Why work for nothing?

Why work for nothing?

Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down looked at the radical and free-thinking groups that flourished briefly around the time of the English civil war. Those watching the engaging Channel Four series New Worlds have been asked to think about some of the immediate consequences of that turmoil through the Restoration period, a time more troubled and troubling than the idiotic Govian view of British history would allow, when monarchy was the unabashed figurehead for the tyranny of the wealthy.

The world is on its head again, albeit this time without such violence. We are trying to adjust to the wholesale disruption created by information technology, particularly the internet. That sounds prosaic in contrast to the dreams of the Levellers or the Diggers, but the revolution in progress may prove more enduring.

There is a political dimension even to this bloodless upheaval, not least because in the UK and the US we’ve had to watch an extraordinary widening in the gap between the wealthy and everyone else, a new nakedness in the wealthy’s sense of their entitlement, while the internet conversely promises an unprecedented distribution of potency (if not power) to the mass of the population. It would be foolish to make too much of this just yet (foolish to try to predict the counter forces it could bring into being) but I want to spend some time thinking about some of the underlying cultural changes apparently in progress, and what they could mean for the future (this will probably be spread across several blog entries).

Much of the disruption lies in the fact that what once seemed solid (notably writing whether in books or newspapers, or music in recorded formats) has become disembodied, digitised.

This new ephemerality has in turn stimulated the spread of the “free” internet, where that idea of the free has a double edge: it is liberating, in the way it has allowed us easy and immediate access to much of the world’s knowledge, as well as allowing us to make our own contributions to that knowledge (on platforms like this, without the usually stultifying mediation of a traditional publisher). But of course there is also the other sense of “free”, in the way the internet is habituating us to the idea that we should not be paying for any of this stuff. This brings some obvious problems, because if people won’t pay how are the creators ever going to be rewarded for their efforts? According to expectations established by the end of the last century, without that immediate financial reward the creators will simply stop producing things for us to enjoy.

The truth is less obvious, more complex.

Certainly old production models will have to change, probably beyond recognition. I no longer have a normal TV. Whatever I watch, I watch through a computer, which apart from liberating me from the tyranny of schedulers, until recently offered me the pleasure of ad-free viewing even on commercial channels.

Commercial TV was launched on a kind of contract with the viewer, a contract which is still influential in the digital world. Instead of having to pay to watch, we would sit through ads. In this business model, we the audience actually became the product, our attention the thing that was being sold to paying customers (the advertisers).

In the UK at least the satellite broadcaster Sky first broke this model, charging a (high) monthly subscription and forcing its subscribers to watch even more (and more intrusive) ads than they’d been used to on terrestrial channels. But as the channels multiplied the audience fragmented, and as broadband connectivity brought good quality video to computer screens “traditional” TV viewing has gone into a permanent decline.

The response of the traditional TV companies, like most other pre-digital publishers, has been pathetic, as they attempt to extend their old revenue models to the new media.

I watched the aforementioned New Worlds on 4oD, Channel 4’s catch-up service. Channel 4 has followed ITV (the UK’s main commercial terrestrial broadcaster) in blocking the ad-block software on my browser, so now if I want to watch any of its programming I have to disable the ad block and sit through some crass sales messages.

Isn’t this reasonable? Actually, since I’m not the customer, but the product, it’s just dishonest, because it still doesn’t deliver my “eyeballs” to the advertiser. I wonder what world the channel managers (and their customers) are living in if they don’t understand that watching something on a computer is quite different from lounging passively on a sofa. I still don’t watch the ads; when they come on I simply switch to something more interesting for a few minutes, (the normal internet experience has trained me to flit between content streams or pages) and feel irritated with both broadcaster and any possible advertiser for intruding on whatever dramatic tension the programme might have built up.

I do understand that the broadcaster needs to have some kind of revenue to pay for the programming, but it can’t expect a sustainable revenue stream from this kind of behaviour; it can’t sell a receptive audience to advertisers by creating irritated viewers. The audience “product” needs remodelling, to understand in what circumstances I might be happy to watch a sales pitch for something I probably don’t want or need. It probably means being far more carefully intrusive, perhaps only running ads at the beginning of the programme, and certainly far less frequently through the programme itself (probably just once every 45 minutes). It might mean asking me to log in then using my profile to show me only products or services I’m probably interested in, actually using the differences between internet and traditional broadcasting to create a more compelling offer to advertisers. Someone must be thinking about this stuff, but there’s no sign of it in the way those broadcasters behave.

To be fair I’m not sure many people apart from Google have really cracked how to make advertising work in this new media world (Facebook is clearly making lots of money but its user base remains fragile and vulnerable to fashion change). It may be subscription models and streaming offer a better way forward for many. I’m certainly happy to pay Netflix a few pounds every month as long as there are a few things queued up in my watch list, and to pay Google a streaming rental for new films. Spotify and similar services are fast becoming the commonest way for people to enjoy music, though here there’s a different problem with the music labels grabbing the lion’s share of whatever royalties might be available. Then again this is probably a temporary issue, as artists work out how best to take advantage of the direct access to their audiences offered by digital technology (I can see a future for specialist music marketing services, but certainly not the labels as we have known them).

