The model which defines the corporate period could not function without two important factors. First, the model requires the ability to legally collectivize resources and use them as if they belonged to a single person. This is the concept of the corporation, with “corporate” meaning body, as in the company acts like a person and can own property like a person without being “a” person. The other critical ingredient is mass media, which allows the distribution of a media product to large numbers of people while maintaining a low cost to the end consumer.
The technological revolutions of the 20th century allowed that second factor, the mass part of mass media, to explode, while the technological revolutions of the 21st century are changing how the model works by reducing the importance of the first factor, the corporation itself. But what is mass media, exactly?
The 20th century, for all its technological progress, did not bring anything truly new to the table when it comes to art, with the arguable exception of video games. Mass media, for most of the period, increased the visibility of art forms that were already mature before 1900.
Those art forms are illustration, drama, music, and narrative prose. Additionally, the news (in the form of newspapers) was a mature form of media that gained the corporate mass-media treatment, moving into the audio and later visual realm as the period progressed.
Illustration in its various forms, whether full paintings, woodblock prints, or line drawings, had existed for thousands of years, with techniques being passed down, refined, and rediscovered over many centuries. The mass media form of illustration was the format of the comic, which adapted the art of traditional illustration to print media. It could be in the form of single panels (which had already been a part of newspapers and propaganda work for a hundred years), strips with a funny air put into newspapers usually for younger readers, or the new format of the comic book, which used illustration to tell tightly paced stories.
Even the comic book was hardly a new format; story-telling through illustration had already existed in Japan for several hundred years, and illustrated manuscripts existed before the printing press. What made the comic book such an effective piece of media during the corporate period was its wide ability to be understood since it had limited text content and relied upon visuals to do much of the story work, and the ability of publishers to distribute the books cheaply, making their profit from sales volume. It wasn’t until the 1990s that comic books moved away from cheap newsprint, which is where the “pulp” in pulp fiction comes from. They were, until the collector boom, considered disposable, like pulp magazines and dime novels.
Drama is one of the oldest artistic traditions on earth, with extant examples going back to antiquity in both Europe and Asia. What changed in the corporate period was the method by which the common man could enjoy drama, which was first through the motion picture and later television.
The movie is merely a modern adaptation of an ancient format wherein actors recite lines and act out a story for the audience. What the mass distribution of copies of motion pictures allowed was for high-value investment in a single production, not one show or stage run but a single performance of a show, though a movie was usually filmed scene by scene and presented a unified whole. A producer could make the best costumes, shoot on location or build the best sets, use the best lights, and hire the most attractive and famous actors. Indeed, the idea of the “movie star” is only possible with this high investment in production combined with wide distribution.
New techniques added to the dramatic tradition, things like close-ups, soundtracks, changing visual angles, and a host of special effects, make the film an art that stands on its own, but it is, at its heart, a continuation of the dramatic tradition. What is remarkable about it is that it created a means where investment in the product could be massive, but the end product could still be cheap and easy to view. The profit came from sales volume. In the corporate period, the common man had exponentially more access to drama than in earlier times when viewing drama required live actors and stages. Suddenly the poorest Americans could afford to watch a high-quality dramatic performance on a free afternoon without having to travel out of their own town. Even in 2023, a ticket to a Broadway musical averages more than 100 dollars, while a cinema ticket is ten and doesn’t require a person to be physically present in New York.
The corporate period saw a significant development of videography technology, starting with silent film in the 1890s moving to feature-length films able to contain a complete drama with 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” (a.k.a “The Clansman,” a Ku Klux Klan propaganda movie). Sound became widespread in the 1920s, and three-strip Technicolor in the 1930s allowed a full range of colors to be displayed. There were even innovations in 3-D in the 1950s, but the biggest technological innovation of that time was television, which allowed people to watch the moving picture format at home and for free via broadcast.
This model of corporate patronage, in which advertisements were placed alongside free programming, in effect selling the audience’s attention to other corporations, is just as important as other distribution models and creates unique advantages for the corporations involved in it. The other form of mass media that used this model was radio, which became prominent in the 1920s and 30s as AM broadcasts increased and radios got cheaper for consumers. Here also was one of the first places where the common man could enjoy a large selection of high-quality dramatic performances in the form of radio dramas, which remained popular until television ownership became widespread. Free broadcasts allowed a kind of feedback loop with popularity; The Shadow radio dramas leaned on the popularity of the pulp literary character, and the broadcasts, in turn, increased the cultural presence of the pulp novels.
Radio is the media format best associated with music in the 20th century, and that is also where such feedback loops were most pronounced. While radio stations made money from advertisements and were obliged to pay some royalties to record companies, the bulk of revenue in the music industry came from sales of physical records. Edison Cylinders were common prior to 1910. Gramophone disk records appeared after 1900 in various speeds and sizes, and those then existed alongside a series of other physical standards in the second half of the 20th century using magnetic tape and optical media. Getting consumers to buy a copy of their favorite song on physical media was often a matter of getting radio stations to broadcast those same songs or getting television networks like MTV to play their videos in the late 20th century.
