📚 The notes 📚
Rebuilding culture; fixing the asymmetry of art, culture and commerce
I think this essay has been sat in brain for a while now, but as ever, in my experience these things take a while to go through a sort of metamorphosis process before becoming even vaguely coherent thoughts. This time the process was aided by the impact of COVID-19 on culture and commerce, the latest edition of David Turner’s excellent Penny Fractions newsletter, and Tom Armstrong (editor of The Move) who is putting together a very special edition of the mag that’s asking different people how they’d like to rebuild culture post-COVID-19. I’m contributing some ideas, but wanted to use this space here to flesh some of them out in a first draft. Please bear in mind that this is most definitely a very rough draft. Expect typos, potentially underdeveloped thoughts, and bits of fat too – but I wanted to share the raw ideas, and hopefully you’ll find it a little interesting, a least.
Before I begin, I wanted to be clear that I’m writing this essay with a few principles in mind. These form the sort of philosophical backbone to the essay. They are;
- An artist is anyone who creates something from nothing and creates meaning where it didn’t exist before
- All artists want their stories to travel through culture and reach people
- While there are lots of proactive people looking for art, for the most people are passive and rely on gatekeepers to filter art on their behalf
It’s well documented that COVID-19 is like to have (if not already having) a catastrophic effect on culture and artists around the globe. While I genuinely believe that when artists are faced with lockdown and restrictions on their ability to create, then great art will flourish, the means by which they can make a living – and therefore their ability to continue to create – are under serious threat. If not directly (venues closing etc), then indirectly (the economy going into depression), artists and the culture that they help propel are at risk.
I know that I’m preaching to the converted here, and that I don’t need to explain why culture and art are so fundamental to society and civilisation, but I cannot help but think of that Johann Gottfried Herder quote; “culture is the life-blood of a people, and the moral energy that holds society intact”. Culture and art help us to empathise and understand each other and ourselves. The stories we tell in art help us understand the world. Art and culture aren’t window dressing to how we live, they are why we live. Our sense of cultural affiliation and the symbols that we display show people who we are, and who we want to be. It creates belonging and connection, and gives us purpose beyond our primitive needs and desires.
COVID-19 has not caused this crisis though, it’s merely tipped the leaning tower over. Artists and culture have been under threat and pressure for decades, existing in a precarious and asymmetrical relationship for a long time. Most artists want their work to be seen, read, or heard, but the route to an audience has been under strict control for a long time. I’ve spent my adult life obsessed with understanding how ideas and art move from person to person (and group to group) through culture – which is how I ended up doing what I do for a living. Every culture is made up of different ideas, art, and symbols that best define that culture at that moment in time. Tracking the diffusion (spread) of each idea through a network (culture) sounds pretty boring and like I’m ignoring the art side of culture, but understanding how ideas move is fundamental to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different ideas and cultures. If we can build on the strengths and resolve some of the weaknesses, we can reduce inequality and asymmetry in culture(s).
As it stands, there are two types of filter on how ideas spread through culture; there’s gatekeepers (like editors, curator/buyers, or record label execs), and then there’s distribution platforms (the radio, streaming platforms, magazines, physical galleries). Sometimes these two are tied together, sometimes they act independently, but most of the time they don’t act in the best interest of the artist or the art, and this is where the asymmetry exists. Most artists aren’t driven by commercial desires, but by cultural ones; which enables gatekeepers and distribution platforms that are driven by commercial desires to take advantage. This classic Steve Albini essay from 1993 is a great demonstration of the asymmetry that exists in music – and while the essay focuses on music, the issues stretches across most of arts and culture.
The internet was supposed to democratise arts and culture. It reduced the cost of distribution of art to virtually zero – but that then created a negative knock-on effect whereby because the value of the format and distribution was radically reduced, the value of the work itself was also drastically diminished. People didn’t know what they were paying for before (the art, not the format), so when they didn’t have to pay for the format, the value of the art became psychologically reduced too. Pre-internet, seeing the work of Basquiat meant buying his work, visiting a gallery, or buying a book to see it. Now people can use an image search and boom, there it is.
