It’s a Business. Every…Single…Time

A much beloved ball player goes to play for his city’s arch rival without the slightest bit of regret. From him we hear, “hey, sports is a business.”

A highly intelligent, groundbreaking television show with a vehemently loyal fan base that happens to be the wrong age and thus isn’t profitable overnight is cancelled after half a season, without getting off the ground. “Entertainment is a business,” the networks tell us.

Regional theaters and Broadway alike more and more have started showing jukebox musicals and derivative plays based on the same public domain work over and over instead of increasing our cultural depth and breadth with new, challenging material. Why? Because “theater is a business.”

Literary agents, publishers, and authors lucky enough to win the publication lottery advise writers to jump through 400 hoops, study a dozen or so trends, establish their own marketing platform and pimp out their names (if not change them to something more palatable) before they commit a single word of their fiction to the page. Remember, they say, “publishing is a business.”

This very blog you are reading. WordPress ropes me into a certain kind of plan for this blog that includes no advertising, only to decide without warning that suddenly my plan would include “unobtrusive” ads at the bottom of my blog posts. If I want them to go away, I now have to buy the extra super duper premium platinum heaven WordPress package for twice as much money. And you’re a fool if you think that if I purchased it, WordPress would never create a higher tier in the future, and stick me with ads with the justification that, “web hosting is a business.”

It’s a business. It’s a business. Business. Business.

Business.

Business.

Business.

Bullshit.

This is not a socialist rant against capitalism, (though it is a broken system in many ways.) Businesses do exist, and they have a right to. But when did the concept of business become a secular deity? When did the simple, respectable and necessary concept of both paying ones bills and making some profit become the all encompassing, soul-destroying, life-absorbing universal force of spirit death it is today? Why is any and all behavior, any aesthetic, any vision or problem or longing or desire or need or passion evaluated through the lens of business?

When did we redefine business failure as anything less than economic hegemony? When did risk, cooperation, community involvement, vision and creativity become wholesale victims to the quarterly reports that practically scream year after year, “Protect the billions at all costs! Don’t stand up or make a sound! If they ain’t payin’ we ain’t playin’. ”

I don’t know when all of it happened, but I know that we are there now, have been for a while, and show no signs of evolving beyond it. And I say “evolving” because the business-oriented mantras I have described are indicative of immature industries and individuals specifically, and an undeveloped (or ailing) culture as a whole.

It’s a culture that believes and trains every child to believe that the higher the numbers the better, regardless of how the numbers get higher. It is a culture that eschews  values such as loyalty, trust, community, curiosity, creativity, artistry and stability. A culture whose language about matters business has become almost Orwellian in its surrealistic simplicity, i.e., changing or dismantling a brand or concept on which millions still rely for simple daily comfort if not essential productivity and then telling the horrified masses, “We did this all for you! You’ll love it, even if you didn’t want it!” Never mind that the old model with which everyone is already comfortable continues to bring in X amount of profit. This is a business, and they have discovered a way to stiff happy consumers and bring in 5X in profit instead. And if it ain’t at least 5x, it’s a failure. That’s being a business in more and more circles today, and it’s not limited to huge corporations either. Modest family business are also becoming infested with this approach.

And we tolerate it. We keep buying the lousy cookie cutter books that the Big Six publish. We go see the increasingly vapid 300 million dollar “Blow Them Up” movies with the same plots as the last eight 300 million dollar “Blow Them Up” movies. We let cheating athletes into our Halls of Fame, recognizing that “it’s part of the game now,” and because everybody still loves Johnny Roid anyway, along with the millions he soaked out of whatever team free-agency put him in before he retired in (all too temporary) disgrace.

We don’t reward people or companies that consider combining profit with improving  lives as crucial to their  mission statement. We burn a big red “C” for “coward” or “I” for “idiot” onto the faces of people who seek economic models on either the local or national level that run against this grain, or that might, (Heaven forbid) actually allow the wealth of a company to improve the health and well being of the community in which it resides.

Studios can still make a profit on movies without behaving this way. Publishers can still make a profit without publishing books this way. Athletes can still enter retirement as ludicrously wealthy people all because they were adults who played a game for a living without acting this way. Important ideas, innovative formats, geographic loyalty and just plain humanity can coexist with business, if we want it to. But it appears we don’t want it to, and I shudder to think at how many movies or books, or even medicines have gone unmade because of it.

How about we give honorable behavior a try? Or art for arts sake? Or having to think even as we recreate? How about we try establishing roots and teaching our children that making a million dollars and paying our bills while also being noble is in fact better than making 25 million dollars and not giving a damn how it happens, so long as it does? The other way has had plenty of chances to prove its best for society. It has failed to do so, don’t you think?

 

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2 Comments

  1. Regarding theatre, capitalism is its own form of censorship. Theatre has to compete with film, so companies put on the plays that people recognize. You can tell a Shakespeare company is struggling depending on what plays are in their season…Film has to deal with this as well. They get actual ratings, and the higher the rating, the less money they earn. If you want to further your artistic vision, you do need money…critical acclaim can only get you so far. Eyes Wide Shut is a great movie, pivotal in the careers of the actors and director, but it didn’t make much money because it’s NC-17 and it wasn’t popularly known or shown anywhere “big.” But filmmakers also know that they have to produce crowd-pleasers or action movies rather than quieter or character-centered films, or they won’t earn enough money. Sigh.

    But on the flip side, I will object to art for art’s sake simply because of how many people think it’s ok to rip off musicians. And interns. The “experience for work” line is such utter bullshit. If you hire musicians to play a gig for you, they are doing real work, and expending real money and time on gas and rehearsals (not to mention the years of lessons, etc.). Expecting someone to play for you in exchange for “experience” is expecting them to lose money doing so. It’s also disrespectful of the arts and the work that people put into art. Art “counts” as a job just as much as anything. You wouldn’t hire a caterer to cook for your event on the mere promise that the people who taste their food will remember them and “get their name out there” or “get experience.” That’s BS. That’s asking someone to work for free on the off chance that someone they meet there will give them a paying job later. Also, those musicians don’t need “experience.” They’re professionals in their field. Would you refuse to pay a professional in another field, like your doctor or your lawyer? Maybe if the lawyer wins your case for free, he can gain more “experience” and get his name out there so that other people will hire him later. ARGH. I could rant on this for hours, but…

  2. I agree with you about professional musicians and performers being paid when they engage in professional gigs. And I certainly feel the same things about writers as well. (The “exposure” offer to writers is among the most harmful and insulting but widespread aspects of the freelance writing world.)

    My “ars gratia artis” position comes from a place of encouraging the creation and exploration of art itself in regards to mission statements, not from a position of artists doing everything they do for no compensation. In fact I think if more art were pursued and promoted for the sake of art flourishing in society, individual artists could potentially expect to make more for their work and talents. But that approach is longer, and requires more patience and acceptance of the overall importance of the arts than does the, “follow the leader” produce only what makes instant money regardless of quality approach does.

    The same with character driven movies and plays. A willingness to invest in art would, in my view, eventually yield monetary profits as well. But again it would take a longer view than does the, “this is just a business” approach does, and I don’t think people are willing these days.

    It is in this sense, art should be pursued, or perhaps invested in, for its own sake, not as a means to deny pay to artists for their efforts.

    That being said, while I do of course accept that artists need money to do much of what they do, reigning in the sometimes huge aspirations until such time as a modest, “art first’ inroad is made might just allow artists to thrive on less capital for a while. I can’t totally absolve the arts community from getting caught up in a “money first” view.

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