[8 January 2013]
If you’re reading this, it’s likely in January, which means that, once again, the world did not come to an end. If you’re like me, that’s a good thing because your schedule is booked pretty solid over the next 70 years and an apocalypse would certainly muck things up. If not, then just wait a few years for the next one.
So while the world did not end in 2012, it’s certainly changing more rapidly than ever. Again, if you’re like me and procrastinate getting back to work by reading year-end lists, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a trend over the past few years: the state of [insert culture or social aspect] is declining and will cease to exist in a few years. This year we were privy to several: the decline of a unified movie culture (in addition to ticket sales, though they’re up from last year); groups of people threatening to move to Canada if their team didn’t win the election (they didn’t imigrate, and not just because it’s difficult to emigrate to the Great White North); the death of the Sony Walkman (the cassette version, that is—do stores still sell cassettes?); Apple getting rid of physical storage; sweatpants as clubwear; and the end of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Every year something culture-wise is being destroyed. Is it actually true, or we simply too nostalgic about the past?
Remarkably, I’ve yet to come across an article stating the horrible state of music, popular or otherwise. It’s an argument that seems to have had its peak last decade. Bloggers and critics lamented that particular genres and artists were being ignored while corporations inundated radio with flavors of the week. The latter is still true, but the former argument seems to have fallen by the wayside. Labels and artists finally fully embraced the demons that are being blamed for the decline of other cultural issues (and attention spans): mobile technology and the Internet. The ability to sample, purchase and listen to music almost anywhere has allowed artists otherwise ignored to become popular. Likewise, the availability of music means that rare is the iPod filled with a single genre. It’s an underground concept that has been gaining momentum for years, but genres in music, even within songs, are a thing of the past. Some of it may simply sound like an ADD mash-up of whatever is popular, but the wide armed embracing of all things music by everyone from indie stalwarts to Top 40 products can only mean good things for listeners and artists looking to grow.
Of course, the Internet also causes problems. Audiences are fractured. There are so many options, that individuals can easily find something they “love” instead of just “like”. Masses no longer need to just settle amongst a few on-the-air choices. While every artist now has the ability to find an audience, not every artist perhaps gets as big of an audience as it may have 20 or 50 years ago. Justin Bieber may send teen girls screaming, but he doesn’t have the breadth or popularity percentage of something like the Beatles. And with the number of options available, and the rate at which we digest product, it doesn’t seem like anyone ever will.
This is the problem movie conglomerates are facing. While the Avengers made Scrooge McDuck levels of money and advocated the delicacies of Shawarma, and the Dark Knight brought a multi-billion dollar franchise to a close (for now), nothing seems to grab hold and dominate the cultural conscious anymore. The last movie that probably did this was Titanic; further back, think Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and Gone with the Wind. Divided audiences and other forms of entertainment seemingly no longer allow it.
Critics lament the culture of movies is falling by the wayside. Though box office records are constantly being broken, ticket sales are down and there are few movies that fit into the cultural zeitgeist. Audiences are divided: some want Hershey’s, others want the Toblerone, and some go for the chocolate covered crickets. While big budget franchises such as those mentioned above can easily double or triple their investment, the age of the excessive overly budgeted blockbuster has quickly come and gone. The most successful (percentage wise) movie this year? Soderbergh’s Magic Mike was made for $7 million, had a cast of familiar faces, and made $170 million worldwide.
A few years ago, Black Swan was made for $13 million and grossed $329 million; the King’s Speech was made for $15 million and grossed $410 million. And then there are the Paranormal Activity movies. While special effects are pretty, audiences are not just showing up for them. Whether its story, character, entertainment or Channing Tatum, movie culture isn’t dead, it’s just different. If you spend it, they won’t necessarily come; if you tell a great story, they may not, either; but it’s better to fail with $15 million spent than $200 million. Audiences are divided, but movie culture isn’t broken; it’s just different.
Part of this can be drubbed up to smart marketing, releasing films in a limited spectrum (unless they have the star power of ripped abs) to create buzz and hype. The Internet lives on buzz, hype and anything in the moment. It’s not so different from water cooler talks about Lost, but it brings up a more difficult question of getting noticed and staying relevant. How do you market to an audience that is literally flushed with millions (yes, millions) of other images everyday? Just have a few friends get their friends to share or tweet about it and watch it steamroll? It doesn’t always work, but get people to actually talk about it, remind them about with the marketing, and maybe you can have success. Advertising—like movies, like music—no longer speaks to everyone. It doesn’t even necessarily speak to single demographics, but attracting the attention of the right audience can make it something wonderful.
Ironically, what enables concepts of cultural collapse to gain traction is the same entity being blamed for the problems. The Internet allows a writer to gain an audience who can comment on and “like” his or her articles. It provides a type of positive reinforcement that continues the trend, whether by the writer or by copycats looking for website hits. But it’s also the content available through these technological distractions—like said articles—that are supposedly taking time away from traditional forms of the cultural enclave. If these ideas become widely shared, they prompt tweets, blogs and multiple posts of agreement and argument. However, using the same slippery slope argument, if there were no Internet, these problems probably wouldn’t exist, but there would also not be a medium for the authors to gage reactions.
Technology is not destroying our culture, but changing how culturally relevant something is. The success of today’s information is tied to mobile availability and cost. The former crown jewel of “just enough information”, the Encyclopedia Britannica, is discontinuing its distribution of physical volumes. While it was not explicitly stated, we can reason part of it has to do with that bastion of common-source knowledge, Wikipedia. Wikipedia is still free; Britannica is a paid service. Professors will allow students to cite Britannica as a source, but students will still use Wikipedia because it’s free (and easy). As print journalism struggles to survive in an online world where election results share headline space with Rihanna, the common thread returns to in-your-face-marketing and having information at your fingertips.
The stronger point, however, is—and this touches those cultural naysayers, as well—that commonly pooled knowledge is becoming commonly accepted fact. Even though sites like Wikipedia or any individual blogs are not valid sources, we still flock to them. It’s not quite to the level of “if its on the Internet it must be true,” but, while some things change, what is printed still seems to retain a certain level of fact. And when it is printed for free by commonly pooled sources, how can accurate, pay entities such as newspapers and Britannica survive? But then again, who is to say that even though they charge that their information is more veritable?
It can be scary when you feel technology slipping through your grasp. Even more so when you were on the cutting edge a few years ago and now find yourself plateaued. I’ll toss in the arguments that parents just don’t understand; maybe its the old generation gap or they could spend more time learning from their kids in addition to teaching them. Those individuals now on the cusp of the cultural zeitgeist will likely be lobbying similar complaints 20 years from now. Just like rock ‘n’ roll was too loud, and later hip-hop wasn’t real music and now what we hear on the radio is just noise, noise compiled from decades of pop music.
Things change, but not necessarily for the worst. The world won’t lose music—it’s been a form of art and communication for thousands of years. The world won’t lose movies or visual storytelling—their understanding, their form and mode of distribution will just be different. The world shrinks; bigger is no longer better; lines that divided cultures are blurring. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not a broken scene, it’s just different. And if you’re scared, pick up the pieces and make something new. Someone will listen.