The professionals

by Rob Horning

21 August 2006


Yesterday in The New York Times Daniel Askt argues in an article in the business section that long-tail marketing (which I also talk about in this column, which went up today) will ultimately squeeze “midlist” works, echoing John Cassidy’s point in this New Yorker review. Akst thinks long-tail marketing leaves us without adequate filters:  “The digital revolution may have opened the door to an infinite variety of products, but human attention remains a finite resource, and the costs of ‘search’ — of sorting through all this stuff to find what you might like — are high. If anything, the exploding availability of songs, videos and text that Mr. Anderson heralds in his book will only raise these costs. Technology and user recommendations can help, but in my experience they’re a long way from ideal — and may only reinforce the importance of blockbusters through a kind of avalanche effect that starts small but grows uncontrollably.” The notion that searches cost us, that our attention has become a kind of currency we must spend wisely, seems interesting—search presents us with too many options, which initiates “the paradox of choice” where we are made miserable by too much opportunity. But I don’t know about Akst’s lament at the loss of one particular filter, the filter of professionalism and the use of earnings as a way to detect worthy culture.

Akst claims that the presence of more amateur and niche product in the cultural marketplace will have no effect on blockbusters, but will obscure the efforts of those who take the trouble to professionalize their work. Once they could earn enough to survive; now those who once bought their work will entertain themselves with amateur content. Akst argues that “Mr. Anderson underestimates the role of earnings in this whole arena and the professionalism that they underwrite. The digital revolution may be empowering amateurs even as it undermines the ability of blockbuster-free professionals — who often do the best work in writing, music and other fields — to make a living, since the long-tail effect is redistributing downward the scant share of rewards that the pros now enjoy.” Akst thinks these are “the body and soul of culture” and I suppose he’s right, in the sense that they reflect the cultural bias that regards profit as certification. Only by making money from your art do you legitimize what you are doing; only this way are you a “serious” artist or writer. Your commitment is shown by making the sacrifices necessary to live by your art: to market yourself appropriately, to cave in and become a relentless self-promoter, to be in a semi-permanent state of doing business, networking, opportunity seeking. I tend to wish it weren’t so and imagine a world where the quality of work could be recognized independently of its marketability (where people had more options than to vote their pleasure only with dollars), and where sheer participation in art making is held to be more important than trading commercial art products. (I wish that such amateur productions—things made without a view toward profit, made with a volunter’s spirit—could be the heart and soul of culture, not the middlebrow manufactured culture that Askt defends.) The “long tail” seems to emphasize the wrong side of things—the sale rather than the production of the works far down the tail into obscurity. I have a naive faith in the idea that the joy of making something can be separated from the joy of finding an audience for it (and the need to enter into the market to find that audience). Once, an audience of a few people was significant, in scale with what was technically possible. Now anyone can broadcast to theoretical millions. This will be the cudgel used to discourage people from active creation, or at least keep them dependent consumers.  As the participatory Web gathers momentum, we’ll here more and more about how amateurs become professionals, how whimsical creators become entrepreneurs, and these people will be made the standardbearers, and those bloggers out there writing for next to no one will be encouraged to feel foolish and trivial.

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