Friday, July 15, 2022

Ted Gioia Ponders Our Cultural Stagnation

Music critic Ted Gioia worries that even though our gigantic culture industry invests billions every year searching for market share, the whole arts world seems to be stagnating:

The latest news comes today from market research outfit Luminate, who tell us that the share of new music continues to shrink in the face of competition from old songs. I wrote about this a few months ago, and the numbers were already ugly back then.

But they have gotten worse.

The latest report shows that the consumption of old music grew another 14% during the first half of 2022, while demand for new music declined an additional 1.4%. These old tunes now represent a staggering 72% of the market.

And it’s likely to get worse when the full year numbers are released—because we are still in the midst of the Kate Bush/Metallica phenomenon spurred by the showcasing of their old songs on Stranger Things.
Things may be even worse in the movies:
A number of recent articles on Hollywood have announced that we are living in the Golden Age of the Aging Actor. Harrison Ford, who turns 80 this week, may be the most prominent example. As the public face of several major brand franchises, he is still in demand, and will soon show up in another Indiana Jones movie, a kind of Raiders of the Lost AARP Card affair. But this aging Ford assembly line is hardly an isolated example—the graying actor is everywhere. Top Gun is the biggest box office success of the year, and it features Tom Cruise reprising a role he last played in 1986. I fully expect to see a septuagenarian Superman or Batman in the future.

The Ringer recently did the math and found the average age of male leads has risen from around 37 in 2000 to over 45 in 2021. 

I’d like to be amused by all this, or maybe even applaud these senior citizens who have somehow extended their careers beyond normal limits. But the larger picture is disturbing.

Just follow the dollars. Every big budget movie this year is either a reboot, sequel, prequel, remake, or brand extension. Every last one of them. The largest investments in music are the acquisition of old publishing catalogs, while almost nothing is spent developing new artists. . . .

Nobody wants to take a chance on something new and different. It’s just too risky. You could even get fired for that.

Does this matter? Gioia thinks it does:    

But when cultures stop innovating, they soon lose the essential skills they need for their survival. I’m reminded of the Arch of Constantine built by order of the Roman Senate between the years 312 and 315 AD—when the Empire, for all its military might, had forgotten how to create impressive artistic works. As a result, the builders of this monument had to steal parts from older structures.

Decline of empires, etc., etc.

I am not much of a doomster myself, but I share this sense that there isn't much new happening in music, film or television. It has been years since the last time I eagerly awaited a new movie, a new cd, or the new season of a tv show. I am not sure how much of this is a change in me, and how much of that change is caused by cultural malaise. I certainly feel less involved in new cultural products than I used to. Some of that may be aging, but I don't think that's all of it, since my children feel pretty much the same way. I often find myself laughing out loud about the old songs they find to get into. 

I don't know what's going on, but it doesn't feel right.


Anonymous said...

Seems to be confusing cultural stagnation with the age of actors? Not sure it's exactly the same thing

average age of male leads has risen from around 37 in 2000 to over 45 in 2021

Is about 8 years really a big thing?

It seems like if it went the other way Ted would be decrying the "rejection of the past and tradition"

John said...

@Anonymous: Gioia loves new music and wants everyone to be into new, young musicians. I always check out his annual 100 best albums feature, and this is 80 percent new stuff. I always find something I never knew about but enjoy.

Anonymous said...

@John, maybe Ted needs to realize there is other art outside of music? And that most people, other than music critics, don't have the time to listen to that much music?
And to tie this to some grand decline of empire is a bit much.

G. Verloren said...

Regarding old vs new music, there is an unimaginable amount of new music out there, more than you could listen to in a single lifetime, it's just not being bought and packaged and sold as "mainstream" music.

If you listen to the radio, or buy your music through major retailers and streaming services, you're going to hear old music. If you want new music, you go find some of the literally millions of small recording artists putting their stuff on the internet independent of the bloated record companies.

The same basic issues plague film - more people than ever are making films, in greater numbers and broader diversity than ever, they just aren't part of the Hollywood machine. There are more films out there than you could watch in your entire lifetime, it's just that they aren't allowed to exist within the "mainstream" ecosystem because it only has so much space in it, and it selects for maximum profit at minimum risk.

Culture isn't stagnant, corporations are. People are making interesting art left and right, they just don't have the chance to show it to most people, because the media doesn't give a damn about art, it simply cares about shoveling "art-commodity" in bulk.

Our problem is our insane capitalistic tendencies. If you ask the megacorporations with all their billions of dollars what movies should get promoted, they will pick a low risk repackaging of something old over even a slightly risky new thing, 100% of the time, because why wouldn't they? If they can just sell you the same crap over and over again for more money, why would they ever try to sell you anything new?

Rhetorically illustrative image:

David said...

I'm highly skeptical of Gioia's arguments. Of course, I'm already on the record here as thinking there's way, way, WAY too much cultural production, and a multi-year moratorium on all production would suit me just fine, so I could catch up, at least a little.

It's true that Hollywood seems to be going through a real fallow period. That's fine with me, since it leaves me time for television, which like many people I think has improved dramatically with cable and streaming. I think it's striking that even critics with pretensions say that the Sopranos may well be the greatest TV series ever. (I haven't seen it; that can give you a sense of what I mean by needing to catch up.)

But what I most want to say is that I'm deeply skeptical of the idea of the presence or absence of artistic originality or greatness (in the rarified sense) as a sort of canary-in-the-coal-mine about the state of our or any civilization. In particular, I'm not sure the absence of artistic greatness indicates that one should be worried about one's civilization in any sort of ordinary life sense. Consider 5cent BC Greece, a great golden age of art and culture in a society that rapidly revealed itself as profoundly, disastrously self-destructive.

I'm deeply worried about things like our political divisions (and the rise of the right, which I know doesn't worry everyone). But the fact that I can't think of a really great movie made in the last few years doesn't leave me feeling that something's not right.