Friday, August 31, 2007


My most recent post concerned the fact that the comic book 'renaissance' that has happened since the 1980s can be linked quite directly to the development of a comic book specialty market. Thinking with this, we can see how other media change when they are filtered through a specialty market.

Some elaborations follow. In the first part, I respond to fellow blogger Bob Archambeau. In the second part, I apply this model of comic bookification to the world of music sales.


My fellow blogger Bob Archambeau, in a comment on this very blog, says:

Great post! But (as Columbo would say), there's just one more thing I gotta ask here: does the whole narrowcasting/cable thing really only lead to programming by and for a creative class? I mean, sure, it does. Right. And for all the reasons you describe. But what about all of the crappo cable? The Home Shopping Networks and Spike TV-style channels? I don't mean to knock Spike -- I like MXC as much as the next giggling idiot on the couch -- but you'd hardly call it highbrow.
I'll take these one-by-one. Think of it as a Deborah Solomon Q & A, like we see every Sunday in the New York Times, except not quite as full of shit as Deborah Solomon:

Q: Does the whole narrowcasting/cable thing really only lead to programming by and for a creative class?

A: No, it doesn't. Those outside of the creative class will still have programming created for them, and this programming will likely have the same problems (and promises) as before. Stick with the model of comic books. Are there still comic books made for kids? You betcha. The difference is that the market for comics now focuses not only on children, but also on well-educated adults (whereas, once upon a time, 'adult comic book reader' really did imply that the audience member was either mentally handicapped or in the military; I'm not making that up).

Q: But what about all the crappo cable?

A: It's still there. It's going to be there for a long time. However, if cable (and satellite) move more to a subscription-based model, there could be an even more dramatic divergence of the creative class's entertainment (made by and for the members of what Alvin Gouldner called the CCD, the culture of critical discourse). By buddy Mark Brewin pointed out on the phone the other day how, in 2002, James W. Carey described an encounter with a dude from Europe, who said something like: "You know, it used to be that all the interesting television was made in Europe [okay, probably an overstatement at best--ed.], and now the most interesting television is being produced and aired in the U.S." This is, I think, tied intimately to changes in how television organizes its creative labor given the realities of a relative surfeit of networks/channels.


A friend of mine with contacts in the music retail world told me recently that there is much buzz surrounding what is going to change after the Xmas season of 2007. After that retail push, it seems, it will be likely that Barnes & Noble will give up on selling music in their stores. This means a few things. First, if you're going to do any holiday cd shopping, you might want to do it at Barnes & Noble, in January of 2008, when they will be liquidating stock. Second, this seems to be very much in line with the comic-bookification (okay, I'll never use this term again) model. The point: retail music is going to become even more of a specialty market, now more than ever. Of course, there are already specialty music stores, so this doesn't represent a sea change so much as a further adjustment. Still, once Barnes & Noble gives up on cds, others will follow, and we may see the kind of deep bifurcation between top 40 sales in stores and 'specialty' sales that we saw in the 1980s. It gets more complicated, of course, because music can easily be purchased online, and this alters the entire dynamic (here it's significant that comic books have yet to be successfully distributed as an online product). The question, which has hovered like a vulture over music for a long time, is this: can the largest corporations involved in music production and sales come up with a strategy to handle these shifts? Or will they continue to respond as they have for a while, with greater emphasis on generating a small number of mega-hits? We shall see... However, the culmination of factors that has created an arguable resurgence in comics and in television may lead the music industry away from the kind of 'creative class' approach that we have seen in these other media.

That said, there's a chance for the music industry to develop itself (and its listeners) by taking advantage of subscription-based services (satellite radio & webcasting seem like natural allies, though the industry often turns a cold shoulder to these new alternatives to broadcasting). Napster (i.e., the 'new' Napster) has already tried this, with little success. But this approach is not dead, yet.

Monday, August 27, 2007


McLuhan famously said that you know a medium has died when people use it to create 'art.' He was probably wrong to use the word 'dead', but as with much of what McLuhan said, it's thought-provoking.

For some time now, I have considered what this idea of McLuhan's means in terms of comic books. A very brief history of comic books goes something like this: In the 1930s, comic books were created largely for a juvenile audience. As comics became more popular during the 1940s, there came into existence a wealth of genres of comic books. These genres included: crime comics, horror comics, superhero comics (duh), kiddie comics, pirate comics, war comics, romance comics, and much else. Numerous producers (and a few distributors) of comics enjoyed the benefits of a robust demand for all kinds of comics. Of more importance here, the 'exhibitor/vendor' role for comic books was almost always played by supermarkets and drugstores (where comics were, of course, placed right next to the Pep cereal and the ointments). The Comic Book Code and competition from television in the 1950s began to eat away at the comic book market. The number of producers dwindled, as did the viability of the comic book market.

Cut to the 1980s, when a new way to sell comics came into its own. The comic book specialty store (exemplified perhaps by "the Android's Dungeon," of Simpsons fame) came into its own. As Amy Nyberg explains in her very good book on the Comic Book Code--"Seal of Approval"--the specialty store was unanticipated by the creators of the Comic Book Code, and gave comic book producers (including small, independently-run outfits) the chance to bypass the provisions of the Code, while also a) creating a market for adult comic books, and b) opening up a chance for autonomy on the part of comic book artists/writers/producers. By the late 1980s, specialty stores could be found throughout the suburban U.S. Journalists began running with the "comic books aren't just for kids any more" story. Long story short: a change in how comics were sold fed back into the system by which they were created and distributed. I would argue that this change in production also represented a new blooming of the comic book medium (albeit one that gets tremendously blown out of proportion).

