The Broken Business Model of Culture

I’ve been having this conversation about culture, in some form, quite a bit lately. I don’t want to sound like an anthropologist, since I have no formal training in the subject, but I have this feeling that society needs to determine a new system of producing, distributing, and consuming culture. It seems that with the advent of the “rockstar,” and all of the possible financial success that may come with that title, we’ve unintentionally slowed the growth of our collective culture as humans.

“Culture” is typically defined by anthropologists as both the capacity of a civilization to represent concepts and experiences using symbols, and the specific ways in which civilizations categorize and represent experiences. There is a tendency to put emphasis on intangibles like language, mores, norms, etc., rather than on tangible goods a society produces, but I think it all fits together since more than ever, they are codependent in their conception and continued mutual existence.

My beef with our current paradigm for making, interacting with, and consuming culture, is that there seems to be a pretty steep buy-in. Most would agree that music is a cultural phenomenon. But in our modern era, if you want to experience music, you typically have to pay for it in some way. You’ve got to buy tickets to shows, or purchase the album, or be advertised to, et. al. Using the internets to bootleg music has done a lot to offset the possible negative impact of imposing fees on cultural prizes, but this fact has obviously not been universally well-received. Almost everyone now has the ability to enjoy some piece of humanity’s artistic output, but the bootleg model for free culture is unsustainable since it only benefits the consumer and doesn’t cover the cost of production. Many artists, rightfully so, are upset at losing money that would have been derived from the legal sale of their product. If we don’t reward those contributing to culture, or at least cover their costs, we lose a big chunk of important storytelling, observation, dialog and redress.

Many culture-makers will continue to do their thing without reward, but it certainly makes things inefficient. Imagine if the Beatles had to record their best stuff while they were working shitty jobs, or if Michael Jackson was having to invent new-era pop while he was on his lunch breaks—just because some random a&r thought their stuff wasn’t the hot shit. Of course, there’s great art that has come out of those work environments. However, your favorite underground artist has probably stayed underground because of the lack of money around their endeavors, be it the lack of capital they have to actually produce their art, or the lack of funding to distribute it on a large scale. I expect there are playwrights putting words together right now that could change the world and give every person who heard them reason to pause and reflect and make the world a nicer place. Unfortunately, we’ll never hear them, because their production will never be big enough to reach the masses, no producer will ever spend the kind of money necessary to put it on a large stage, or the day-to-day trials of life leave little room for the playwright to sit down and pen the allegory that will educate us on whatever.

I think that’s kind of fucked up. It’s well documented that cultural products like stories, photographs, paintings, and songs have changed the feelings, policies, and in-turn, the fates of societies. No, it doesn’t happen all the time, but I have to wonder how many opportunities have been missed because we’ve been so hell-bent on cramming the phenomenon of human culture into a business scheme. We don’t even have to get into the “what’s art?” debate. Plenty of stuff that didn’t plan to be culturally important or symbolic of a cause became just that after society at large attached meaning.

What if Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was never published? That story enabled its immediate audience to empathize with the writer, and is still read by millions to this day. What if the photo of the little girl burned by a napalm bomb was subject to a dizzying array of licensing restrictions because we had to make sure every one involved in its distribution was getting a piece of the pie? How long would it have taken for people to get some sense of the violence and nature of war? Let’s say, for example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was never published. I have mixed feelings about the book myself, but it is widely accepted historical fact that the book itself was critical to the abolitionist movement at the time. It’s possible that publishers could have just decided to shelve the book because they didn’t expect it to be popular. Would it have taken longer for abolitionists to galvanize the skeptical supporters to act behind their cause? Admittedly, I’ve picked a couple examples that demonstrate the positive power of cultural products. Obviously, plenty of the shit being written, recorded, and published will never be of any sort of importance.

I think everyone should be rewarded for contributing to our shared culture. I’m not at all suggesting that artists should work for free, but I think the model needs to be updated. There are many instances where the public pays for the production and promotion of culture, as in the case of public radio/television, and city/state/federal-commissioned art, but it’s not like the Wu is ever going to get a government grant to do a record, not to mention the fact that public television and radio stations, museums, and all their similarly government-subsidized counterparts have to fight every day to maintain their funding.

But seriously though; what about Wu-Tang? I mean, that’s really what this is about. When are we going to step up as a people and ensure that these dudes are taken care of for the rest of their lives?