Let's face it, culture is screwed

When I joined the BBC from university in 1971 there were four BBC radio stations and three television stations supplying broadcast content to a UK population of 55.9 million. In 2018 broadcast content is available on 600 TV channels from Sky TV, from five national and 40 local BBC radio stations, from around 250 commercial radio stations, and from more than 8000 internet stations via Radio Garden - do explore that latter resource if you are not familiar with it. Additionally narrowcast content is available from a comprehensive range of music streaming services and via social media platforms that together have a UK user base of 44 million, with Facebook alone having 39 million users. Moreover all this content is available 24/7, whereas in 1971 broadcasting hours were limited.

This exponential and inmeasurable explosion of content - much of it music - from seven primary sources to more than 44 million diverse sources parallels a population - i.e. audience - growth of just 19% from 55.9 to 66.6 million. It is an immutable law of economics that when supply grossly exceeds supply, prices crash - evidenced by low cost music streaming and free live concerts on social media - and cost pressures force quality to pursue price in a relentless chase to the bottom - evidenced by dumbing down. So it is not surprising that the culture grey-out predicted by Alan Lomax in 1972 has arrived, and, as he forecast, a mismanaged, over-centralized electronic communication system is imposing a few standardized, mass-produced, and cheapened cultures everywhere. As another realist Colin Eatock explained recently "what is best is what sells the most", or as perceived value plummets even further, what is best is what can be give away to the largest audience. My headline of 'Let's face it, culture is screwed' is not tasty click bait. With audience sizes hardly better than static and with content sources continuing to breed like rabbits, it is absolutely certain that cost and therefore quality will continue to plummet. So until content supply is curtailed, and there is zero chance of that happening, culture as defined by quality and value is screwed. And this failure of aspiration is, inevitably, reflected in live performances.

Colin Eatock also observes that "There are some determined “elitists” who steadfastly oppose this trend". Thank goodness there are; but the hysterical screaming of more than 44 million content sources trying to grab the attention of an audience not much bigger than 44 million means that anyone trying to stand firm against the tide of greying-out is simply swamped by it. Alas, all we can try to do is give a tiny shout-out to those who have not yet been swamped. Which is what this post will try to do. Varanasi, or Benares as it is also known, is one of those 'thin places' where as the Anglican writer Donald Allchin described, the barrier between this world and the world of the spirit dissolves. Varanasi's proximity to the subliminal has produced a great flowering of culture, and not all of it predictable. One notable example of the unpredictable flowering is the Glow of Benares project which brings together two leading Indian classical musicians, the Danish Sinfonietta, and the Aarhus Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Grammy-winning saxophonist and composer Lars Møller. In the early 90’s Lars Møller spent time in India studying under Shahnei-teachers Pandit Anant Lal and Pandit Daya Shankar. A later visit to Benares with several Danish musicians produced the video footage seen below which inspired Glow of Benares.

This, thankfully, is not another of those hackneyed fusion projects. Time cannot stand still. Which means the boats carrying pilgrims on Mother Ganges at Varanasi now carry advertisements for 4G cellular networks. Music cannot stand still either, and Glow of Benares creates a music idiom appropriate to our changing world. The album is released on the Danish Dacapo label which is celebrated for its recordings of Carl Nielsen's music, the composer who famously railed against culture grey-out more than a century ago by declaring "Give us something else, give us something new... and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional". Culture may be screwed but it is far from dead. Here is something new and unconventional to make us feel we are still alive:

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John Blackburn said…
I share your concern. But...

I believe what's screwed is simply the historical expression of culture, its privileged and subsidized status undercut by the egalitarian influence of technology. If you are fond of that historical expression, as I am, it's hard not to see the changes underway through a lens of despair, not to see dying splendor replaced by the superficial. The nature of the change contributes to this because the old is not immediately replaced by the new but rather sometimes simply ceases to be—like your lap when you stand up—its existence in hindsight dependent on a posture now abandoned.

This process started with the advent of the early technology of recorded music which allowed you to hear music without someone also playing it. Gone was the need for an organ or piano in the house, for family members able to play instruments. The desire remained but the need did not, a difference that took many decades to sort out, until ultimately gone as well was the historical relationship between the art, the culture, and the audience that supported the old way and made it sensible. What was previously part of the fabric of things was increasingly untenable.

I don't know what will be "the new way", but I do know that the human mind hasn't changed, nor the human spirit, and I remain sanguine that they will find vital expression, picking as they will from the bones of the old to fashion something new and wonderful. These changes are affecting all of the arts, but the arts will get along just fine, if not perhaps with many of the bits and pieces that I have loved.
MarkAMeldon said…
Thank you for writing this valuable piece. We are all suffering from 'Too much choice of choice' https://www.fastcompany.com/3031364/why-having-too-many-choices-is-making-you-unhappy I have far too many CDs and I know I'll never listen to half of them again, so I feel I'll have to bite my lip and undertake a cull to preserve my sanity (they sit there in their little plastic sleeves https://www.slim-disc.com/ whispering to me). Professionally, too, I am swamped by too much choice - do I really need access to 250,000 investment funds to make my clients happy? No, of course not!

Thank goodness I eschew social media - that isolating terror of today's society - and streaming.

Keep up the good work, Bob!

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