In future blogs I’ll be looking at further implications for creativity, the individual and the corporate world. For the moment suffice to say that the can is open and the worms wriggling.

Brutal truths

Brutal truths

I caught part of a recent BBC Wales profile of Karl Jenkins, perhaps the most commercially successful “classical” composer of our times. I feel I must put in these inverted commas because the genre is not an easy one to talk about: it denotes broadly a world of virtuosity and rigour, a world of demanding music particularly in its contemporary forms. Jenkins’ music demands the inverted commas because in critical respects it’s not particularly demanding, is in fact resolutely accessible. He has his fans among classical musicians, but I imagine he’s well used to what may seem like an elitist snobbery from his detractors.

When I was a schoolboy I was interested in some of the whackier jazz fusion combos, including Soft Machine. Jenkins replaced the Softs’ sax player Elton Dean in the early 70s, and was important to the band’s evolution, but I always felt he didn’t quite fit, that there was something detached about him. It didn’t come as any great surprise when a few years later he left experimental jazz behind for the lush embrace of advertising soundtracks.

I’m not a fan, but that’s not particularly important. Praising Jenkins on the documentary the ad mogul Sir Peter Hegarty claimed that there was no greatness in making difficult music for an audience of 40 people; that truly creative people absorbed what was going on around them, and redeployed it somehow, in a way that had integrity but could appeal to a mass market (I paraphrase).

I guess it’s no great surprise to hear that coming from an ad man, but it only illustrates how denuded the idea of “creativity” is in the advertising world, which in many ways has shaped our culture, our mainstream sensibilities (entirely to their detriment).

Some great art is popular. Much of it isn’t, because, pace Hegarty, popularity or the lack of it is pretty much irrelevant to the quality of a piece of art.

Advertising requires imagination, and technical skills, but it is never creative in the way good art (let alone great art) must be. That’s because advertising is ALWAYS safe, and has to be, even when it seems to court risk (what it offers is the manner of the risky, but never its substance). Advertising is rooted in cliché, because advertising needs its instant hooks, the easy pull of the familiar; it needs to reassure even when it’s promising adventure. The focus groups wouldn’t have it any other way. Good art on the other hand, however it works, mostly takes us to places we wouldn’t normally go. It unsettles us to move us, not to buy something, but to re-experience in a new light some aspect of what we already have, or give us something perhaps we didn’t know we wanted.

Art and advertising are diametrically opposed. It’s not then surprising that in his recent TV paean to Brutalist architecture the great Jonathan Meades should in passing take a swipe at the stultifying influence of advertising. That said, Meades’ real target as so often was our cultural veneration of mediocrity, the safe, the undemanding. He traced a line from the the perceived grotesquerie of John Vanbrugh, through High Victorian Gothic, to the Brutalist design of the 1960s and 70s (or thereabouts). This, he argued, was an architecture which felt no need to apologise for itself, an architecture of ideas and the imagination, an architecture capable of refashioning the space it occupied. All this sits in contrast to the unassuming orderliness of Georgian building, beloved by the conservative mind, easily harmonious in its proportions, which some would see as elegance or even beauty, but others like Meades would find oppressive in its bourgeois lifelessness.

It would be unwise to argue that a design was good just because it was adventurous, or exciting. It might be these things and still not work, for other reasons. Assertiveness is exhilarating when you have something worth asserting; without it assertiveness is most likely to bring us bathos, or vulgarity.

Brutalism is a misleading term, suggesting something thrustingly hideous, but then what we think of as Brutalism isn’t even a style. Like most architecture it was a response to its times, a determination to find an adequate form for conflicting senses of hope and darkness, those apprehensions themselves born out of a feeling for the blankness of the natural world, the dependence on ourselves to make what meaning we could in our lives, at a time when religious faith appeared to be necessarily collapsing into the confines of the lunatic fringe. In many ways we’re still struggling with these darker apprehensions, all the more so since any optimism bubbling up around our emergence from the Second World War seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Instead we have a society increasingly polarised between the crushing and the crushed, where private and corporate wealth, protected from the consequences of its own grotesque misjudgements by public handouts, now commands shining and vapid temples to itself, the new towers of London evoking not so much awe as the vaingloriousness of San Gimignano’s merchant princes.

Through the ministries of consumerism we’re offered the consolations of constant undemanding distraction, whether through sanitised mysticism, or the forced and prurient excitement of Reality TV (never was a genre more ironically labelled).

That’s not the fault of Karl Jenkins, or any other creative soul working to do something good in these conditions; just because something’s not great doesn’t mean it can’t be good.

Unfortunately the danger seems to be more the other way round; so our apparent desire to shirk the serious or the difficult means we settle for consolation when we could do with confrontation, when we debase our own judgements to claim greatness where there’s only a kind of slavery.

I find advertising almost impossible to watch or read these days, no matter how well-crafted. I find it hard to look beyond the manipulative motives, the unsustainable pointlessness of it all, much as though this is the world in which I make my living. But at least when I’m making my living I know what I’m doing (in every sense); I’d never mistake it for something more important, something enduring. And I hope I’d never mistake the sentimental for the truly sentient, never mistake sensation for sense.