Dude, where’s my subculture?

Kind of following on from this week’s mega-rant on the state of subgenres, some further thoughts on cultural diversity in entertainment have raised their heads. This was triggered by digging through my RSS clippings (they tend to pile up over a month or so) and finding a post by Chris Roberson from a few weeks back, where he has a bit of a think about the ‘declining readership’ issue. I think it’s less sketchy than he’s making it out to be, although it could do with some supporting facts and figures, as he admits (oh, for the resources and research time of a paid journalist with no other job commitments). The crux of his thinking is as follows:

“Bigger population, more choice, rising quality, but shrinking audiences. Why is this happening? Well, I’m not certain, but I think the answer may be in the question. Here’s my half-baked theory: The potential audience for entertainment expands as the population grows, while at the same time the number of entertainment choices expands at a similar rate, but the audience for each form of entertainment shrinks.”

Now, that’s connecting quite neatly to what I was saying yesterday about the expansion and diffusion of the subcultural forms into (and out from) the mainstream. Despite the absence of supporting facts, I can certainly say that it feels right – it makes an intuitive sense, especially if my ideas about cultural diffusion are anywhere near correct.

Roberson mentions that this may be the Long Tail manifesting itself, and that’s another meme that tweaks my intuitive senses (when I get the time, and the library buys a copy, I’ll read the damned book, so that I can stop basing my thoughts on blog posts and Wikipedia blurb). Think about it, though – the sheer volume of choice in media means that it’s much harder for anything to gain a real monocultural stranglehold.

Granted, we still get viral content that, from out of nowhere, is suddenly everywhere, but it rarely keeps that supremacy for long. Even ‘proper’ content, like TV, doesn’t have the epic long runs that series used to get twenty or thirty years ago, and the producers know this – a friend who watches a lot of TV (I don’t own one) was telling me about an interview with the writers of ‘Lost‘, and how he had said that he has the last seven episodes pre-prepared, and enough ideas to run the middle on for an unlimited period, until falling figures show that it’s time to wrap it up before the show implodes. (There’s probably something about this out there on the web, but I don’t care enough about ‘Lost’ to spend an hour googling for it for the sake of a speculative blog post. Yes, I am an amateur – you want professional, start paying me.) Nothing lasts forever – at least, not if there are big profit margins to maintain.

So, as Roberson asks, is mass media a thing of the past? Well, not for some time (much like my theories about the future of book publishing, there’s a fair while to go yet), but eventually I think the monoculture, having assimilated all the subgenres, will stay as a single amorphous creature, but the memes that it has consumed will wash around inside it in a persistent fashion. So, for instance, science fiction won’t ‘die off’, but it may be quite a minor scene in its ‘pure’ form. Meanwhile, however, science fictional tropes will be popping up in other genres of literature, and indeed in other scenes (e.g. music, fashion, visual and plastic arts) too.

If this does occur, it could well spell the doom for the top-down entertainment distribution system. People will want something more rhizomatic, and the Long Tail will manifest itself in specialist retailers or ‘content hunters’, who will subsist in the fringes and niches of popular culture. There will still be a centre (because the human urge to pay attention to what everyone else is paying attention to will take even longer to die), but it will be less of a monolith on an otherwise sparsely populated cultural landscape. Yes, there’s a metaphor I like the look of – culture right now is like Cleopatra’s Needle surrounded by a ring of stone traffic bollards, but it will become more like a fully-mobile spinning-and-dancing Stonehenge, memes of equal weight circling and looping around and through each other in patterns of ever-increasing complexity…

…OK, so I’ve not been sleeping much recently. Meh.

So, maybe bad news for the shareholders of the entertainment industries, but as I’ve said before (and will definitely say again), there’s a huge sea of opportunity for savvy artists to take their product straight to the people and bypass the middlemen, with no creative restrictions on their output. There’ll be less chance of being the next U2 or J. K. Rowling, perhaps, but there’ll be a better chance of getting your work out in the eyes and ears of people who might want to pay you for it. Provided your work is any good, of course!

There’ll be more on this sometime soon, I think. Writing these things down has a way of making my ideas solidify, so that I can see how they fit together – and, of course, where the gaping holes in the logic are. Any help from my readers is, as always, more than welcome. I can’t believe that absolutely none of you have a conflicting view on this subject.

Or maybe no-one ever makes it to the bottom of a post…have that for your ‘long tail’, blogger-boy!

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