YouTube has the platform to take us back in time, so let’s reverse our lives and revisit 1988. We’re standing on an airport tarmac in Salt Lake City on an October day that is gorgeously sunny, grainy video aside. Low brown mountains fill parts of the landscape as the private airplane named “Hystouria #1” warms up for a flight to Portland, Oregon. At times during the amateurishly shot video its propellers spin madly and the engine screams at a fevered pitch.
As the young and famous rock band waits patiently to lumber on board, perhaps anxious to wrap up a tour that has lasted forever, the person filming the video, Ian Jeffery, questions a large man who wears dark shades and sports a prominent drooping mustache. He’s an imposing figure with thick, jet-black hair and a tough-guy Brooklyn accent.
Jeffery: Having been the founding member of the production club here, how do you feel about this year?
Founding-member tough guy: Well, let me put it to you this way. This is the best one I’ve ever heard about, none less done. Now, those guys over there (points to the members of Def Leppard) … bunch o’ beautiful humans … I wanted to thank them from the bottom of my swimming pool back home that I’ve put in since this little tour began eighteen f****** months ago.
The tough guy takes off his sunglasses and stares intently into the camera. His round face features a prominent double chin. He’s wearing a turquoise Polo shirt and a faded jean jacket, both of which encompass the camera’s frame.
Beautiful thing as it is, he continues. Oh, also, did I mention the Mustang, and the house payment?
He laughs. You can tell he’s showing off, bragging about all the money he’s made. The guy feels lucky.
Thank you so much, boys. Appreciate it.
Author Scott Timberg doesn’t mention arena-filling rock stars like Def Leppard in his book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. He might, however, find the aforementioned interview interesting. After all, “founding-member tough guy” made good money assisting big-time musicians. He was part of a team that helped them succeed, demonstrating that artists of all types need this support system.
Heavy metal rockers like Def Leppard crisscrossed the nation on gigantic, hugely profitable tours back then, but the world is a different place now — for musicians, for animators, for painters, for writers, for architects, for graphic designers, for sculptors, and for roadies like the tough guy, who made an impressive living that most of today’s artists and those helping them can only dream of.
Timberg says today’s music industry has been eviscerated by streaming music services and illegal piracy, but his argument as to why the creative class has been gutted on all levels goes beyond just technology, which is part of what makes Culture Crash so eye opening.
Timberg, who has spent twenty years writing about a broad array of artists — from piano tuners to underground cartoonists to successful authors — would likely stand up for the brash guy in the “Backstage Hysteria 17 Def Leppard” on YouTube. Individuals like the tough guy, after all, play a big role in helping others promote their artistry.
“While the fading fortunes of the creators of culture is alarming,” Timberg writes, “it’s equally disturbing that their often-mocked supporting casts —record store clerks, roadies, critics, publicists, and supposedly exploitative record label folks — are being forced out of the culture industry.”
Right away I recognized Timberg as a kindred spirit who enjoys writing about art and talking to artists in diverse realms. He’s had great success in this line of work, but his personal financial troubles that he writes about at the start of the book have changed things.
The numbers Timberg relates are sobering: 80% of reporters and critics covering the arts for print publications have been laid off since 2000, according to ArtsJournal.com. When he uses the phrase “cheapening of the culture” early on, you can’t help but think of unlimited music for $14.99 per month on Spotify; American Idol winners from the last twenty years; TV and movie streaming services via Amazon TV and Netflix; and countless Amazon reviews that now pass for the type of work Roger Ebert used to do.
A former bookseller and music manager at Barnes & Noble in the 1990s, I can relate to the retail clerks that Timberg writes about and supports, often independently minded people who can intelligently discuss music, movies, and books to customers seeking thoughtful advice prior to purchase. These retailers are also part of the creative class, according to the author, and with video stores, record stores, and bookstores having closed by the thousands in the U.S., their talents are not being utilized, their interests are perhaps going unfulfilled, and their camaraderie with like-minded people has sadly vanished. Timberg believes a part of people’s communities has been lost because of the changed retail environment in which clerks have disappeared.
