We are living in a time where anyone with even the most rudimentary technological know-how can add their voice to the ether. No longer gated by channels of critical approval, nearly anyone can now make a film, record an album, or write and publish a book. Traditionally, to get one’s work into the public arena it was required to go through professional “gatekeepers”—a handful of film studios green-lit and financed approved films, record companies signed artists and put out their albums, and teams of agents, editors, and publishers produced written works that measured up to a predetermined (but realistically undefinable) caliber of quality. No longer. Now everyone has a voice.
Superficially, this sounds great. The creative hierarchy has been democratized, and now the measure of a piece of art’s worth comes from the public’s perception and approval of it, as well as the critics’s. The problem is, with so many more avenues to get your “thing” out there and accessible, inevitably there are that many more voices to compete with, or at least that many more to try and stand uniquely against. Where once there were curated signals, now there’s often an ocean of noise. A perfunctory perusal of YouTube will quickly illustrate this point, where carefully crafted and critically meaningful content (which, is still nonetheless often created by independent “amateurs”) sits right alongside video content that can only be called trash, and which adds little to nothing to cultural enrichment. But this is the trade-off for access: the independently produced “good” necessarily opens the way for an even greater influx of “bad”.
And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, assuming the public is able to discern the good from the bad, which these days is often measured in “shares” and “likes” rather than sales and publicity. That seems fair, on the surface, since theoretically content that is higher in quality (whatever metric that quality might be measured against) will be more readily consumed and elevated above the “noise”. But it also means that, even if content is qualitatively superior, if an audience doesn’t find it among the sea of consumable choices, it still fails.
As individuals have become more creatively empowered, however, traditional avenues of production and distribution have had to change in tandem, often to the detriment of the work they aim to curate. For instance, recording artists traditionally were signed to a record label based on their abilities after being scouted by an A&R (artist & repertoire) agent, given a contract and advance to record an album, and then promotion paired with touring would create a dual revenue stream (labels would usually recoup their advance/recording expenses from album sales, after which artists would begin to see royalties, and artists would retain most of the money from touring profits and merchandising sales). But in the wake of digital publication, where anyone can record and post their music online, coupled with falling traditional music sales in the face of streaming and file sharing, labels now demand a greater percentage of all an artists’s revenue—known as a “360 deal”. In effect, going the traditional route becomes harder when the gatekeepers are less willing to take risks in the face of lower financial reward, and thus control more of possible revenue streams until a deal is weighed well enough in their favor.
So while nowadays a creator might have multiple avenues at their disposal in getting content out to the public, they also have to contend with a higher volume of content-noise to compete against (much of it minimally curated and amateurishly produced, putting further pressure on creators to become more refined at polishing and presenting their work to stand out), and a higher degree of scrutiny from more traditional gate-keeper channels. Is this bad? Maybe. Sometimes.
One problem lies in this new-found absence—or at least, diminished influence—of gatekeepers. On the one hand, not having to pass content through a particularly biased channel, based on the tastes and trends set by those gatekeepers, can allow for richer and more varied content to flourish. In literary terms, more experimental writing and work that might not easily fit into marketable genres can still live in a publicly accessible way. At the same time, however, those gatekeepers can also play a good role in separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, in their professional capacity. But with instant digital publishing available to anyone willing to use it, any kind of content can now pervade the public space. And while there may indeed be a greater influx of “chaff”, there have nonetheless been numerous success stories of creators publishing their works themselves first only to be picked up professionally later on. This brings up the interesting position such a setup puts fledgling creators in, where instead of auditioning, submitting a sample, etc., they are forced to curate and market their work themselves, which simultaneously puts more power and more strain upon creators to be successful (at least in some measurable degree) in their own right first, before attracting the attentions of more professional groups or agencies.
I don’t have an answer either way here, definitively. There are pros and cons to the way publishing, in any medium, has changed in the digital age. I certainly don’t think that the traditionally funneling “gatekeeper” method worked flawlessly, and indeed there had always been some percentage of curated, professionally represented work published that misses the mark, sometimes by a wide margin, critically and/or commercially. But I’m also not completely satisfied with the “everybody flood the system” approach that seems to do just that, often bogging down an original or meaningful voice with a louder, flashier one that has more views and shares. It will be an interesting development to watch over the coming decade or two in how these forces might pull further apart or condense.