Credit: Doug Chayka
How the Internet Is Saving Culture, Not Killing It
By FARHAD MANJOO
There has been huge growth in digital subscription services, and they are revolutionizing every cultural industry.
One secret to longevity as a pundit is to issue predictions that can’t be easily checked. So here’s one for the time capsule: Two hundred years from now, give or take, the robot-people of Earth will look back on the early years of the 21st century as the beginning of a remarkable renaissance in art and culture.
That may sound unlikely to many of us in the present. In the past few decades, we’ve seen how technology has threatened the old order in cultural businesses, including the decimation of the music industry, the death of the cable subscription, the annihilation of newspapers and the laying to waste of independent bookstores.
But things are turning around; for people of the future, our time may be remembered as a period not of death, but of rejuvenation and rebirth.
Part of the story is in the art itself. In just about every cultural medium, whether movies or music or books or the visual arts, digital technology is letting in new voices, creating new formats for exploration, and allowing fans and other creators to participate in a glorious remixing of the work. This isn’t new; from blogs to podcasts to YouTube, the last 20 years have been marked by a succession of formats that have led to ever-lower barriers for new and off-the-wall creators.
Yet for much of that time, the business side of culture looked under assault. The internet taught a whole generation that content was not something you really had to pay for. So for years, digital content companies — especially those in the online news business — looked doomed to pursue a scale-only, ad-based business model. They tried to reach tens of millions of readers, viewers or listeners in the hopes of getting pennies in ads per user. Not only was that unsustainable, it was also ruining culture: It left no room for small acts and subtle niches, and it turned everything into overheated clickbait. Things looked gloomy.
In the last few years, and with greater intensity in the last 12 months, people started paying for online content. They are doing so at an accelerating pace, and on a dependable, recurring schedule, often through subscriptions. And they’re paying for everything.
You’ve already heard about the rise of subscription-based media platforms — things like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Spotify and Apple Music. But people are also paying for smaller-audience and less-mainstream-friendly content. They are subscribing to podcasters, comedians, zany YouTube stars, novelists and comic book artists. They are even paying for news.
It’s difficult to overstate how big a deal this is. More than 20 years after it first caught mainstream attention and began to destroy everything about how we finance culture, the digital economy is finally beginning to coalesce around a sustainable way of supporting content. If subscriptions keep taking off, it won’t just mean that some of your favorite creators will survive the internet. It could also make for a profound shift in the way we find and support new cultural talent. It could lead to a wider variety of artists and art, and forge closer connections between the people who make art and those who enjoy it.
“What we want to do is change the entire financing mechanism that drives the production of content online,” Mr. Conte said. “We want to change how things are paid for and how the web runs. For us, it’s a very, very big problem.”