“They’ve been, over the decades, important conduits between consumers and culture—and their workplaces a training ground and meeting spot for some of our best writers, filmmakers, and bands,” Timberg writes.
The author is passionate about reigniting society with bona fide feats of culture by genuine artists — better living through artistry, if you will — but he doesn’t romanticize the “cultural class” as genius loners who bravely starve for their artistry, waiting patiently to conquer the world as famous entertainers. In fact, he says typical artists, and the individuals who assist them, simply want to be able to make a solid middle-class living, a tall task in today’s world.
What stands out about Timberg’s outlook on the decline of the cultural class is how the crucial roles of all artists help create a middle-class existence in which people in this realm can live. This includes the behind-the-scenes folks who are rapidly finding it harder to gain employment. Forget about swimming pools and Mustangs that the tough guy mentioned. Most artists and those in their stratosphere just want to find work that pays the bills.
Forget about swimming pools and Mustangs that the tough guy mentioned. Most artists and those in their stratosphere just want to find work that pays the bills.
When thinking of what helps artists succeed, people may not reflect much on how the environment around them plays a part. Artists perform their best, Timberg says, when “laboring together in cities and subcultures they made possible.” He points to a 1950s jazz scene in Indianapolis that had all the makings of a top-notch era of music, with artists like Carl Perkins, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, and Leroy Vinnegar playing in town. Unfortunately, the city didn’t get behind them, and most of the musicians left.
“Partly, it was because a supporting and thriving creative class — record labels, music journalists, club owners — didn’t exist in sufficient numbers,” Timberg writes.
One artist interviewed in the book said her expertise was creating art, not marketing what she creates. Such artists need help.
Timberg could have tried to present more examples of artists who have succeeded in breaking through the middle-class barrier, not famous people, but those who have been able to find their moneymaking niches despite the odds. Surely such people exist, and there may be more of them than Timberg knows. He admits his book is not a scholarly, overly researched endeavor, but he pulls in the thoughts of enough struggling artists to qualitatively back up his arguments.
Timberg, a longtime journalist who values newspapers, says the reluctance by those in his field to more thoroughly report on the downfall of the cultural class has hurt the causes of both journalists and artists, groups who share more similarities than one might think.
“Newspapers and magazines have not only served as training grounds, they’ve been part of the same ecology as publishing houses, museums, and concert halls: critics and cultural journalists have helped shape culture and bring prestige to its makers for five centuries,” Timberg writes.
“Newspapers and magazines have not only served as training grounds, they’ve been part of the same ecology as publishing houses, museums, and concert halls: critics and cultural journalists have helped shape culture and bring prestige to its makers for five centuries.”
His point is well taken. And while the downfall of other middle-class occupations has been documented extensively by journalists, artists can often be ignored, perhaps because they don’t conjure the sympathy one might have for, say, a laid-off teacher, nor do they typically muster the energetic rabble- rousing efforts of a union seeking better working conditions. Meanwhile, Timberg says, as artists with something meaningful to say fall by the wayside, the vapid rich and famous receive constant exposure.
The author praises university towns and complains about the outrageously high rents in San Francisco and New York City but doesn’t much advocate for artists to move to mid-sized towns, where vibrant cultural scenes also exist.
Deejays, book editors, theater set designers, sculptors, actors … the list of the cultural class is extensive. As David Byrne, lead singer of the Talking Heads says in Culture Crash, “Do you really think people are going to keep putting time and effort into this if no one is making any money?” Timberg’s book isn’t a resounding “no” to this question, but if things don’t change, the cultural class could shrink even more. A band like Def Leppard formed and thrived because enthusiastic fans sent them on their way. What future huge rock ‘n’ roll bands might never materialize because of the conditions that now exist for hopeful musicians and artists?
Photo by Steve Johnson.