Music is probably the best example of the “corporate” part of the Corporate Period. It was corporations that financed the production of the music, distributed and sold the physical copies of the recordings, and managed the careers of the artists themselves. It was corporations who decided what ought to be produced and by whom, and corporations who decided what should be on the airwaves and, therefore, what people ought to listen to. Even so, one should not underestimate the boon the music industry was to consumers who, prior to the corporate period, experienced music only in the form of infrequent public concerts or as a part of a sacred setting. The closest thing you had to this system prior to the 20th century was the player piano, a special innovation but not in the same realm as a recording of a real group of musicians.
As the period went on and technology increased, so did the quality of recordings, so that while a record was an imperfect and low-fidelity representation of live recording in the 1920s, it became superior in quality to any live recording by the 1970s. An excellent sample of this growth is The Beatles, who used technological innovations throughout the 1960s to improve their sound to the point where they stopped playing concerts entirely and only recorded as a studio band for several years prior to the band’s breakup. “Please Please Me” sounds like it comes from a different era from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” though they were recorded less than four years apart.
Narrative prose, both in its short and long forms, presents a challenge to dating the corporate period since the corporate model in the literary world started several decades before the 20th century. In many ways, publishers of the written word pioneered the system that would come to dominate popular art. After all, the printing press produced the first form of mass media. Cheap novels and magazines printing short story forms were already widely distributed by the 1880s, and genre fiction was well into its own development. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens made the serialization of stories popular way back in 1836. The novel Evelina, published in 1778, pointed toward what genre fiction would become: stories written to please a subset of people (in this case, middle-class English women). Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1887, a mystery format with recurring characters that would form the model for what is usually called the pulp era.
It was, ultimately, technology that allowed the model of pulp literature to be applied to every form of art. The business approach to publishing books was adapted to music, drama, and visual art with the intent of every corporation: to generate a profit. I should re-emphasize that this profit did not somehow come at the expense of the customer, as it has become popular to associate profit with greed. While many artists felt exploited, before the corporate system, they would not have had the opportunity to be artistic specialists or stars at all. It was only in the second half of the 20th century, when conglomerates were able to exploit reduced competition, that the word “corporate” lives up to its negative connotations. In reality, nobody benefited more from the corporate system than the common man, who was able to enjoy a wide variety of art that was unavailable to him in prior centuries.
There was also a new form of art that became available (and cheap): the videogame. Technically, games are not a new art form at all but an amusement that spans human history. However, the synthesis of gameplay, graphics, and sound is something wholly new, facilitated by the technology of the late 20th century, such as the microprocessor (though the first video game, Computer Space, had no CPU). This combination created not just an extension of non-computerized game types but also facilitated new experiences that developed into game genres, such as platformers and shooters. Development of new software was expensive and time-consuming, with the highest cost being the diverse specialized labor that went into games: designers, programmers, electronic music composers, etc. Despite this, games were not a luxury but an activity for the masses.
There were two primary models through the end of the corporate period: the arcade and the home computer. In arcades, customers would rent expensive arcade game cabinets by inserting coins, and their time would be up either after a certain period of time or (more commonly) when they failed at the gameplay and “died” or experienced a “game over.” This model allowed even the most humble person to have access to cutting-edge gaming technology for a mere 25 cents, if only for a limited time. It also encouraged types of game design to maximize coin use, usually by increasing the difficulty of the games. Game companies would typically sell game cabinets to arcades or third-party amusement companies, who then collected the coins to gain a profit for themselves.
In the home computer space, software was bought once and for all and therefore encouraged different designs built around maximizing time played (and consequently value). End users would have to invest in their own hardware, but early in the art form’s development, companies were able to produce affordable and versatile computer hardware, such as the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, and especially the Nintendo Famicom (also known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES). While buying one’s own hardware was expensive, and the hardware until the end of the 1990s was inferior to that found in arcade cabinets, it was still within reach of most middle-class families, and game consoles (as they came to be known) made by Nintendo, Sony, Sega, and Microsoft became staples of consumer electronic sales and have remained so today.
With all this in mind, I would define the corporate period as ranging from 1910 to 2010, understanding that there are no clear cutoffs at either end. 1915 is its start due to the emergence of the phonograph record as well as the release of Birth of a Nation. By that time, all major forms of art existed in some form of mass media. 2010 is the close of the corporate period because by that time, all major forms of art had significant representation in the new models facilitated by the internet, and the corporate model had already been in steep decline for a decade in fiction, comics, and music. 2010 was also the peak of the gaming industry creatively and as a corporate-dominated art form, with independent games gaining much more prominence as time went on. Keep in mind, though, that the ends are fuzzy, and corporate-produced art still very much exists and still has a large influence on culture. Next, let’s take a look at how the corporate model produces “the hit”—media that is popular enough to be a cultural universal.
Part 3 will pick it up from there on how hits are made. In the meantime, check out my creativity manual and recent fiction: