Review

'Culture Crash' examines the crisis in the creative industry

In 'Culture Crash,' Scott Timberg uses first-hand knowledge to detail the decline of the creative class

Scott Timberg believes America's creative class is being destroyed by what he calls today's "winner-take-all" economy. Backing his argument with an avalanche of empirical evidence from across the music, publishing, newspaper, movie and architecture industries, Timberg warns in his new book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class," that the arts economy — those of us who make a living by inventing and curating ideas and culture — is "melting."

"The middle is withering," he warns, "like a garden starved for rain."

From musicians to novelists to book editors to video-store clerks to architects, Timberg explains, our entire creative class is in crisis. Yes, there may be blockbuster artists still making a fortune, he acknowledges, but the vast majority of creative people are struggling.

Timberg includes himself in that category: an arts and culture journalist, he was laid off from his staff writer job at the Los Angeles Times in 2008. He describes getting a call from his despairing wife. "The bank," she gasped, "is suing us." Their "little house," where they lived in with their infant son, was being repossessed because Timberg could no longer afford his mortgage payments.

After losing his job at The Times, Timberg — a self-described "risk averse" child of the middle-class suburbs with a deep affection for "middlebrow" culture — "limped" through the next few years, earning less and less money for his journalism. "Of course," Timberg notes dryly, "I had plenty of company."

The "common denominator" of our culture crash, Timberg writes, is the Internet, which has replaced the knowledge worker with the computer. Amazon has killed the bookstore, thereby "disappearing" the clerks who educated the reader. The music industry, Timberg explains, is equally decimated with the current Silicon Valley darlings, Spotify and YouTube, earning the popular cellist Zoe Keating a measly $3,000 in 2013 in exchange for her 2 million YouTube views and 400,000 Spotify streams.

As a journalist, Timberg is particularly good on the collapse of the newspaper industry, which, he says, has "butchered itself" with the loss of "tens of thousands" of jobs over the last decade. The problem, he explains, is that the Internet has an acute business-model problem, with online advertising unable to generate the sort of revenue to employ high-quality journalists. The result, he warns, is the collapse of the church-state wall between advertising and editorial, a new class of corrupt bloggers and an increasingly ignorant public.

But it's not just technology that is killing the creative class. Over the last decade, Timberg argues, there's been a perfect storm of "anti-elitist rage market populism and corporate consolidation" as well as the collapse of the traditional humanities in the universities and even the replacement of cultural with culinary taste. Today's educated middle-class person, he warns, is more likely to be obsessed with the origins of their coffee beans or free-range chicken than with W.H. Auden, Bob Dylan or Yo-Yo Ma.

There are two principle weaknesses in "Culture Crash." The first is stylistic: Timberg's overly polite middle-brow aesthetic has produced a rather one-dimensional book. Even his outrage is rather too suburban, lacking any real humor or edge. The tragic story of the death of the creative class calls for an author with the grand wit and erudition of a Harold Bloom or a Christopher Hitchens. Unfortunately, Timberg's style is more down-to-earth, and "Culture Crash" sometimes reads like a series of worthy newspaper articles.

My second criticism is programmatic. Timberg's solution to our cultural crisis is more government investment in the creative industries such as the "public support" in Britain for the BBC. But this is impossible to imagine in an America where even public investment in necessary infrastructure is a Sisyphean political challenge.

Timberg is also wrong to write off corporate sponsorship as a partial solution to the crisis. After all, like it or not, that's where the real money is. And there are many corporations that, for one reason or another, are willing to sponsor creatives without fundamentally jeopardizing their independence.

That said, this remains a vital book that anyone with an interest in culture or the arts should read. After Timberg was evicted from his house, his 5-year-old son said to him, "We'll come back, right?" But, of course, Timberg and his son have not. And we won't be able to go back either to our previously flourishing cultural economy if we don't heed Timberg's warning and face up to today's alarming crisis of our creative classes.

Keen is the author, most recently, of "The Internet Is Not the Answer."

Culture Crash
The Killing of the Creative Class

Scott Timberg
Yale University Press: 310 pp., $26

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