marcus westbury

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The decline and fall of corporate culture?

November 20th, 2009 by marcus

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THE dominant cultural form of the 20th century is starting to unravel.

What was the dominant cultural form of the 20th century? There are plenty of candidates and no lack of ones that are allegedly under threat. Cinema? Rock music? The album? Radio? The four-minute single? Magazines? Newspapers? Television?

Actually, it was none and all of the above. It wasn’t an art form, a movement or a format but a way of organising. The 20th century was the era of the corporation. We don’t even think about it but corporations have become the way in which culture is created, debated and disseminated. Much more so than any art form, artist or movement, the economic imperative of corporate consolidation has defined our culture.

Larger and larger corporations moved from bit players in a culture generated by individuals, entities and small enterprises to the dominant core of our cultural lives. Depending on how you look at it, they democratised, debased, diversified or even destroyed culture. Even in the ”capital A” Arts, companies (a term that once had a variety of meetings) are expected by governments, sponsors, board members and philanthropists to organise and behave like corporations.

The rise of creativity and culture by corporation was evident in two powerful factors that are rapidly changing.

The first factor is capital. It is the thing that corporations are uniquely good at. They can muster resources across continents to make and distribute movies, media and music that could never be achieved by any individual or most nation states. North Korean spectaculars have nothing on Disney. The average Hollywood film is on a par with the construction of the pyramids as a logistical exercise – involving thousands of artists, craftsmen, technicians, logisticians, pilots, actors, animators and a small army of lawyers and accountants. That’s before a whole other army designs the marketing, the happy meals, the tie-ins and the toys.

The ability to muster capital makes amazing things possible – from the epics of Cecil B. DeMille to Pixar’s Up or any number of wonderful and expensive works.

Of course, it’s not actually related in any way to quality.

The second factor is unravelling faster than you can say ”the internet will destroy the world as we know it”. It’s distribution. Cultural and creative corporations have traditionally thrived on their ability to control distribution. The ability to get their films into theatres, books on to shelves, newspapers and magazines into shops and homes, or control of the scarce bandwidth of television at the expense of potential competitors has been the tool that has enabled profitability and cultural power. Tight control of narrow distribution channels have long been the gateways through which most aspiring creatives seeking an audience needed to pass.

Yet, distribution is being transformed and democratised. Distribution has become abundant. The ability to reach hundreds of thousands of fans without so much as talking to a major record company has become the norm, not the exception. Global audiences are easy.

Of course, corporations – particularly on the web – are still involved in the distribution of culture, but the era of corporations as filters to getting work produced and widely distributed is going, if not gone.

In parallel, the costs of production in music, media and even video and film have dropped through the floor. The top film at the US box office last week, Paranormal Activity, was made for just $US15,000 ($A16,500) and has already grossed more than $US86 million. Yes, it is being distributed in traditional theatres by a major distributor but it is a sign of things to come.

There is discussion everywhere about death of media, of journalism, of music, of drama, but the larger phenomenon is transformation of corporate culture itself. It’s not something that is likely to be taken lying down by companies in the culture business. Expect much screaming, calls for protection, calls for new laws to replace old monopolies, and frantic litigation.

For many artists and creative people, these are exciting times. New models are emerging. The debate can’t simply be about resisting the change but about building the alternatives: the legal and regulatory systems; the financial structures and business models; and the new ways of doing things from which the 21st century culture will emerge.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Paul Nov 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Excellent article and invigorating. I agree totally and I am breathing huge sighs of relief that general recognition of these facts is spreading rapidly. Great work again, Marcus.