The rise of the “new economy” and the 2008 market crash devastated many lives, including those in the world of culture. Over the course of the last two decades, Internet piracy has befuddled the music industry; Amazon discounts have stymied publishers and laid waste to bricks-and-mortar bookstores; the housing bust has thwarted small architecture firms; and online publishing platforms have helped put tens of thousands of newspaper and magazine writers and editors out of work (and lowered the floor on fees and wages for those still employed). At present, many companies and individuals in the business of culture hover perilously close to insolvency. Aside from the prescient, the lucky, and the owners and employees of social-media networks and Internet service providers, few seem to know how to earn their keep from culture anymore.
Scott Timberg, once a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and now a freelance journalist, pleads the case of those left in the dust. In his first book, Culture Crash, he chronicles the woes of journalists, architects, working artists, and musicians who aren’t famous, and their “often-mocked supporting casts—record store clerks, roadies, critics, publicists, and supposedly exploitative record label folk.” He examines imperiled industries and rounds up practitioners who recount how their fields have changed for the worse and damaged their lives to the point of foreclosure and divorce.
This downward mobility, Timberg argues, stems from bigger societal trouble. “[Two] centuries of Horatio Alger stories have built to a blockbuster culture that venerates celebrity above all else,” he writes. A winner-take-all mentality that parallels Occupy Wall Street’s most successful talking point has made a small battalion of Keshas, Kanyes, and Katy Perrys the only victors in our shattered cultural field—one in which even reasonably accomplished pianists must stoop to sleeping in their cars.
To bolster his argument, Timberg turns to the writings of Richard Florida, the urban-studies theorist and fetishist of the higher bohemian. In several bestselling books, Florida has argued that American industry will be both shaped and ruled by the creative class, a group of specialized knowledge workers whose skill set is perfectly tailored to lead an economy no longer reliant on the manufacture of tangible goods. Florida himself has since acknowledged the flaws in his theory, and Timberg piles on by noting that culture workers—specialists, all—have suffered badly during the Great Recession.
Where Florida heralded the knowledge economy as America’s salvation, Timberg holds the well-being of the cultural middle class as the key to American creativity. Unfortunately, Timberg’s argument is hampered significantly by his account of class. In the introduction, he attempts to make the case that most cultural producers “start in the middle and end up there if they can.” He does allow that there “are plenty of exceptions,” but according to his logic, the Beatles—the sons of laborers—are just as middle-class as Virginia Woolf, friend of the aristocracy and keeper of servants. African-American jazz musicians able to afford college only through the GI Bill, Timberg says, have the same essential advantages as the art students who formed the Rolling Stones.