Modern Hell #15: The tyranny of the sell-outs
Modern mass culture needs new ideas. Why don’t we have any?
In late May, Justin Timberlake announced that he’d sold his share of rights to his entire song catalogue for $100 million to Hipgnosis Song Management, an intellectual property rights management company listed on the London Stock Exchange. It’s not the only one paying big for back catalogues. Two years ago, Universal Music paid a rumoured $300 million for the entirety of Bob Dylan’s songwriting catalogue. And Primary Wave has acquired the rights to thousands of songs by artists like John Lennon, Steven Tyler, Chicago, and Kurt Cobain.
The simple logic behind these acquisitions is based almost entirely on predicted future streaming success – that, no matter whether the rest of the economy is soaring or crashing, people will still need music, especially the music they know. At the same time, as music streaming audiences grow and increasingly incorporate older generations, the pool of listeners who’ll seek out back catalogues expands. But that simple logic leads to complications, and weird things have started to happen.
For one thing, new songs end up getting heard less. The impact of more older listeners is that the impact of new songs – those released within the prior 18 months – is diluted, according to the 2021 year-end report from MRC Data, the company that tracks sales information for Billboard. In fact, 2021 was the first year since 2008 in which streaming of current songs declined versus the prior year. For investors in back catalogues, this is great news, but for everyone else, it means something different.
“Old music is killing new music,” veteran music writer Ted Gioia wrote in January, based on the MRC Data report. Because it’s not just older people who want to hear the classics over and over; young people listen to them a lot, too – no doubt after hearing them on algorithmically-curated playlists that are designed to feed even more similar-sounding music to listeners. “Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,” Gioia wrote. Worse, a rise in copyright litigation makes industry executives nervous to take on new artists.
But suffocating new ideas isn’t a problem limited to music. Something similar has been happening to the film industry for a while, too.
“Bigger, better, fewer.” This is how the Hollywood Reporter framed Netflix’s new direction, based on sources they spoke with. The focus comes after Netflix’s surprising quarterly earnings report in April, where the company reported losing 200,000 subscribers in the previous three months. Since then, Netflix has issued layoffs and made cutbacks to some of its production divisions, including “the original independent features division, which made movies in the under-$30 million budget range.” The “era of expensive vanity projects at Netflix, whether animation or live action (like Martin Scorsese’s $175 million The Irishman), is likely over,” the Hollywood Reporter concluded.
In 2019, while promoting The Irishman, Scorsese was excoriated by fandoms and fellow directors alike for saying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films are “not cinema”. But Scorsese didn’t mean that the MCU necessarily sucks, but that it sucks for the movie business – for the exact same reasons that streaming sucks for music: consolidation around one style or type of product kills fresh artistry.
The most “ominous” change to the movie industry in the last 20 years, Scorsese wrote in a later New York Times op-ed, has been the “gradual but steady elimination of risk…Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.” In other words, the movie industry is banking only on what it already knows makes money.
And it does make a lot of money.
In 2021, MCU films combined for a reported 30% of North American box office sales. The franchise’s dominance has been going on for a while, and if it’s not MCU films taking up space in recent years, it’s other remakes and sequels. Of the top 20 highest grossing domestic films of all time, 17 have been released since 2008, when Iron Man, the first MCU movie, was released. And only three of the top 20 – Avatar, Titanic, and the first 1977 Star Wars film – were neither part of the MCU nor remakes nor sequels. But, naturally, Avatar will have a sequel soon.
Scorsese was vilified in 2019 but more recently his vision has begun to look typically ahead of the curve.
At Cannes this year, director James Gray echoed Scorsese on the problem with repetitive big-budget film dominance: “When you make movies that only make a ton of money and are only one kind of movie, then you begin to eliminate the importance of movies culturally,” Gray said. By way of example, he quoted Marlon Brando – “make him an offer he can’t refuse” – a line that’s become embedded in cultural vernacular. Cinema, in other words, is culturally relevant. Stuff like MCU, what Scorsese calls “worldwide audiovisual entertainment,” is not. As Gray quipped: “You cannot quote me a single line from Aquaman.”
Major film studios, Gray argued, “should be willing to lose money for a couple of years on art film divisions, and in the end they will be happier,” because broad-based audiences – not just those dedicated to the endless sequels (ie. the equivalent of greatest hits packages) – will see new ideas and become interested in films again and return to cinemas.
At some point, the idea of selling out died – or was killed. For artists during the last few decades of the last century and into the early years of this one, being labeled a sell-out essentially meant losing all credibility. Tied, as it was, to a wilful capitulation of one’s integrity to commercialism – that is, trading your soul for cash – the idea of selling out was just about the worst thing imaginable. Not so any longer. The internet, as well as both its own economic forces and those beyond it, changed all that. Selling out, as a concept, is pretty much gone. Along with it went any stigma of making art strictly for the cash.
The creeping sameness of music or movies is the direct result of a general lowered expectation about personal integrity in the world post-2008 financial crash. The collective lesson of that event did not turn out to be that everyone ought to hold themselves to a higher standard, but instead to a lower one. As we watched the crooks get away – as they escaped jail with trillions of dollars more in their pockets – is it any wonder that we all began to think about how we could do the same? A culture of grift was born in that era – a collective mentality that you not only should take the money and run, but that it was right to do so. So, everyone did it. Everyone sold out. Or is trying to.
And it’s a problem that nobody has a problem with that. While selling out was, at worst, an excuse for unjustified snobbery, it was at least premised on a good idea, which is that value is not determined by money. The idea that art should be created away from either corporate or commercial influence holds within it the seed of all-important boundless self-expression that’s necessary for art, and society, to move forward. Does great art get made within a commercial context? Of course! But, as we’re seeing, if the priority is commercial success, familiarity will nearly always win out, and the new ideas become the exception to the rule. Until finally they’ve disappeared altogether.
Art survives on progress, as do we all. If we allow our culture to become a deadened wasteland bereft of new ideas, we should not be surprised to discover one day, as individual products of that culture, that we have suffered the same fate – that we have bored ourselves to death.