A second post about the old days when everything was great

I posted yesterday, in a trademark rambling fashion, on how digital networks are changing the way we consume culture, and how I felt this to be an occasionally bad thing. Or at least, how I felt we were losing something in the process. There were some responses to that, and I read some other things too, so I thought I’d do another post, but this time it’s more linky.

First of all, Pete Townshend. I hadn’t actually read his John Peel lecture, but he said quite a lot of things which, on the face of it, were pretty similar to what I’d been saying. He certainly seems to say that the cataclysm which has ripped through the recorded music industry – or, more specifically, the record companies – has weakened the industry’s ability to launch new acts. He suggests that networked services, including iTunes, can perform the old record company functions, but I’m really not sure. Neither, it’s worth saying, is David Hepworth, who thinks long and intelligently about these things:

When record stores were the shop window, the companies could hope that your attention might be attracted by something you hadn’t gone in there to get.

All that’s gone now. People download individual tracks, which means even successful acts get a fraction of a fraction of the revenue. Record companies can’t afford to spend money on promoting records. All that matters nowadays is getting into those few inches of space occupied by the home page of the iTunes store.

Another long post I read this morning, which linked to mine but was in no way inspired by it (I’m not that?cocky) was by Matt Locke, a former colleague from Channel 4 who is far, far smarter than me when it comes to media theory. Matt was actually responding to Townshend, and says his nostalgia for the past (which I’m not really sure is fair to Townshend – he seems quite positive about the future) is based on a misplaced view of how culture is consumed now:

The ways in which audiences attention can be driven to new culture is infinitely more complex than in the late 20th century, and its only been in the last 5 years or so that we?re starting to see what the new patterns of attention are. Some of them look familiar, with niche content organically (or calculatedly, in the case of shows like The X Factor) getting large amounts of attention. But these patterns are much more unstable that they used to be, and the rewards are nowhere near enough to offset hits and misses.

Alongside the familiar patterns of mainstream attention, there are a huge number of new patterns that could only exist in digital culture. Some of these patterns are very slow, with attention accruing over months or years, as social recommendation or small groups of fans gradually accrue around content. Some are extremely fast, synchronising audiences? attention around a piece of culture within days, before moving on just as quickly. Some are driven by deliberate plans, orchestrated between broadcast channels and social media. Some emerge via the organic connections of lots of smaller drivers, from blogs and niche channels to SEO and twitter accounts.

Matt calls this kind of consumption Spiky. He says something like punk – a sudden breakthrough of a new cultural experience into the mainstream – will never happen again, but instead “there are a hundred punk moments happening every day.”

The thing is, I think that’s basically what I was saying. Matt doesn’t place a value judgement on that, but I suspect that, knowing him as I do, he is incredibly excited about a world where “a hundred punk moments happen every day.” But my point yesterday was that, indeed, this is happening; but it is, by definition, a more fractured experience. A hundred punk moments may only each be a hundredth as exciting as the One Big Punk Moment which happened in the 1970s.

And yet, and yet: a former colleague said this on Twitter:

Which I really love a great deal. There are more loci of intensity. The great, probably unanswerable, question is whether the intensity is of the same nature as it used to be. Phil (who tweeted that) also pointed out, jokingly, that I am a good deal older than him. I pointed out, joking but with an edge creeping into my voice, that a great many people are older than him.

Finally, my friend Tim Wright asked me if I’d read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I hadn’t, and he pointed me to the YouTube versions of his famous 1970s television version of that book. In it, Berger essentially says the great cultural artefacts of the past have been fundamentally altered by the development of first photography and then film; that we see them differently now, because our viewing of them is so often mediated by lenses and technology. In other words, technology changes culture. Here’s a clip:

Any more thoughts? Jump in the comments below.



4 thoughts on “A second post about the old days when everything was great

  1. liked your post yesterday. Made me think. I don’t agree with all of it but it was very thought provoking. I disagree (but not sure if you were saying really) that digital means experiences are repeatable. There’s too much of “me” involved in great experiences for that. The medium is not important but I think they was not your main point anyway.

    I think you are really talking about fragmentation of shared experiences- the shared nature of your experiences is what gave them power. The shared experience is not repeatable (or eventually dulls with repetition). Thats the bit which resonated with me.

    There is also something great about “limited” experiences that analogue distribution naturally gave rise to.. E.g I loved it when I had a record that not many other people had. Not because it was exclusive, but it was the joy of being able to pass on something that appeared special, and perhaps get something ?special and unique in exchange. well, maybe that was being exclusive.