This reduced cost of distribution also meant that in principle any one could become a creator if their work had meaning and resonated. They could ‘hustle’ their way to an audience online, market themselves and build a ‘direct’ relationship. There’s a lot of examples of modern artists that made it through this time and became world famous, shaping mainstream culture along the way. However this lowering of the barriers to entry for art created a huge fragmentation in art and culture. The removal of geographical limitations meant that art, ideas, and culture was now truly borderless – ‘tribes’ splintered off, and it created a true ‘middle’ that didn’t exist before. At one end was globally famous artists, at the other hobbyists, and this enlarged new ‘middle’ space meant that you didn’t have to have be a worldwide superstar to make a living. The difficulty was that this explosion meant people became oversaturated with art – there’s always something new to look at, read, listen to, or watch.
Then the gatekeepers and distribution platforms appeared again. They quickly took away the burden of choice, and started promoting content based on what the individual liked before. This isn’t limited to music; it’s virtually all art and ideas. The new rules were really the old rules, but with a new sting in the tale. Now because people had become used to paying very little (or not paying at all) for art and ideas, it became difficult for the gatekeepers driven by commerce to make as much money. So they used the distribution platforms as a battering ram. They withheld the content of the artists that they managed and represented, in order to gain virtually unreasonable commercial terms for granting access to that art. They then took the lions share, and left pittance for the artists – but got the platforms to pass on the pittance. It’s best explained through an example; let’s take Spotify. Spotify is the perfect foil for record labels; each major record label has an incredibly lucrative deal with Spotify that gives Spotify access to their artists, in return Spotify provides a disproportionate amount back (shares, access payments, royalty payments, discounted advertising, penalty charges for insane things – for more, have a good read of this here). The kicker is that from an artists perspective, Spotify pays tiny royalties, but from Spotify’s perspective, it pays out an enormous amount of money to the major labels, who don’t pass that money on. Spotify could never talk about that because it would jeopardise it’s relationship with the labels, so instead it becomes a punch bag for artists. If it was possible, the asymmetry between commerce and culture has skewed even further over the last decade, and this is going on all over culture.
So with artists and creators making even less money than before, and being largely dis-intermediated from their audience by platforms that make (often passive) consumption more convenient and easy, the only way they’ve had of generating real income has been through flash-in-the-pan monetisation ideas, and live performances and touring. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and all of a sudden the entire ecosystem comes crashing down. While there have been a number of government funded programmes in the past, and there will undoubtedly be more introduced due to COVID-19, those programmes tend to exacerbate the underlying issues with how art and ideas spread through culture. They don’t change the system, they just enable people to exist a little longer in the same broken system.
So what now?
Well, first things first, gatekeepers and distribution platforms are, of course, here to stay. However, I do see an opportunity is in helping address the asymmetry. Right now emerging and smaller established artists rely on gatekeepers and distribution platforms for two things; initial financial support and guidance, and access to a bigger audience. I know that many gatekeepers and platforms provide much more than that, but at a lowest common denominator level, it’s those two things that remain. As we move out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and survey the damage done to culture, there’s going to be an opportunity to rebuild culture and the infrastructure that supports art and ideas in a different way. At the moment the asymmetry on finding investment and reaching an audience that exist means that pool of opportunity stays small – but I think there’s another way, that gives me power to artists, and can reduce inequality and asymmetry in culture(s).
Brands as patrons of the arts and culture.
