Here’s the final of our three posts looking at the potential value of user-generated content to the UK, taken from our research for Ofcom; we’ve looked at economic and social and political value, so now let’s take a look at its value in the arts and culture sectors.
Cultural value is always subjective, and nowhere more so than in the realm of UGC. For every tech Utopian espousing the creative/artistic/cultural importance of UGC there’s a naysayer. Andrew Keen is one the most prominent of these; he is, among other things, the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy, a controversial jeremiad against user-generated culture (whose title rather gives away its position). We mention this here only to qualify any remarks we make about the value of UGC in the wider creative culture, that is to say, there are other angles on this. So instead of “taking sides”, instead we’ll look at some of the contributions UGC can make to roles and processes with the cultural industries. We’ll leave to one side whether the creative output is good or not.
In 2012 a new orchestra performed at the Proms, the annual summer-long festival of classical music in London, widely held to be the world’s greatest classical music festival. They were the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, a 120-piece band conducted by the acclaimed Mark Elder. They played a notably difficult set of modern pieces by Stravinsky, Britten and Mahler as well as a new commission by Charlotte Bray. It was, by any standards, a remarkable concert, but what made it rather more so was that the orchestra comprised players from over 30 countries who had only come together for the first time just weeks before the Prom.
The project was run by Aldeburgh Music’s Britten-Pears young artist programme, who, over the course of 3 years auditioned musicians almost entirely through YouTube submissions. We are somewhere past skateboarding cats at this point. The whole project was undoubtedly a complex and expensive one, with both corporate and public sector partners, including the British Council. And when it came to some territories, traditional auditioning methods (that is, tapes) were resorted to; China was the most notable in this regard, home as it is to some of the most promising young classical players in the world – but without YouTube.
YouTube had in fact already been demonstrated as a classical music recruitment tool by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project in 2011, but the Aldeburgh World Orchestra’s appearance at the Proms, at the heart of the high culture world, was a remarkable example of the power of UGC in talent spotting. It might be an outlier, but across the arts and media, adroit talent scouts are scouring blogs, fan fiction sites, and video- and audio-sharing services to source a new generation of artists and creatives.
Skills development is the flip side of talent spotting – it’s how the talent gets developed in the first place. We’ve covered skills exchange and personal development at some length in the Drivers section, so won’t go over that territory again other than to reiterate our core observation here. Communities of interest around craft skills and creativity are providing an unprecedented level of access to information and experience for students in any creative pursuit. At the same time they supply a platform for demonstrating what a student has learned and a back channel for (often rather robust) feedback. It should hardly need saying that a hugely increased talent pool of creative practitioners is of inestimable value to the cultural industries, and to the very quality of creative practice itself.
If the consumer-producer contract is changing as rapidly and as profoundly as this paper suggests, then so is the relationship between the cultural institution and its audiences. This applies as much to the commercial venue as it does to a funded one.
This has not necessarily come easily to cultural incumbents. For many institutions and companies, “digital” until very recently has been merely one wing of marketing; for some it remains that way. In this context it’s often hard to make a case for the encouragement of UGC. For instance, very few live arts venues host user reviews of their work. It’s not hard to see why; as one senior member of an opera company put it to us, “You try sitting down with a Diva and explaining why someone’s slagging her off on your site.”
Yet even caustic user reviews can drive sales of creative work. Amazon is the exemplar here. There’s no sense that the ecommerce company vets their user reviews editorially; public opinion is on display warts and all (just take a look at the user reviews of Andrew Keen’s book cited above). In traditional marketing terms this would be nonsensical; why list a product with negative reviews? What’s happening here, however, is a very different marketing paradigm, one in which we trust Amazon (whatever we think of it in other ways) as an honest broker. That it’s proved a successful strategy should hardly need pointing out. More orthodox cultural organisations have rather different operating models to Amazon, of course, but there is a great deal to be learned from the retail behemoth.
Beyond the user review/comment/post, cultural institutions are using the encouragement audio-visual UGC to build relationships with their audience, although once we’re into this realm the degree of guardianship can become onerous. Take the world of amateur film-making. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have, at different points, been involved in the showcasing of amateur shorts, the former notably with the BBC Film Network. Tellingly, the Channel 4 initiative lasted less than a year and the BBC’s has now been mothballed, that is, no submissions have been possible since 2012. The suspicion remains that these can be useful recruitment and talent spotting tools (see above) but are high-cost ways of engaging with the audience.
Yet other cultural organisations have taken arguably more radical approaches. The English National Opera’s highly ambitious Mini Operas project created a series of collaborative pieces on the basis of submission of written scripts, music (via SoundCloud) and video (via Vimeo) bringing together hopefuls in a series of different disciplines, and rewarding them with a year of mentoring. Of course, this kind of audience engagement programme takes money, and is certainly easier to justify within a publically-funded environment. Indeed, institutions such as the ENO receive finding partly on the basis of innovation in audience development. But Mini Operas points to new approaches even for this most conventional of art forms.
A final word: on participation vs consumption
We opened this section of cultural value by observing that any judgments in this area are highly subjective. So let’s end with a brief, highly subjective claim. Mass consumption of others’ creative work is a relatively new paradigm in the realm of creativity. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century is widely cited as the beginning of the mass media, but it’s what historian Paul Starr terms “The Rising of Technological Networks” in the mid 19th Century which provided the tipping point; the subsequent inventions of radio, phonography and television only served to deepen the degree to which massive audiences could be reached and entertained.
A curious thing happened in the years immediately after WWII, at least in the West: a public with more spare time on its hands than at any time in human history found itself with the technological means to consume thousands of hours of others’ creative endeavours year in, year out. Let’s be clear about this: this is unprecedented. When our grandparents (perhaps great-grandparent) claimed, We had to make our own entertainment, they weren’t lying.
We would argue that the new UGC paradigm is in many ways a return to a time of making our own entertainment. Of course, it is on an unimaginably different scale, with entirely new opportunities to learn, collaborate, communicate, promote. Is this a world of unbridled brilliance? Hardly. But here’s the thing. When UGC detractors make their case they always hold up the cultural greats and argue that rather than writing a post on Blogger or sticking a snap on Flickr, we’d all be better off watching Kubrick or Mad Men or reading Nabokov or listening to Miles Davis or… you get the picture. And yet: is that what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years, really?
In truth, we would argue that lives are immeasurably enriched by participation over passive consumption. Indeed, that practice in any discipline deepens our very appreciation of it as a consumer. And in this, we feel, lies the true cultural value UGC.