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.


Anonymous Mark Brewin said...


Great couple of posts. Here's one of things that the argument raises in my mind. The problem maybe is not that charge of elitism per se, or so it seems to me. I am willing to own up that I find comic book culture of the past 20 years much more interesting than the kind of stuff that Marvel and DC were putting out in the 1970s (and for the most part, are still putting out). Some of the new stuff is pretentious (that's always the danger) but the best of it stretches the possibility of the medium itself, which (at least if you are interested in the question of human communication) is going to make it inherently compelling.
The problem is that we realize, post-Bourdieu, these aesthetic preferences are never innocent. It's generally not a case of Apple vs. PC users, simple consumption differences. Cultural distinction (and capital) invariably gets tied up with other forms of social power. I'd bet (without any good data to back me up because I dooubt anyone's done this yet) that this hasn't really happened yet with the sorts of once-mass media of the sort you're discussing here (comics, TV). Right now, my suspicion is that the changes are really being used to mark out urban avant gardes and hipsters from the rest of the crowd. Those people, while they have lots of cultural capital, tend not to have a lot of economic capital and so the distinctions they make are not so nefarious. But if past history is any guide, things probably won't stay like that for long.
But what's the solution here? I can't really see one right now, although I think that obviously we need to try to come up with something. I mean, I hope that we're not obliged to defend crap culture just to prove that we're good democrats.

11:18 AM  

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