For centuries the rich and wealthy invested in the arts and culture, by becoming patrons to artists. They provided investment, materials, and a platform for artists to create and share their work. For the majority of patrons, it was seen as a way of reinvesting their wealth in society and culture. A way of giving back. As we emerge from COVID-19, I think attitudes towards unadulterated capitalism are going to change (and frankly, have to change). Businesses that have made enormous amounts of money are going to be judged much more harshly on their behaviours and attitudes towards supporting society and civilisation. Brands as patrons already exists, to an extent, in sports. Businesses like Nike invest huge amounts of money into training facilities, equipment, stadiums, and individual sports stars at a grass roots level. Of course this is done under the banner of sponsorship, and those sports stars endorse Nike in return. What I’m suggesting isn’t the same, but it’s similar. Businesses investing in grassroots culture, sacrificing their own short term gain, in order to build a sustainable culture for the future. Doing good.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking that that introduces another potentially exploitative stakeholder into an already asymmetrical relationship held by artists. In fact, this tweet by Josey Rebelle explains the challenge perfectly. Now, I really look up to Josey Rebelle, and this isn’t a criticism of her at all, but instead an insight into the perceptions that exist about the connection between commerce and culture. It’s a very binary view that creates an adversarial relationship between artists and business. The inconvenient truth is that art, culture, and commerce have always been intimately connected. Setting aside the ‘selling’ of art (which is maybe the most obvious connection), businesses and brands have always played a pivotal role in culture. It’s virtually impossible to think of a modern culture that doesn’t have a strong tie to at least one brand. Brands and products – along with art and ideas – help us to create our self-identity, and act as symbols of the cultures that we belong too.
I think that what many people resent is brands that behave badly and steal or misappropriate culture and art, but this is where the binary approach isn’t helpful. There are, of course lots of examples of brands behaving badly, but there are also countless examples of brands doing something culturally valuable. WeTransfer funding worldwide.fm, LVMH building Nowness, Red Bull, Converse, LEGO – there are loads of great examples. Many of the best agencies and marketers have made their name by understanding how commerce and culture work together – best put in this quote from Dylan Williams, one of the best marketers of our generation; “we [brands] used to start with commerce and work out to the culture, and now we need to start with culture and work back to commerce”. The very best brands in the world understand this already – that’s why they’re the best. Over the years, I’ve worked from a really simple framework to think about how brands and culture work together;
- Bad brands misappropriate culture
- Good brands platform culture
- Great brands invest in culture
It’s overly simplistic, and it’s only a few steps up from the original binary argument – but hopefully it shows that there is good that can come from artists and culture being more closely connected with commerce and business. It also brings huge benefits to everyone involved too. It puts the artist back in charge. They have choice over who they work with, they can ensure that their values align with who they’re working with, and make sure that they’re culturally appropriate. It gives the artist investment, support, and access to an audience. And because they’re in control of the relationship, the brand can then become an ally – reducing the asymmetry with the gatekeepers and the distribution platforms. For the brand, it demonstrates a long term commitment to doing something important and good, as well as providing them with a greater insight into how culture works. Most importantly for culture more broadly, the artist can work with that brand to make sure that they’re putting their money where their mouth is – investing in culture, rather than investing in messaging.
This isn’t about having a massive brand partnering with Taylor Swift on a new skincare range. It’s about investing time and money in the edges of culture – giving artists financial help and guidance, and providing them with a platform to help spread their ideas. This isn’t about repurposing symbols from culture in advertising to show understanding. It’s about helping the voices that created and developed those symbols to continue to develop them. This isn’t about virtue signalling or ‘corporate social responsibility’. It’s about doing actual good, and investing in the future of culture, because when we come back to Johann Gottfried Herder; “culture is the life-blood of a people, and the moral energy that holds society intact”.
This can only work if we begin to dismantle the adversarial view of business – and that means businesses have to do a better job at appreciating and investing in culture, and artists have to widen their views when it comes to working with businesses. Commerce has indirectly fuelled culture for a long time – the advertising revenue generated from brands is invested by distribution platforms back into content – but that relationship is becoming increasingly asymmetrical. Commerce and culture working more closely together will help address that imbalance. Ultimately, that’s how we rebuild culture, spread great ideas further, and create a legacy that goes beyond revenues and profits. It’s how we rebuild culture, and society ❤️