    It was a sort of false social currency for geeks. I think it is a bit of a buzz kill that we can all easily see the same stuff. Damned addressable discoverable things. ?:-) but I wouldn’t go back.


  2. “A hundred punk moments may only each be a hundredth as exciting as the One Big Punk Moment which happened in the 1970s.”

    Well perhaps, but unless you lived in an obvious metropolitan centre in the UK or America, I daresay the One Big Punk Moment is most likely to have passed you by. I’d even go so far as to say that the “moment” was largely illusory. For many people it was only when bands historically allied to punk broke truly big – like Blondie or Talking Heads – that the canonical timeline of punk was established. The timeline (that seemingly inevitable headlong trip from the Jubilee summer up to Winterland) was only really established, like all history, in retrospect.

    Equally, the punk “moment” has enlarged endlessly since then. Even while punk was happening – that is to say, when it could legitimately be called a movement – one of its major features was shining a light on people (Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Iggy Pop, etc.) whose careers were already long established. And now we’ve reached such a stage of idle musicology that punk effectively begins around 1965, either with the riff to Satisfaction or with bands like The Sonics and The Monks.

    All of which leads me to a point that doesn’t directly contradict yours, but which is just as visible as the fragmentation of attention you’re talking about: the drive to canonise absolutely everything. You wouldn’t have thought that a band like Abba would have needed the protective cocooning of a scholarly apparatus and deluxe reissues: they were a popular phenomenon in their own time, and Abba Gold will sell for all eternity without any extra arm-twisting on the part of record companies. But it’s happened, and it will happen more and more thoroughly, simply because that’s the logic of the market right now.

    Of course, Abba aren’t a going concern anymore. But you can see the same trend in things that are very much up to date: consider the nerd-milking extravaganza of additional content that accompanies every new Dr Who series. There is something for everyone. Dr Who has managed the trick of being both one of the most popular mainstream TV shows in the UK *and* a niche interest.

    And perhaps here we reach the real problem: not the fragmentation of a mass popular culture per se, but the self-conscious positioning of mainstream cultural artefacts as *brands*. Abba is a pop group, but it is also a brand. Dr Who is a television programme, but it is also a brand. They are both as mainstream as can be, and yet they include also niches, derivatives and spin-offs for the truly committed. They are presumptively self-canonising: they aim to keep you with them.

    Like I said, this doesn’t necessarily contradict your points. But rather than saying ‘the centre isn’t holding’, I’m saying the centre has changed: the mainstream still exists, but it now operates with the cartel-ish mindset of what used to be the periphery.


    1. Good points all, really good – but don’t you think the desperate urge to “brand” everything is at least partly a reflex to the fact that things don’t “brand themselves.” In other words, there isn’t enough unique attention paid to individual bands, programmes, films anymore, so there is a desperate urge to GENERATE ATTENTION. Also, I would argue that a lot of this effort is basically wasted; that all these branding content disappears into the ether and has negligible impact on the attention these things would have got anyway. It always struck me while at the Beeb that a 15 second sting in between shows on BBC1 was worth almost infinitely more than a whole team squirreling away for months on websites which got at best passing traffic. We should be wondering what that 15 second sting is worth, not what all this other noise is.

      Rant off..


  3. I actually think the unseen mover in a lot of these things is computer games, and in particular sandbox games. In something like the GTA series, there are main missions, optional side missions, and most importantly the option to just mosey around doing what you feel like. You can see this replicated in the current Dr Who model, where you have the main show, the Confidential series, spin-offs set in the same (and occasionally overlapping) universes, as well as the online content, comics, books, etc.

    You could certainly argue that a lot of this effort is wasted (who is going to appreciate all of it?), but you could also argue that it creates a satisfying effect of narrative roundedness or wholeness. There are worlds within worlds and you could explore them if you only felt like it. This isn’t quite noise, then – though it may be a loss-leader calculated to point you back towards the main output: in this case, the Dr Who show proper.

    I also think the app model is worth considering here: a great deal of the media we now consume is now designed to lock us away from a broader traffic of ideas, in part by a simulation of interactivity. You see it on Facebook, you see it on the kind of multiplayer games (Farmville most obviously) that you get on Facebook, and you see it in something like X Factor 2, where the audience is encouraged to quiz the judges and the contestants about events that *have already happened*. This isn’t interactivity in any real sense, but the producers hope that it looks enough like it that you’ll buy the whole thing.


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