Hamartia: American Anti-Poetics

At its point of origin, American poetry felt great anxiety about the influence of Europe. The roughness of early American life created the impression that the continent was devoid of grist for the mill of poetic thought. Dan Chiasson writing about Emerson in a recent “New Yorker” magazine in an essay entitled “Ecstasy of Influence,” gives us the lay of the poetic landscape.

Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans let “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”

The poet Emerson was looking for, of course, was Walt Whitman.

Chiasson's thesis is that if Emerson had been a better poet, somehow more in touch with his grief, emotion and vision–he would not have been looking for someone like Whitman. And without Emerson, it's possible that Whitman, and American poetry, would not have emerged in the same way.

But to me, the interesting part of Tocqueville's prophecy of American poetry is that it implies an empty landscape filled only with emigres struggling for survival. America was a wild place where everything needed to be built from scratch. You can almost hear a voice say, “when we got here, there was nothing.”

In this telling, authentic American poetry started in complete blindness, unable to see the surrounding new world. Oddly, this blindness was expressed as a freedom from the cultural traditions, legends and folklore of old Europe. The anxiety of influence created a hysterical blindness that set the foundation for the virgin birth of Titans that could hammer out an American poetry that owed nothing to its predecessors.

Since that time, American poetry (and most other aspects of being an American) has been a long coming-to-terms with the continent that was here all along. In attempting to escape the influence of old Europe, the European ideal of the heroic individual in a strange land was fully embraced and internalized. The European influence was boiled down to a concentrated elixir, smuggled in through the back door, and eventually emerged as our harmartia. We stood at the edge of a continent, hit the reset button, and declared that a new world had been discovered.

 

Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

There are many pursuits where it's wise not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But we've reached a point in technology, entertainment, apps and design where there are an abundance of “good” things. We've hit “peak good.”

Linda Holmes, writing for her NPR media blog reported that John Landgraf, CEO of the FX Network, has called a top in the TV business. We've reached peak television.

Landgraf predicted that 2015 or 2016 would represent what he called “peak television” in the United States in terms of sheer volume, followed by a period of contraction. And note well: He doesn't believe all the excess inventory comes from bad and mediocre shows. He says good shows are part of the problem, too: “There's just too much competition, so much so that I think the good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones.” (Do you hear that, people who make good shows? You're getting in the way of greatness.)

Entertainment networks now come in two flavors, realtime (old school), and random access catalog. Both have the same basic ingredients: one is a programmed stream of shows; the other is a set of options / suggestions to help you program your own stream. Both have a catalog of new and old material, while realtime networks include live sports and news.

Netflix, when it was the only game in town, seemed like a universal library of almost all the films and television shows you'd want to see. Once other players entered the space and began competing for “content,” the game changed. HBO, Netflix, Showtime, Starz, Hulu, Amazon, and Acorn are the new networks. And the realtime networks have adopted the catalog strategy as well by making their shows available via “on demand.” It's rumored that Apple will be joining the fray with its own original productions in the near future. (It'll be interesting to see how being a content producer changes a technology company that has traditionally been an intermediary with no skin in the game.)

With all the new and historical content now available through various contortions of cable, airplay, computer and app, it's still necessary to apply Sturgeon's Law. 90% of it is crap. In 2015 there will be around 400 scripted original English-language television series. Because we've grown the pie, the 10% that might be considered good is still too many. Most these new programs won't find an audience. Even the “good” ones. The audience has simply been over-served, which means the economics of production will work out for roughly the same number as in the past. The rest will be available to view on-demand from the back catalog.

In these so-called economies of abundance, it's important to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lots of entertainment, music, games, apps and social networks may be good, but that doesn't mean they're worth your time. Good isn't good enough anymore–it's the new baseline. It's the new “C” grade. As an audience member, these networks are competing for our attention (to sell memberships or sell to advertisers). When we deem something “good,” we need to acknowledge that the scale goes up from “good” to “very good” to “excellent.”

The bubble of “goodness” may be short lived as investors begin to experience losses, and the oversupply of new programs can't find audiences and advertisers to sustain them. This particular bubble has been inflated by the technology bubble. When there's a lot of money floating around, inevitably, rich guys are talked into investing in show business. It's a story as old as show business itself.

 

The Quality of Smallness

This isn't addressed to you. It's addressed to a group of people like you. Or rather, it's addressed to the unconscious style they are encased in, and chase.

On the morning cable financial news channel, the hosts go on endlessly about how there's a change in consumer tastes. The reason that fast-food hamburger chains and soda pop companies are feeling a pain in their share price is that consumers are thinking “natural and organic.” Consumers are also starting to think about the supply chain. Where does this food come from? Under what regime of regulation and inspection was it produced? Did you say the fish I'm eating was imported from China?

It's a generational change, younger people weren't hooked by the “I'd like to buy the world a Coke” advertising blitz. They see fast food and soft drinks for what they are, and they have convenient alternatives. We should acknowledge that healthy alternatives have only recently achieved mass distribution. It's much easier to make this choice today. Or rather, it's easier to maintain the “fast-food mindset” and choose somewhat healthier foods.

The fast food companies are starting to abandon the use of antibiotics in the production of the chicken they serve. They're making other minor changes, as they chase the style that enchants the consumer these days. They're asking themselves how little the industrial food complex can change to take advantage of some of that “natural and organic” glow. What will take to get some of that appearance to rub off?

While there are a myriad of problems with the way the news media, companies and the regulators think about “natural and organic,” it's still a positive change of direction. More hopeful is that this change was initiated by consumers, not by companies. A change in consumer style is wrecking havoc on the business plans of the soft drink and casual/fast dining industries. It's a rare thing, so it's worth taking note.

