Because I love the culture I write about, these columns are usually lighthearted. Not this time. Tremendous changes are taking place in the entertainment industry, and these changes are still accelerating. They raise serious questions about the future of the pop cult. Here are a few of the biggest.
· What’s going to happen to books?
E-book downloads now account for only 1.5% of the total market…but that was once true of compact discs, and if you’ve bought an actual vinyl record lately, you’re in very select company. At this writing, best-selling hardcovers have settled at an e-book price point of about $10, but if you think e-book vendors such as Amazon and Sony are making a profit, you would be wrong. That’s because the product is sold cheap for the same reason that dope pushers sell the product cheap, at least to begin with: to get you hooked. And if that seems a harsh comparison to you, then you don’t understand what every Harry Potter and Twilight reader knows: Good stories are dope. I love my Kindle, but what appears there has (so far) been backstopped by great publishers and layers of editing. If the e-book drives those guys out of business (or even into semiretirement), what happens to the quality? For that matter, who pays the advances? No one I talk to can answer these questions.
· What’s going to replace rock & roll radio?
I can personally testify that it’s on life support, because I own a rock station (WKIT in Bangor, Maine) and I see the balance sheets. If I may wax vulgar, ad revenues are in the pooper. And this is true whatever the rock format: pop, oldies, heavy metal, middle-of-the-road (which I think of as Doobie Brothers Radio). Right now the only real radio rent-payers are right-wing ratchet-jaws like El Rushbo. If there’s no rock & roll radio, who’s going to find the great new artists to make the little girls scream? Where are the DJs like Cousin Brucie…or Carroll James of WWDC, who is credited with playing ”I Want to Hold Your Hand” first in America? How culturally important are the gabbling ”personalities” who make prank calls and own morning drive-time? Let’s put it this way: As far as I’m concerned, you can take Opie and Anthony and shove ’em where the sun doesn’t shine.
· What happened to serious American movies?
I ask because the best ones, such as The Hurt Locker, no longer get anything resembling a wide release, while Michael Bay’s idiotic Transformers 2 movie opened on over 4,200 screens. That’s a lot of space taken up by SFX and Megan Fox’s perky breasts. And consider this: Locker cost about $11 million to make. It’s a work of genius. Revenge of the Fallen had a budget almost 20 times that, and it’s a work of crap. The public decides, you say? Fine, I have no problem with that, but when did you last see a movie that still engaged your mind a week or a month later? Doubt was nearly a year ago. Ditto The Wrestler and The Reader. Having scanned production schedules, I can tell you there’s nothing like these on the horizon…but you can bet your ticket stub there’ll be further adventures for the Transformers and the G.I. Joes.
· Can network TV survive?
Based just on the fact that NBC is turning over nearly a quarter of its prime-time schedule to Jay Leno while cable continues to produce actual entertainment like Damages, Burn Notice, and Breaking Bad, I have to wonder. Here’s a little exercise for you: The next time you watch your favorite network show — my last one was Harper’s Island — watch the ads instead of going to get some chips. Notice how many of the former big-name advertisers have been replaced by hucksters selling exercise gadgets, wonder hangers, and miracle spot removers. Then ask yourself how much the cost of prime advertising time must have sunk if these weirdos can afford to buy in.
· Why should we care?
Simple: Because right now there are no adequate replacements for the quality that looks to be on the way out — for entertainment that really moves us. When crap drives out class, our tastes grow coarser and the life of the imagination grows smaller.
And when the good stuff’s gone?
It ain’t comin’ back, son. That’s what I’m really afraid of.