The Ecosystem of Culture

Prof. David Hesmondhalgh is what you could call an expert on independence. He did extensive research on the „cultural industries“, with a special focus on the rich alternative music scene of Great Britain. Being so close to artists and „cultural producers“ all the time, we thought he might be tempted to try creating something himself. So we asked him what kind of magazine he would make if he could. The answer was very modest, smart and a little bit complex – which pretty much describes our impression of Dave: „It would be a magazine that encourages people, who had little access to the means of cultural production but who had talents in creating words, images and sounds, and that helps to disseminate their work, but on terms dictated by them, not so much by a group of middle class intellectuals claiming to speak for them.“ Word!

Let’s talk about what distinguishes the „cultural industries“ from other industries. What is the difference between the production and distribution of a magazine in comparison to fertilizer or body lotion?

It is a matter of degree rather than of absolute difference. Every product can be said to be a mixture of functional and aesthetic elements. Even many of the most functional products have a design component to them. But in the cultural industries – including magazine publishing – the expressive, aesthetic, informational component is very high. And this means that the cultural industries have some quite specific dynamics.

What is your ideal of a „cultural marketplace“?

My starting point would be to have a look at society as a whole: What does it mean to have a good set of cultural arrangements in a society? And I think it would be a set where people could both consume and produce culture in a way that allowed them to pursue their own notions of a good life.

Isn’t that somehow already the case – with millions of magazines available, and the possibility for everyone to sell online and become a publisher?

There most definitely is an increasing emphasis on the possibilities of culture as a business since the 1980s. This partly derives from an increase of leisure time and money available for consumers to spend on culture: There’s lots more time or money available for cultural consumption, and lots more possibilities for businesses to turn that consumption into money. On the other hand, this is a problematic perception – that it is possible for many people to make a living out of producing culture. Because there are so many people who want to work as „cultural producers“ that there is an over-supply. And this deflates wages and leads to poorer working conditions.

So there are a lot more options but not more outcome?

Well, we can see this in the increasing precariousness of a great deal of cultural work. There are more people working in the cultural sector than ever before, so in one way you could say that marketization has allowed more people to try to earn a living out of making culture. But apart from a relatively small group of people, working conditions of cultural workers deteriorated.

Don’t you think artists should be independent, free from constraints – especially by the market?

There is a very old history of the idea that creative producers, you might call them artists, or some times the cultural professionals, such as journalists – that they have a particular status. They do things that aren’t easily quantified and perhaps there’s a value attached to them, which means that commerce should be limited in its effects on what they do.But of course what businesses try to do is to make money out of the work of these people. And that’s not always necessarily a malign thing, it depends on the situation, it often depends on the institution. But there’s traditionally been a strong resistance of many creative producers to attempts by businesses to manage them, control them, and quantify what they do.

This is what is often understood as being „independent“: independence from corporate control. But is that really it?

Because many people argue that the term „indie“ has just become a hollow shell in this regard.You could argue that independent music labels, for example, were founded from the 1960s onwards on a kind of semi-political opposition to corporate record companies. They set themselves against the bureaucracy of the big, major corporations and said: We can produce a more expressive, more authentic set of sounds, of musical cultures, by avoiding that kind of bureaucratic, corporate control.
The problem is that the capitalist system – I’ve actually used that term (laughs) – was more and more prone to say: „That’s fine. We are quite happy for you to do that. And we will give you lots of money. We will help you sell your notion of rebellion to the masses.“And so this specific understanding of independence – of small businesses providing an alternative to the mainstream – has become somewhat absorbed into ordinary everyday capitalism and often no longer provides any real form of resistance.

So you say the critique of the 1960/70s counter culture and their idea of „independence“ has basically been incorporated?

If you look at the punk and post punk idea of alternative in Britain and in many other countries, the German notion of the counter public from the 1970s … we live in a very different world now. I really think it’s important to understand that historical change in order to understand the political and cultural possibilities that are available to us now: The inspiring idea of the counter public has become more and more difficult to pursue. Not impossible and I wouldn’t deny for a minute that there are still now inspiring things happening in the name of the alternative.
But the very idea of the alternative has become appropriated by some of the most prominent forms of contemporary capitalism. It has become more and more difficult to create counter publics that are really outside the domain of some of the most advanced wings of capitalism. Partly because from the 1980s onwards what you might simplify as „Silicon Valley“ was incorporating something like a notion of counter publics into their business models.

You are talking about corporations like Facebook or Google. They also enabled the rise of new forms of communication. Don’t you see the Internet, search engines, social media, as tools than can help establish some kind of „new alternative“?

With the growth of the Internet you get a lot of claims that new technologies, including social media technologies, were providing new forms of freedom and opposition to the worst aspects of modern life. But you have to realize: the companies that emerged from this, like Facebook, Google and Apple, they provide incredible technologies that made life easier for us in some respect, but they come with really, really big problems attached to them. Problems of surveillance, of commodification of information about users, problems of ideology, you might say, concerning what kinds of people we’re encouraged to be when we’re online. And that’s not even to mention their apparent refusal to pay their fair share of taxes.