I don't want to jinx it, but I'd like to make a request to that amorphous cloud of desire out there, that “style we chase.” I'd like you (I'm talking to you, amorphous cloud) to start associating “smaller” with better quality and more concentration. This would include things ranging from apples to onions, boneless skinless chicken breasts to movie theater popcorn sizes, McMansion houses to pizzas.

There's a natural large size that occurs rarely in the course of things. We should be surprised by this kind of largeness. Well, would you look at that. Look how big that thing is. Don't see that too often. Instead, large, extra-large and jumbo are the “normal” sizes. The way we produce this standard large size is by diluting and inflating whatever it is. While it appears to be more, it's actually less. It's vast quantities of weak tea.

So, here's the deal. Occasionally something changes in the way we perceive things. Suddenly we can plainly see that the product we're buying is pumped up with some diluting agent to make it look bigger. What was previously an attractive quality–bigger, no matter how it is achieved, is now a little repulsive.

The ultimate performance of taste is identifying the things you want to spit out. I want to make the case to your unconscious sense of style that “fake bigness” that attempts to appeal to your impulse toward gluttony, should be eschewed. Suddenly you have the sense that certain things are grotesquely big.

That is all.

 

The Stream: Music Without a Container

A common complaint among collectors of recorded music is that they've had to buy the same music over and over again in different formats. First the vinyl, then the cassette, then the CD, and now the digital files. Somehow the consumer believes he is buying the “music” and not the mechanical means to play the recording.

The cost of producing and distributing physical containers for music recordings has played a large part in what consumers have paid for recorded music. As the cost of producing these containers goes down, the price of recorded music remains the same. The theory is that these expanded margins allow the record labels to invest in new and undiscovered musical talent. That rarely happens anymore, the capital is deployed into other kinds of investments. It's no longer considered a good investment to develop talent.

The cut-of-the-pie taken by non-musicians is enormous, even as the risk taken by the record companies gets less and less over time. All of the risk has been shifted to the musicians. If they show up with a built-in audience ready to buy product, then there's a contract waiting for them to sign. This is true in the publishing world as well.

The issue lost in all these calculations over the cost of producing and distributing various containers for recorded music is: what is the value of the music itself? Since, for the most part, all CDs are the same price, can we assume that all music has identical value? In this model, the differential in artist compensation is based on the number of units sold. Sell a lot of records, make a lot of money. Or as it sometimes plays out: take an advance on future units sold; don't sell enough units; end up owing money to the record company; work without compensation to pay off the debt.

If you want to understand how power and morality works in business arrangements, simply ask who is taking risk and who is being compensated for it. Imagine a business where an artist is asked to take most of the risk, but isn't compensated when the risk pays off. Reducing risk and increasing profit is business as usual for corporations.

The digital file download was the last remnant of the music container. The file was downloaded and actually existed on some device. Cloud-based services parked your files in a location where network-connected devices could access the full library without specific files being physically present.

The music streaming services have done away with the container altogether. You don't even get the files. The consumer only gets access to the stream. Since the cost of the container is no longer and issue, the price of the service is lower. If you look at it from the pure consumer perspective, it's a bargain. Let's say you're big music fan and you buy two or three CDs, or album downloads, a month. For the cost of one download, you have access to a huge library of recorded music streams. For the cost of 12 album downloads a year, you get access to all popular recorded music all year long. It's pretty obvious that the economics favor a mass migration to the streaming services, and that movement is backed up by industry stats.

We're familiar with the old story about musicians who were paid a flat fee to record a set of songs. Some of those songs were turned into vinyl records that became hits. The record company took in all the profits for record sales, and the musicians had signed away their right to a piece of the action. Over time that model was adjusted to give artists some compensation for record sales. But what happens when nothing is actually sold anymore? No music is sold, streaming service revenue is based on monthly subscriber payments. Turns out the value of an individual stream of a song is a tiny fraction of a penny. That's what the artist receives each time the consumer streams a song.

For the consumer, the risk of buying an unknown album becomes zero with a music streaming service. Since nothing is bought or sold, the consumer can take a bite and if it doesn't taste good, it can just be put back on the shelf. This lack of real investment changes the whole dynamics of new music discovery. (And by the way, streaming is NOT a discovery method prior to purchase. It replaces purchase.)

Ask any investor whether it makes sense to take uncompensated risk. This is the question musicians need to ask themselves. By releasing their new music to the streaming services, they've effectively eliminated any possibility of selling physical CDs or downloads. If sales of recordings is a significant part of a musician's annual income, streaming will quickly eliminate that income category.

Working outside the music industry system used to be considered big risk. It was a risk that limited the upside of sales and popularity because big distribution only existed through the system. Even the “independent” and “alternative” categories have ended up inside the thing they're supposed to be independent of, and alternative to. Since the streaming services take sales out of the picture, all that's left is the promise of the possibility of popularity. But like the risk, it's uncompensated popularity.

Musicians are already taking risks. A risk is an investment, and musicians need to figure out where they can be fairly compensated for the risks they're taking. Music consumers need to understand that they're part of a whole ecosystem. The idea that the world owes consumers free music forever is childish and self-centered. If you don't value music enough to pay for it, then you really don't value music much at all. Do you think fair-trade coffee is a good idea? How about clothes that aren't made in a sweatshop? How about seafood that isn't the product of slave labor? How about fair-trade music? Does that sound good to you?

 

Previous Entries Next Entries