Recently Venkatesh Rao published a series of articles called Entrepreneurs are the New Labor in Forbes which I thought was pretty interesting. The text is fairly long but it presents a rare macro-perspective of what has been happening in recent technological, political, economic developments in recent history, so people interested in those issues should definitely take a look.
Almost everyone now agrees that the social landscape in the U.S. is becoming more and more fragmented, which is reflected almost everywhere: in politics (Democrats/Republican stalemates), class (99% vs 1%), socioeconomics (widening wage gaps), geography (shifts in demographics due to foreclosures) and so on. These turn of developments, largely out of the control of anyone at this point, have lead to the denigration and marginalization of the American middle class, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication of it stopping any time soon. The main thrust of Rao’s article, however, is that due to recent advances in technology and economic practice (the internet in particular), American society is currently going a radical shift in its labor and governing structures, with entrepreneurs poising to emerge out of the fray as the “new middle class” of the society-to-be in the upcoming years.
The “99% vs. 1%” divide can now also be seen in the world of culture, if you look at any given site that gives people the ability to share and post media content. (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) There’s the idea that “anything could happen” on the internet that has been floating around for a while, but what inevitably ends up receiving the most attention are usually two types of content: 1) memes, videos, music and graphics that were largely made by amateurs/hobbyists that gain their popularity by “going viral”, and 2) “mainstream” distributed content still currently being produced by the more traditional media studios. (Digital streams of TV broadcasts, for example.) Indie, experimental, alternative, and underground movements, which exist in the middle (or sometimes outside) of the spectrum somewhere still continue to exist, but currently isn’t the area of focus of the new media landscape.
This situation isn’t a result of a widespread conspiracy or counterplot to undermine aspiring talent — if it can even said to be intentional at all. Computers and programming languages are objects that either works or doesn’t, and when this mentality is carried onto the real world, its ideas have a tendency to frame issues in a binary manner. On one end of the extreme we have the idea that regardless of skill or talent level, “everyone” is an artist and that any and every idea that exists out there should be shared. (i.e. Soundcloud, Instagram) The business models that form around this approach revolves around the idea that the artist is also the customer, and they’re targeted accordingly as the company’s primary source of income. On the other end, there are companies that work directly with A-list artists or Hollywood studios in order to use their name recognition as a way to attract more people toward their service. (i.e. iTunes, Pandora)
This picture, however, leaves out the “weird middle” of the music industry — the independents and professionals. The professional practices of the working musician, interacting with the general public day-to-day are where most working models of labor practices are formed and codified. Indie, experimental, and underground cultures are where the innovations happen in the art world — where amateurs go to improve their craft, and where celebrities and veterans go to when they’re looking to do something more meaningful with their skills and talents.
Since most independent and internet-based artists can’t compete against Hollywood in terms of resources, distribution channels, and staying power, media content that “goes viral” have a tendency to disappear from the map after receiving its 15 seconds of fame. A few lucky ones (like Justin Bieber) will get noticed and recruited by Hollywood, establishing a career for themselves through the channels of the traditional media industries. These success stories can often be inspirational, but the practice itself further reinforces the “99% vs. 1%” mentality that doesn’t do much to remedy the polarities or divides themselves. You’re either on one end or the other end, with no hope for anything in between.
For a while, people were enamored by the idea of change and the new possibilities that the internet could bring, putting in all that they could in order to be a part of this new-founded movement. But as both returns and quality in content have continued to trend downwards (i.e. “race to the bottom”), the promises of technology have started to wear thin in recent years — particularly for independent artists, whom have now become very wary of sites that promise them “exposure” in lieu of actually receiving compensation for their work. (Most media sites are great for amateurs and hobbyists, but dismal for professionals looking to earn a living.) But the tech industry is not in the business of fostering content creation — not yet, anyway.
The MBA/Business + Comp Sci/Engineer combo, which is often seen as the main ingredients of the typical tech startup company, often leaves very little room for discussions about cultural or artistic practice. The result of this is that most media-based ventures tend to focus on creating platforms that focus on the either/or side of the spectrum because they’re ideas that are known and are easily quantified into a code/investor-friendly format. If they’re lucky, they could maybe grab both sides of the spectrum at the same time, like YouTube does with video content. But these sites have a tendency to emphasize, rather than remedy, the disconnect that exists between artists and audiences in our heavily modernized societal cultures because they don’t provide the means of turning these interactions into something more meaningful and sustainable. Companies often miss the “big picture” of what the culture industry needs in order to innovate and thrive in an emerging economy, which includes the creation of and cultivation of emerging and aspiring talents.
The tech industry has, fairly successfully I would say, adopted the narrative that they’re on the side of the “little people”, seeking to “liberate” them from the clutches of the old industry’s practices and norms. This sentiment was particularly strong in arts and entertainment, and by the turn of the century the revolutionary spirit of this movement had percolated into other areas of society, gradually making its way toward mainstream consciousness. But so far it has failed to provide a working alternative to the models of the traditional media industries, which is why most artists, in the long run, go back to using the old models if they decide that they want to continue to pursue their craft. The latter provides a very small, but at least somewhat tangible, chance at earning a sustainable living, even if not everybody gets to become a celebrity. But again, the spectrum turns into polarity between the two sides, while the middle continues to get ignored.
But entrepreneurship is now seen as the panacea for fixing these problems by forging new paths and methodologies in the wake of a new and emerging economic model. How and what are the specifics of these practices, and how will it affect how things work in the culture industry? What will the “new middle” look like?
Next: [Pt2, New Labor, New Management] How entrepreneurship actually becomes the “new labor” and the shifting definition of “value” in the new economic models. Founders and entrepreneurs looking to get into the “Silicon Beach” scene, particularly in the areas of media/entertainment/tech, probably shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of the problem that they’re trying to “solve” because the scope of it goes way beyond just technical execution.