You could also argue that the availability of knowledge, the possibilities of online communication and distribution, have made it easier for cultural producers to  publish a magazine, for example.

Yes, and I think it’s very important to hold on to the contradictions and complexities surrounding the development of cultural production. There’s no doubt that these remarkable technologies, which are put together with great ingenuity and skill, make it much easier to produce often exciting and innovative magazines at low cost.But there’s always been a tendency for production costs to lower in the cultural sector. That’s been a pretty much constant tendency in any particular medium. So, I guess the questions I would ask are: Has that led to any real democratization? And related to that are other value questions: In making things easier, has it really contributed to peoples quality of life, in terms of enhancing their knowledge and their ability to have good, enriching aesthetic experiences? Or has it really proliferated yet more consumer stuff?

So what you imply is: It all depends on the quality of – for example – the magazines that are being produced?

Yes, and whether they really add any enriching experiences to peoples‘ lives. I think that’s open to debate, and it brings us to another question: Are people actually reading these magazines? Are they getting to people? Yes, they’re available. We know that the web makes available thousand millions of products. But how do you make sure that people are even aware of the existence of your magazine?
The cultural industries aren’t just about production, about making a product; they’re also about circulating it to audiences. People need to know it exists. And they need to have some kind of idea what to expect, so that they seek it out or they bother to engage with it, amidst all this incredible abundance of cultural material that’s out there in the world.

Our impression is that some quality magazines can successfully build communities and find their readers. But some – despite their quality – struggle even after years. What would you say to someone who has been selling 800 copies of each issue of his literature magazine and is still devoting a third of his work time to it?

Someone who takes the view that markets are the best way in which societies allocate resources would maybe say: Well, if there isn’t enough demand, then the market is telling you that this is unsustainable. And therefore you should stop publishing. As I said before, I don’t think that and I don’t think that the market is a reliable indicator of real value, of people’s deeper needs.
I would want to argue for a system of cultural production, in which people’s attempts to think differently and to increase knowledge and to diversify people’s aesthetic experiences, are somehow supported – for example by public funding. What I would demand of cultural producers in return is to recognize that what you do can’t just be a means of narcissistic pleasure. If you’re a cultural producer it’s essential to make a contribution to society.
So I would want to see that there is a sector of flourishing literature magazines, speaking to different constituencies. But also plenty of cultural production that is for people who don’t necessarily have the educational background or the interest in literature, too.

Is our current society system encouraging media independence?

There are some conditions in our society that encourage a do it yourself attitude. That encourages people to have a go themselves. A big part of this is an education system that produces lots of young people who have the technological and cultural means to be creative. In many ways that’s a good thing, but to come back to the contradictions and complexities: There’s a serious downside, which is, there’s a massive oversupply of people wanting to do these things. And so the possibilities of making a living, of actually pursuing a career out of cultural production, well, those possibilities are very limited.And as I said before, the possibility that your product will actually be read or listened to or experienced by anyone much of all outside a small group of friends, well, the likelihood of that has diminished over the years.

We have an overabundance of producers and an overabundance of products.

This is why it really is a mistake to say that we live in a wonderful new exciting world with great possibilities. That’s true to a certain extent, but to a limited extent. And the excited utopian discourse about this new world actually plays into the hands of big corporations. If there’s too much stuff in the world that means it’s often very hard for anything to get attention without corporate support, without the money to provide the publicity, the marketing, to raise people’s awareness something exists. It becomes really hard for people to get their message out there.

The reason why we started the Indiecon is that we felt a need for collaboration and sharing ideas on content, distribution, and community building. Do you think that’s feasible?

Absolutely. That is very much what needs to happen. Nothing that I said leads me to despair. I’m just talking about the problems of believing the hype. People absolutely need to get together, people who want to provide an alternative, to work outside the corporate view of culture. People need to get together and work cooperatively. Bundle resources, share information and provide and share cooperative models that are not based on the pursuit of profit for wealthy shareholders but are based on networks and collectives of smaller enterprises. I think that’s absolutely vital in transforming cultural production.
We need a diverse ecosystem of cultural production and cultural consumption in my view. I want to see lots of different acts of music that express different kinds of peoples‘ worldviews. I want to see different kinds of magazines that play with different kinds of knowledge, different forms of expressions, different looks. I just think that’s a healthy thing for a society. And societies won’t flourish unless there’s a large, well-supported cultural production sector that isn’t run on corporate terms.

A propos corporations: The publishing industry has been in a constant crisis and some big firms already start moving their business to other sectors, like e-commerce or services. What do you think is the position of old school publishing enterprises in today’s world?

There is a space for larger firms, that have good working practices, that don’t treat their workers as dispensable, as people just to be thrown on the rubbish pile when the creativity has been squeezed out of them. There are some corporations that are much better than others and that have produced great magazines, great music and great films over the years. So I don’t think any of these things are simple. There are no villains or heroes in these stories.

Interview: Urs Spindler
Foto: Malte Spindler