Let's do what the title of this post suggests: let's use this as a model for other media. I'll start with television. Television was the definitive form of 'mass communication' for decades. The 3 big networks staked claims on very-large audiences. Think M*A*S*H. Think Cosby Show. Think They Honeymooners. Cable television comes along, and eventually, there is the opportunity to differentiate markets much more, creating the opportunity for something similar to the specialty sales of comics. Television has become increasingly unmoored from the "big 3" approach, and this has led to new specialty programming, including almost anything that tv critics hail as 'genius': The Sopranos is an obvious example, Deadwood goes right along with it, and let's also hear it for Turner Classic Movies. Much as when comics began to move into a specialty market, the production of television programming has been hitched to a creative class of writers, actors, and producers. At the risk of sounding like I agree with laissez faire apologists for the existing media structure (who get things precisely wrong on this stuff; more on that later), this new system is more supportive of experimentation with programming, and also more capable of supporting quality programming. This doesn't mean everything is okay now (far from it), but there are echoes of McLuhan here: just as 'television' as traditionally construed, seems to be dying, there's some really great stuff out there. In a sense, it's because the stakes have been lowered (because no one can expect the kind of ratings bonanzas that tv had in the 1970s) that creativity has crept in.

This argument I am making may sound elitist, and I'll own up to it. Opening up television to a creative class is something very different from handling it to 'the people'. But I'd rather have programming that comes from a creative class--in this case, people who have worked for years on their crafts--than solely in the hands of unresponsive plutocrats. Gramscians are rightly suspicious of manipulation of this creative class by the power-holders. Others (including Joe Turow) suspect that this breakdown of the mass audience may go hand-in-hand with the erosion of any common culture in the U.S., and that specialty audiences may represent the development of virtual gated communities. These suspicions are well-founded. Still, there is something to be said for expanding options from a surprisingly competitive marketplace. Now, the job is to make it both more competitive, more varied, and more responsive to the needs of the public. I'll try to get this done by Thursday...

The same changes that occur when a medium is hitched to specialty audiences can be applied to music, and to radio. More on that later.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fielding A Question Regarding Democracy:

Here at Pravda Kid, I try to be responsive to my readers. In this spirit, here is a comment from one Michael K, regarding my earlier post, involving the Horner/Baker study of Salt River Tickets in 19th Century U.S. elections. Says good Michael K:
Let me see if I follow you here. Schudson is right that there is too much emphasis on intersubjectivity in democracy studies; but Horner and Brewin are right that there isn't enough of it in contemporary democratic practice? Which of these theses seems more plausible to you? Or, is there a way to resolve the apparent contradiction and assert both?
I don't think there's much of a contradiction here, but I (think I) get Michael K.'s point. Some say Democracy could use some good ol' bodily involvement, some visceral punch, a forum where people get together, get drunk, party, argue, and vote. This approach finds its roots in Deweyan thought (sometimes dried up like a prune and turned into Habermasian thought). Meanwhile, an opposed camp tells us that this love of conversation/affiliation/intersubjectivity misses some important issues. Schudson, for one, tells us that conversation has all kinds of problems and should not be theoretically situated as as the 'soul' of democracy. Amongst other things, the well-nigh single-minded focus on conversation tends to undervalue the role of information in modern ('mass'?) democracies.

Fine. So, Michael K.'s question stands: How do I resolve this? To resolve this, I begin by pointing out something that may very well not be true: there is no zero-sum situation here. It is possible for a social polity also to be well-informed while also being engaged on the bodily level (showing up to rallies, arguing loudly, getting drunk on election day). So, let's go for well-informed people with strong community allegiances. An emphasis on rationality/information (in theory or in practice) is always going to be in danger of masking underlying interests that fuel politics (Chantal Mouffe makes this point much better than myself). An emphasis on bodily engagement--often exemplified by political rallies--is always going to be in danger of being fascist. Instead of having the poorly informed, uninterested (alienated) citizens (the situation in which 'information/rationality' and 'involvement' are both 'low' on the magical democracy-meter), why not have well-informed, involved citizens?

This is all kind of obvious. The bitter pill to swallow is that I'm not finding any way to get us to this dreamy synthesis of engagement and information. So, I conclude on the following note: hanging above all of this is the idea of social control. The fear of the masses (smelly, irrational, prone to bouts of genocide) pervades this debate, as well it might after the last 100 years. The call for rationality and an informed electorate have done duty as appeals for social control. In light of this, a warping of Michael K.'s question would be as follows: "Which option [information or involvement], if each is boiled down and opposed to the other, would be the most dangerous now?" I think we're living in a situation where the culture of journalism/politics (two institutions with a 'bureaucratic affinity' for each other, as the fella says) has leaned strongly in the direction of disengagement. We're paying the price for that in terms of alienated citizens, low voter turnout, etc. But (and I think this is largely consistent with Brewin & Horner's ideas) creating greater bodily involvement--making democracy literally more fiery--might simply embolden the trampling of reason that the Frankfurt school dudes (Horkheimer especially) feared so much. I bow to Schudson, who reminds us of the limits of conversation (which I'm extending into the world of 'bodily involvement' here), and of the not-so-terrible role played by information in politics. Once again, I seem to be taking the side of gesellschaft.