The Experience Economy (Engaging Art, Pt II)

Note to self: Spare the prose and save the reader.

Have to confess that after reading ALL of the various posts and comments in Doug McLennan’s “gangblog” called Engaging Art: A Public Conversation, my first takeaway is sheer exhaustion – we got some lonnnng posts, ripostes, and rants going on here! On Sunday Editor Doug McLennan attempted a rather breezy summary (links are mine; prose is Doug’s):

Robert (Levine) says he tends to think things stay the same. Greg (Sandow) suspects (okay, more than that) that fundamental change is afoot and that the traditional arts as we have known them in the recent past are finished. Moy (Eng) is energized by the possibilities of change, and Ed (Cambron) thinks the museum model for symphony orchestras might be the best. William Osborne seems to think that lack of public funding is at the root of all that ails us in America. And Molly (Sheridan)? She seems amused by all the hand-wringing. (have I managed to mangle and mischaracterize everyone’s positions?)

Steve Tepper, (from the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy, and one of the honchos behind the whole exercise), on the other hand, came back with an even more reductive summary:

Many of the postings and reactions to the book vacillate between “technological determinism” and “technological realism.” The first group imagines that our patterns of engagement will change dramatically because of the introduction of new technology, alerting us to a number of possible scenarios: death to experts and professionals; rampant choice and diversity; hyper-active and interactive audiences who dictate every detail of their experiences; constant mediation through screens and electronic devices; etc. The others tend to believe that there is nothing truly “new” about “new technology” and that it is simply returning us to habits and modes of engagement that were popular in earlier times. Others simply see technology as a useful tool, but not as transformative of social and cultural life.

Regardless if you are a determinist or a realist, I think it’s worth noting the rest of Doug McLennan’s commentary:

It’s interesting to me that everyone who creates anything these days is having some version of this conversation. Certainly anyone in the arts. But also Disney and CBS and Universal. And Starbucks and the Los Angeles Times and BMW and Coke. We’ve moved from being a service economy to an experience economy. Service is now assumed. The question is what’s the experience going to be.

Some of these entertainment companies (and even car companies now think of themselves as entertainment companies) have been losing audience at rates the arts would find catastrophic. Top-rated TV shows, radio stations, recording companies and newspapers are seeing their audiences down by 30-40-50 percent from what they were when the 90s began. By comparison, the 90s were the biggest expansion of the arts economy in American history. Even the softening of arts audience numbers since 9/11 is nothing compared to some of the retreats in the commercial sector.

The changes in audience behavior we’ve been talking about here are all things that commercial “content” makers are also addressing. I’m not sure they have any better answers than we do yet.

From my travels around the county I think he’s (mostly) right: these conversations are suddenly taking place, and not just in the creative arts. And everyone’s groping and guessing for clues, let alone answers. I say “mostly,” however, because there are still a few world-is-flat types who are putting their hands over their ears, intoning, “I cannn’t HEARRRRR YOU!” And too many of them are working in the music business. Oh, wait, I forgot: The world IS flat again….

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