Back in 2006 tech entrepreneur Andrew Keen wrote an article for The Weekly Standard entitled “Web 2.0” that criticized the increasing rise of democratized media and growing ability for anyone to publish books, make movies, or record an album with newly inexpensive technologies. Keen argued that traditional curators of content, the “media and culture industries,” perform a valuable service by making sure that the best works of art and the best artists find their audiences:
The purpose of our media and culture industries—beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people—is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent. Our traditional mainstream media has done this with great success over the last century. Consider Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo and a couple of other brilliantly talented works of the same name Vertigo: the 1999 book called Vertigo, by Anglo-German writer W.G. Sebald, and the 2004 song “Vertigo,” by Irish rock star Bono. Hitchcock could never have made his expensive, complex movies outside the Hollywood studio system. Bono would never have become Bono without the music industry’s super-heavyweight marketing muscle. And W.G. Sebald, the most obscure of this trinity of talent, would have remained an unknown university professor had a high-end publishing house not had the good taste to discover and distribute his work. Elite artists and an elite media industry are symbiotic.
Part of the first sentence above: “beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people,” belies his conclusion that an elite media industry is defending the best art by the best artists. It’s certainly true that commercial art has produced excellent work; few would doubt the value of a Jimi Hendrix album or a Stanley Kubrick film, but the idea that the media industry is successfully curating high quality in the arts is just not true.
In reality, media companies have never been particularly good at preventing bad or mediocre; instead these media companies have been great at finding the least risky and least innovative ways to make the most money possible. Consider the amount of movie sequels being released in this year alone, or music groups such as O-Town and Starship, or spinoff television shows like The Tortellis, the Real Housewives, and the six different spinoff attempts from The Facts of Life (which itself was a spinoff from Diff’rent Strokes). Commercial success—which is the true raison d’être for these works—justifies their creation, not artistic imperative. Furious 7, for example, grossed $384 million worldwide in its opening weekend; sometimes it pays to remake the same movie seven times over. (And more furiousness is on the way!)
Even the companies that Keen cites, Island Records, Paramount Pictures, and the publishing house Eichorn, have published and distributed content for the sake of money rather than art. Eichorn, the least well known of the three companies above, in 2014 released the German language translation of the novelization of A Million Ways to Die in the West. I highly doubt this was done out of an artistic imperative, or because this particular novelization had something important to say about the world or the human condition.
Keen’s fear that we’ll face an era of mediocrity and cultural flattening ignores the fact that we have plenty of bad and mediocre art around us all the time. The only difference now is that technology has provided a tiny bit more access and opportunity for those who would rather be independent of the media industry. Sure, we’ll have to deal with plenty of terrible videos on YouTube that we can easily turn off whenever we want, but we’ve been dealing with films like Police Academy: Mission to Moscow long before YouTube was ever around; so I think we’ll be just fine.