The Avant Boutique vs. the Cultural Straphangers

The Avant Boutique vs. the Cultural Straphangers

In this past Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Reed Johnson described in detail how and why mainstream popular culture has ceased to exist in the new millennium. Editor Doug McLennan made this provocative article the top “Ideas” link yesterday and has been making similar arguments as well, claiming that this phenomenon might ultimately be beneficial to the less-commercial arts.

But of course, we in the new music community have had the rest of the world beat when it comes to the “narrow casting” paradigm. It’s basically how music outside the commercial mainstream has always survived. Long before there ever was an Internet, we had self-produced concerts, recordings, publications, you name it. Therefore you’d think we’d be better positioned than folks without such traditions.

One passage in Johnson’s piece particularly grabbed me:

An enterprising anarchist-death metal band, say, can make a video, post it on MySpace, sell its home-pressed CD off the Web and develop a base of fans who chat, post reviews and forward the video link to friends…. Maybe they sell only 10,000 CDs. But so what, says John Battelle, co-founding editor of Wired magazine. If you have 10,000 ardent fans who’ll buy whatever you record, and those fans can find you directly on the Internet, you don’t need a label…

In the niche market that is contemporary classical music, even with a major record label backing you, moving 10,000 units is an overwhelming success that will have you riding high on the Billboard Classical Music chart. Ditto for jazz. But is a world where no one can have mass success really a better place than a world where only we can’t? Being resigned to having limited reach somehow seems like giving in.

As I sit in front of my computer at home today, unable to trek downtown thanks to the subway strike in New York City, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the recording strikes of the 1940s which brought the music industry to a virtual standstill. The idea of such mobilization now seems quaint and almost naïve. But to this day I’m trying to track down recordings that Sarah Vaughn made with a group of vocalists imitating all the instrumentalists who refused to show up at the recording studio—a creative solution that could only happen in a world where we’re all in it together.

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One thought on “The Avant Boutique vs. the Cultural Straphangers

  1. mcubed

    When I was an editor at a mass-market publisher, I had occasion to look up the paperback sales figures for a particular book that had been a big smash — well-known author, top of all the bestseller lists twice (first time upon paperback publication, second time a few years later upon release of the movie version, which itself was a blockbuster). The total number of copies shipped was just over 5 million, with a return rate of slightly more than 50% (which is typical in mass-market publishing). That’s 2.5 million copies net in a country of 260 million people. And I thought, “we call ourselves mass-market publishers?”

    The point being, “mass success” has been decidedly limited in its reach in real terms for a long time. It’s only “mass” in comparison with what everyone already acknowledges is limited. I think what’s going on here is less resigning oneself to limited reach than realizing that limited reach is all most people get. Mr. Battelle’s point is right on target — isn’t it better, in the long run, to have a community of 10,000 supporters who will stick with you than a blip of 1 million “fans” who’ll move on to the next thing in three weeks?

    Mass success, illusory as it is, has been rewarded largely because the media/entertainment industries are big and slow and base their decisions on what happened last year. You can make a lot of money and gain a lot of celebrity on that one blip before the people who write the checks realize that it’s over. However, I think the internet is changing that, which really is what I wish Reed Johnson had discussed at more length. You can only have the perception of “mass culture” when cultural production, distribution and promotion is relatively centralized. The internet is slowly but surely decentralizing it.

    It’s hard for me to see this as a bad thing, or be wistful for the good ol’ days when management and labor could be at such odds as to shut down production. It’s not that people have to be in it for themselves, it’s that they need to shift their notions of with whom else they’re in it.


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