for the powerful ignorance of the music industry. In fact the Blue Meanies were not hugely successful because very few people want to listen to that type of music, which in the late nineties had to be distributed on an independent record label called Asian Man. Not enough people listened to them so they didn’t make it big, and they weren’t big so the music industry didn’t make people listen to them.

You didn’t have to be a 20 year-old college student with a mohawk to identify the villain in that system: it was the industry. Either that or it was the problem of efficiently distributing plastic discs in varying numbers and combinations to different locations in the United States based on how many you guess people want to buy. Interestingly, the latter has evaporated almost completely thanks to data compression and broadband internet. That is how, for example, Louis CK is selling his own stand-up special as a $5 download direct from his website.

Note that probably he could not make a million dollars by doing so if it weren’t for the culture industry. Louis CK looms high in popular consciousness thanks to his rad show on FX and—based on sheer number of talk show appearances and New York Times articles—a good publicist. But his stand-up special as a discrete unit is industry-free. It raises the possibility of culture without an industry, save the servers and transactors that make distributing that culture possible.

Take this purple drank mixtape.* I can’t stop listening to it since I stole it off BitTorrent, which I didn’t need to do because A$AP Rocky is giving it away for free. Maybe they’re just trying to figure out my address so they can come over and sleep with my girl, as they keep threatening to do, or maybe it is a better proposition for them to give their music away on the internet than to distribute it via the music industry. Exciting corollary: maybe the apparatus that rendered upon us Black Eyed Peas is not necessary.

The aforementioned BitTorrent kind of broke it either way. Of course I would never download a movie from the internet, since that is stealing and also they enforce it, but a similar thing is happening to the film industry on a smaller scale. Not coincidentally, the digitization of music and film has coincided with the availability of digital tools that make making music and movies cheaper, and probably easier. It is possible that less expensive production plus very cheap distribution will replicate conditions of cultural growth that preceded the culture industry.

Remember that culture? When Europe produced like nine books a year and two of them were by Newton? That extremely important but also hard and sickly culture faced a distribution problem that makes 1996 Asian Man records look like the iTunes Store. While culture without an industry is not unprecedented, mass distribution without an industry is. So the question: which problems of the withering culture industry were problems of distribution, and which were problems of massification?

I knew the Blue Meanies were doomed because they wouldn’t cater to the homogenizing demands of the record industry. But weren’t those the demands of the record-wanting public? Viral videos and YouTube stardom have given us Justin Bieber and that Friday girl. Have they given us a Violent Femmes? No, because most people like stuff that sucks. For maybe the first time in history, though, you can make the numbers work by scraping together the small portion of us who don’t. That is a reason to feel good on Monday, right there.

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  1. I would just like to say for the record, I sleep with no one partially or fully named ASAP, even if you do throw some dolla $ign$ in there.

  2. If you like ASAP Rocky (in particular his production), you should check out Clams Casino’s instrumental mixtape. Also free. Appropriately, all his beats are made of samples, chopped, screwed, sped up, etc. He would type random words into Limewire (“weird” or “cold” or whatever) and just download whatever popped up and repurpose it.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Dan. This is subject is fascinating. I think it’s important to distinguish between objets d’culture and Culture, however.

    Sure, Louis CK (who is, as stated, rad) can distribute his stand-up special in novel and, I’m sure, lucrative ways. And A$AP Rocky can get paid millions of dollars to appropriate other peoples’ work and brag ruthlessly over top of it in “new” and “interesting” ways. We have developed and been given new methods for creating and distributing objets d’culture. For artists, and fans, it’s hard to argue that that’s not a good thing.

    What impact this has, or will have, on Culture (i.e. society, civilization, the broader human experience, etc.), though, remains a big — and, I think, important — question. I think you can make the argument that the rise of the Internet, and associated distribution channels, has led to a fracturing of culture, but not necessarily an improvement of it.

    It’s great for Independent Artist ABC and his/her fans that he/she can get his/her work out to people more easily; but by circumventing the Industry Meritocrats, and their in-built checks on quality (set vaguely around median tastes), how many people will actually see it? It’s unreasonable to predict that anything released these days will become a unifying Cultural touchstone, that it will be anything more than “hot”. The only realistic hope is that one’s work fits into a meme or becomes a meme itself. Memes grab people’s attention, and they’re great fun, but do they provide a basis for Culture? The latest meme is always better than the last, and memes are highly demographically distributed. “Hold my dick, Darren Sharper,” or whatever, appeals to different groups of people than “All ur d00ds,” or whatever. Capital-C Culture is experience of the 50th percentile, not the tastes of a subgroup, however rabid or tied-in.

    The culture industry kept good work down, for sure. (Why wasn’t Sebadoh everybody’s favorite band? for example.) But, as pointed out above, that was because that work, good or otherwise, wasn’t seen as a money-making opportunity. But this structure didn’t keep all good work down. Many of the best cultural contributions come from “outsider” artists bubbling through the cracks, condoned and then supported by the industry: Prince, Talking Heads, NWA, Nirvana, DF Wallace, Cormac McArthy, Alan Moore, etc. Industry people took risks on these artists because they loved them. People don’t enter the music or publishing industries because they hate art. They are not your enemies, artists; they merely have different incentives.

    What we are experiencing today is individual self-interest dictating what we see and here, rather than broader, institutional or Cultural, self-interest. Without presuming some broader narrative or perspective, I’m not sure we can say which structure is better. But, I will say, I’d rather have neighbors and coworkers I can relate to than A$AP Rocky, or even Louis CK.

    The Internet’s an interesting thing, an interesting cultural-technological development, and I’m not sure we, as a society, are equipped to wrangle with all its implications and potential outcomes. I know there are at least three people who have written on this page who rely on the Internet for at least part of their vocation or avocation. Are we really the best people to analyze whether or not the Internet is a good thing for Culture and society? We have a dog in the fight.

  4. The Blue Meanies not only failed because the industry didn’t want them, but because they bit the hand that fed them, i.e., their audience.*

    * In the interest of full disclosure, when I was 13 or so I saw them play in Ft. Worth, Texas while visiting my sister at college. While they were on stage, they announced that they needed a place to stay. I coerced my sister’s roommates to let them stay at their apartment. They proceeded to make fun of me for the next 8 hours or so while staying in the apartment where I’d arranged for them to stay. The jags.

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