By Quirijn van den Hoogen
It is generally acknowledged that the cultural sector was hit extremely hard by the Corona pandemic. Around the globe, public life came to a standstill and cultural facilities were shut down: libraries and museums, the musical theatres of West End, pop music festivals, and amateur culture such as choir rehearsals, were all impossible because of social distancing rules. All three spheres of what British policy researcher John Holden denotes as cultural ecologies, came to a standstill: the publicly funded, the commercial, and the homegrown culture. Those institutions that have re-opened, such as the museums in Rome this week, can only receive a small fraction of the visitor numbers of before 2020.
Governments have responded by providing aid packages, pumping large sums of money in the economy, including cultural industries. Aid comes in many forms and shapes, as loan or as gift, all aiming to preserve jobs in the creative sectors and beyond. The self-employed, however, benefitted little from these aid packages. They provide the backbone of the labour force in the creative sector, particularly the commercial part of this sector. So, lesson one of this crisis, in my view, is that solving the problem of precarity in the labour market is urgent. That will not only help the cultural sector.
Institutions in the cultural sector massively turned towards digital offering. This development was not new, the museum sector for instance has widely experimented with digital exhibitions that have turned out to be very conducive to cultural education purposes. The live arts have had to catch on quickly, learning that audience reach is much wider when performances are streamed. Though the live aspect is lost, a good live stream does provide a quality experience. From a public policy perspective this provides a golden opportunity to widen reach of culture. Governments and cultural institutions alike, see a blended future for the arts, also when Corona is over. And, just as open access is quickly becoming the standard in science, it is logical that publicly funded culture will become available for free on the Internet. How then can the cultural sector profit from such a permanently blended situation?
Let’s look at a sector that has already solved this problem: the porn industry. It provides boundless free content on the Internet – from a public policy perspective a logical strategy – that leads a proportion of the audience to sites where content is available behind a paywall. So free content is the advertisement for commercial production companies. Privately produced content is shared through websites such as OnlyFans. Thus, the homegrown sphere also has found ways of making money. However, both strategies primarily help the bigtech industries making more profit.
If we were to transplant the porn business model to the cultural sector, who will benefit mostly? The cultural sector – rightfully – needs to pay way more attention to quality, only raising the cost of production. A good live stream adds between 8.000 to 10.000 euros to the costs of a theatre production. That is per evening. So, digital distribution may merely raise costs while allowing the bigtech industry – quite shamelessly – to exploit publicly funded and the culture. Moreover, this would leave the surfing cultural consumer at the mercy of Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms. Isn’t it time to develop an alternative platform that is not guided by profit-maximizing algorithms? A sort of Blendle meets OnlyFans, based in a business model that properly compensates producers of content? Isn’t that the urgent job of the government, the EU maybe? If not, public culture will lose the battle for attention of surfing customers and only the rich will pay for exclusive content behind paywalls, leaving the titbits that commercial players provide as teasers to the rest of society. In such a scenario, publicly funded culture will lose all the social values it provided before 2020. As the Corona pandemic – at least across the Western world – has led to unprecedented government involvement in society, even by the most astutely neoliberal governments, why would developing a public portal be a farfetched idea?
This column is an abbreviated version of an analysis of Dutch cultural policy in times of Corona Quirijn van den Hoogen wrote for Sociaal & Democratie, the magazine of the Dutch Social-Democratic party. The article is available through: https://wbs.nl/publicaties/cultuurbeleid-tijden-van-corona (unfortunately, behind a paywall).