Our culture is just as important as politics, maybe even more so. And right now, some harsh truth-telling is needed. But who can we trust to report on the state of our culture?
Can we ask the media to evaluate the media? Can we expect the music business to assess the music business? Will truth bombs fall on the red carpet on Oscar night?
That’s like expecting hell to have an ice hockey team.
You need an outsider to do this. So I nominate myself.
I used to be part of the system—with all sorts of fancy institutional affiliations. But I’ve left those behind to pursue the ultimate indie stance. I’m now a freelancer and Substacker, and (above all) a culture lover who is devoted to music, movies, books, TV, visual arts, and anything else that sets my heart aflutter.
But I care about more than just artistry. I also want to foster a healthy cultural ecosystem that lets creative people thrive. Maybe that’s why I’m anxious.
So here’s my report on where we are today. I think the facts might surprise you.
First revelation: It really is boom times. At least, the numbers are huge:
- A hundred thousand songs are uploaded daily to streaming platforms.
- In the last year, 1.7 million books were self-published.
- Every minute, 2,500 videos are uploaded to YouTube.
- There are now 3 million podcasts—and 30 million podcast episodes were released last year.
- About 86% of youngsters want to grow up to become influencers, and they contribute to these impressive numbers.
A hundred years ago, you folks didn’t even own a radio. Just last year, you thought TikTok was a breath mint. And now look at all those big numbers.
The metrics for our culture have never been. . . well, they’ve never been larger.
And that’s just what the humans do. We’ve got to add in all the robot stuff, too. We now have music, writing, and visual art from artificial intelligence—and it can create a theoretically infinite number of works.
Everybody can have their own theme song. Or get a custom-made poem from ChatGPT. Or if you want a painting of Drake in the style of Rembrandt, AI can deliver that too.
Never before has so much culture been available to so many at such little cost.
There’s just one tiny problem.
Where’s the audience? The supply of culture is huge and growing. But the demand side of the equation is ugly.
In many cases—newspaper subscriptions, album purchases, movie ticket sales, etc.—the metrics have been shrinking or even collapsing.
For books to flourish, for example, you need a culture that promotes reading. But most people live happily without those reprocessed trees. As a result, only 28 books sold more than 500,000 copies last year—and eight of them were by the same romance writer.
But let’s turn around and look at those folks in the audience. It’s sobering to see what they’re actually doing. Consumers of culture have so many options to choose from—so what do they pick?
The brutal truth is that there’s an ocean of stuff out there, but consumers sip it through a narrow straw.
You can tell a lot about the future by looking at teenagers. What that data tells us is that they pick a web platform—often only one—and it becomes their prism for evaluating the entire world.
One of the big winners here is YouTube. It’s so pervasive that we may soon need 12-step programs for YouTube addicts.
The New York Times, by comparison, has just 9 million subscribers. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to MrBeast, who runs more than a dozen YouTube channels with an estimated 200 million aggregate subscribers—and now has his videos translated into Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, and Russian.
I wouldn’t grasp the scope of this myself if I weren’t on Substack. But most days it feels like I stumbled, by chance, onto a rocket ship that is taking off to the heavens. That’s how it feels to run a successful Substack. The gap between the shrinkage of legacy institutions and the rapid growth of alternative ones couldn’t be more extreme.
People are shocked by the notion that MrBeast can have 20 times the reach of the largest newspaper in the world. But even more shocking is the fact that this cultural shift is still in its early stages. You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks. And all this is happening much faster than most people realize—especially those who live inside the institutionalized world of legacy culture businesses.
Ah, we started our speech with booming numbers. But we can also close it with booming numbers.
The dominant institutions may be stagnant and obsessed with repetitive retreads and reboots. And when a multibillion-dollar company like Disney or Facebook hits a brick wall, it gets a lot of coverage in the press. But there are thousands of small players in the culture ecosystem right now who are flourishing—or have the potential to do so.
We really ought to help them out. We all ought to buy more albums on Bandcamp or subscribe to worthy Substacks or whatever. But I have a hunch that those people are going to succeed no matter what.
The real question is whether those huge dinosaurs—major record labels or movie studios or nonprofits—start working in the same direction. If they start helping out in our project to build an audience and infrastructure for bold creative work, we have a golden age of artistry and culture ahead of us.
And if those big players don’t get on board, let’s do it without them.
That’s the state of our culture, my friends. God bless all of you—especially those who create the arts or support them as discerning members of the audience.
One thought on “Is Our Culture Reaching Critical Mass?”
This is an amazing report. It shows that there is MUCH more going on than we think.
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