Ideological Capture and its Cure
Within the corporate system, counter-cultural ideological capture requires that a few conditions be met.
First, the company in question must be large enough to have a bureaucracy with a highly distributed power structure. Small publishers can’t be converted because owners and presidents have too much direct knowledge of the employees and too much direct control over the final product. A large conglomerate with a strong HR department and many independently empowered units with many managers is ideal.
Second, the market must have enough total conglomeration that competition is either weak or also in the process of ideological conversion. If consumers have a choice, they will take it, so competition must be background noise or limited to non-standard distribution methods.
The 1990s music business was the best example of the above conditions, and while they indeed pursued profits to the detriment of both artists and consumers, they also pushed political propaganda. Profits and propaganda are not always mutually exclusive, especially if radical control over the airwaves is maintained. Most 90s kids I talk to don’t think of the music of the decade as subversive, but it certainly was. Brittney Spears was highly sexualized as a minor. Drug culture was heavily promoted on the airwaves, as was sexual promiscuity within song lyrics. Marilyn Manson, a manufactured shock-rocker, had an album called “Antichrist Superstar.” The most influential rap album of the decade went triple platinum and was called The Chronic. The third best-selling album of the 1990s was called Jagged Little Pill. The hit song from Kid Rock’s diamond-selling Devil Without a Cause was “I am the Bull God,” a tribute to stoner band Monster Magnet as well as being entirely about smoking cannabis. Even the things that seem innocuous, like the hit song “Macarena,” were loaded with counter-cultural (and in this case, highly sexual) messages.
These things weren’t new, but they were more all-consuming than in the previous decades, in which the music was still subversive and highly controlled by record companies. There were just fewer alternatives. It was a zenith, not an outlier.
Also worth noting is that this phenomenon will still have an impact in the post-corporate art world we are now exploring. Although corporate patronage is fading as the dominant model, megacorporations are still in control of most internet traffic. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google will all ban the same user on the same day because there are political and financial advantages to forming a cartel that acts like a monopoly, even if they aren’t legally allowed to become one. Thus, independent artists in the 21st century are still and will be in the future subject to the whims of the people in control of corporate bureaucracies. It just won’t be as direct as before and will mostly act in the negative (banning the “wrong” messages) rather than the positive (actively paying for and promoting the “correct” messages).
One of the great contributions to the malaise of post-ground zero art has been the corporations’ tendency to view themselves as ministries of culture, important gatekeepers tasked with keeping the wrong things out of peoples’ minds and putting the right things in. Going back to literature, one of the ways we know that the industry was no longer serving its customers was the explosion of self-publishing enabled by Amazon and other ebook sellers. Since the mid-2000s, there was not just an expansion in the number of books published but an incredible diversification of the books consumers could buy. Genres multiplied like bunnies to the point where there are now over 16,000 categories on Amazon among 1.4 million. Print books peaked in 2008, then declined to a low of 591 million in 2012, while ebooks grew exponentially to hit 215 million in the same time frame—evidence I reason to be a shift from traditional means of buying books to new, electronic distribution that favors independents over entrenched publishers.
If you had followed the circular reasoning of book publishing prior to 2000, you would believe there was no market for science fiction adventure stories because the large publishers didn’t print any. Amazon allowing an end-run around those gatekeepers allowed for popular franchises like Monster Hunter International and Galaxy’s Edge to take off and dominate sections of the market that would have appeared to not exist in 2000. Clearly, there were readers who simply weren’t being served, and if the attitudes explored by JD Cowan in The Last Fanatics are present decades later, it is reasonable to assume that avoiding adventure fiction popular with male demographics was a conscious editorial choice.
For both music and literature, the internet provided solutions to the problems of the late corporate model. For music, it provided both piracy of the debased corporate product and wide exposure for outsiders. For literature, platforms like Amazon provide a way for writers to go around the agent-publisher gatekeeping system and sell directly to readers and a way for smaller presses to gain an equal footing with the Big Five in a way that was impossible under the dominance of Barnes and Noble and Borders. I should note that the video game industry never progressed to this point in the corporate system. Only in the last few years has the conglomeration of developers really taken off (just look at all the companies Microsoft has acquired), and the great leveler of digital software sales through platforms like Steam, Epic, and the respective digital console stores has already allowed independent publishers a way to reach consumers for more than a decade. Video games haven’t yet had their Napster moment and aren’t likely to reach one.
One area in which the corporate system persists is movies released in theaters, particularly high-budget blockbusters. It remains difficult to assemble the resources necessary to make a large-scale film outside of the Hollywood system, and it is also difficult to distribute a film in the way Hollywood tends to make its money and measure its success: wide theater distribution. General dissatisfaction with Hollywood movies doesn’t affect the studios’ bottom line much, if at all. There is so little competition within the theater market that consumers’ only real choice is often to stay home (which many do, only to watch a megacorporate streaming service). Not only that, but the conglomeration means that any individual failure or “bomb” is low impact to the studio and even lower to the system as a whole because even when a film underperforms, every other movie showing that weekend is made by Disney or one of the other few competitors in the market. Choosing one megacorporate product over another doesn’t do much.
There is little financial incentive to write better scripts or reduce the political messaging in current movies. If the audience stays home, what are they watching? More current Hollywood content. Even a rough year doesn’t matter all that much financially since Disney is a theme park company in addition to a media conglomerate. It would take a catastrophic collapse of the industry to affect Disney, and while that may happen yet, they have enough assets to leverage debt for decades. There would be many employees, no doubt, that would view that long-term decline as worth it for the cause.
I can’t say for sure what will happen in the future. The composition of personnel at Disney may change over time, or the cinema industry may suffer a collapse that opens the way for independent filmmakers to truly compete on an even footing. I thought the lockdowns of 2020 would crush the theater industry, but the corporate movie complex remains resilient despite the extended shutdown of their most aggressive measure of success. I do hypothesize that the large media conglomerates will still be major players in the area of visual media after the decline of the cinema if for no other reason than they have large enough resources to influence social media and the government.
Despite this, the corporate model is in its twilight, and therefore we are in the process of transitioning to a new period with a new way of patronizing, creating, and distributing art. The importance of the internet to the way we purchase and view art, as well as who gets to be an artist, cannot be overstated.
Thanks for following this series so far and reading my thoughts about the 20th-century artistic model. You can participate in the new model by purchasing independent art like mine!