This is the way we rise and fall

Haters gonna hate? (Sarah Zucca)

Haters gonna hate? (Sarah Zucca)

Every now and then a story crosses the digital wire that seems to be about something more. They stick in your head with resonant factlets, or are representative of some larger meaning. Past examples that I have filed away include the announcement that the videogame industry has become larger than the film business, and the effect that social media has had on porn usage (Facebook taking over as the preferred mode of self-gratification).

Here’s the latest: Taylor Swift’s most recent album, 1989, accounted for one in every five American record sales (physical or digital editions) last week. As reported in the New York Times, the 24-year-old sold more copies of her No 1 album than the combined sales of singles at No 2 to No 107 in the Billboard chart. At Slate.com, Chris Molanphy tried to explain just how striking this was:

Basically, in the postmillennial, digital-first music business, you can divide artists into a small handful of elite megablockbuster acts and the 99 percent. And this is fundamentally different from the music world of the ’80s and ’90s. The Michael Jackson of Thriller may have been in a league of his own, but the ’80s acts just a half-tier below him—Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, Whitney Houston, Michael’s sister Janet, George Michael—were minting tens of millions in sales, and medium-tier acts like REO Speedwagon or Mötley Crüe did fine. In the ’90s, the album chart was dominated overall by Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey, but dozens of other artists were genuinely competing with them, dropping 5- and 10-million-sellers, from Pearl Jam to TLC to the Spice Girls. What we have now, on the other hand, is an extreme case of haves and have-nots. Swift may be quite a bit bigger than Lil Wayne, Justin Timberlake, and Lady Gaga. But really, when it comes to chart performance, this small handful of artists (plus consistent chart-toppers like Jay-Z and Beyoncé) is hobnobbing together in a very exclusive luxury box behind home plate while every other act is squinting from the bleachers.

Or if you don’t like baseball metaphors, consider football—and television. DVRs and online streaming have decimated TV ratings for the last decade; top-rated series of today like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory wouldn’t even make the Top 50 in the age of Seinfeld and ER. And yet somehow the NFL keeps commanding ever-larger TV audiences for its live games. This year’s Super Bowl ranked as the most watched television program in U.S. history. It beat the ratings record set two years earlier by … the Super Bowl. And that 2012 game was the third time in three years it topped itself for the all-time record. The gap between live events, like the Super Bowl and the Oscars, and everything else on television is too large to even consider them the same kind of televisual entertainment at this point. In TV ratings as in music, it isn’t just winner-take-all. It’s winner-moves-to-a-private-island-and-secedes.

There’s nothing new about the trends at work. The growing gulf between the one-percenters and the rest of us, between the haves and have nots, is common knowledge. We also know that this is something that has been happening in all sectors of the economy and not just finance or industry. In her book Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland even describes how it works in the music business. The world only needs one “world’s greatest cellist,” and so Yo-Yo Ma is rich and famous and all the other cellists in the world . . . well, they still have their music. Culture has become a zero-sum game, with great rewards for the winner and oblivion for the rest.

When it comes to culture, I can think of two possible outcomes that might have redeemed the digital revolution. In the first, the tearing down of any barriers to distribution might have led to a new cultural economy, one that had some big winners but which also raised all boats. Alas, trickle-down economics always was voodoo. As the Taylor Swift story indicates, it’s not just that Swift is doing so well, it’s that the rest of the field is collapsing. The same thing has happened in publishing, as a story that appeared in the Guardian several months ago explained:

Earlier this week, the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society released a survey of almost 2,500 writers which found that the median income of a professional author last year was £11,000, down 29% since 2005 – a period in which median earnings for UK employees have fallen by 8%. By this year, according to the survey, just 11.5% of professional authors said they earned their income from writing alone, compared with 40% in 2005.

I note in passing the full title of Chrystia Freeland’s book: Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.

But there was another avenue open for the new cultural economy to redeem itself. Perhaps not everyone would succeed, but those who did would be the best of the best, the most innovative and creative, the strongest competitors in an increasingly hostile environment. If 99% of everything is junk anyway, then only the efforts of the vital 1% deserve to exist. The market has spoken. If you can’t sell your books or music then you should be doing something else with your time.

Has that happened? Has the Internet led to a cultural renaissance?

I don’t see it. The rags-to-riches stories of self-publishing on the Internet have mainly been of formulaic, mass market fiction. Indeed, I’m unaware of any experimental or “literary” author who has found success taking this route. Instead, the one-percenters have been names like E. L. James, author of the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Generic fiction rules. A global monoculture spreads its kudzu-like vines everywhere, squeezing out the rest of the literary ecosystem.

And as for music, there is Taylor Swift.

I’m not “hating” Taylor Swift at all. You can look for her on YouTube and judge her talent for yourself. But for me the news of her rise and everyone else’s fall is depressing. You have to look at the trends that are developing and be concerned about where they are taking us.

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