When some colleagues and I recently met to discuss the past year in culture, we easily agreed on one thing only: Corporate consolidation, and not just the pandemic, took a heavy toll on the arts this year. Everybody seems to be streaming the same handful of TV shows—The Crown, Mrs America, Normal People, The Undoing—while only a few young novelists, like the justly praised Raven Leilani and Brandon Taylor, made it to “breakout” level. By the end of the year, we could barely remember any of the small-gem films of 2020 (Miss Juneteenth, The Sound of Metal, The Forty Year-Old Version), so haunted were we by the awfulness of Mulan and Tenet, which were supposed to be industry-savingly good.
The lack of options marketed to consumers has created a missing middle: the zone between mass market and niche market where experimentation is supposed to proliferate and engender variety. Worse, the consolidation of the country’s vast creative sector into fewer, more powerful production and publishing companies has come at the direct expense of the quality of their product. The coronavirus isn’t the reason Tenet sucked, for example. It just sucked because Christopher Nolan has too much power, and very few other people in his industry have enough.
This homogenization of the arts is a refutation of the idea that capitalism produces true competition. Instead, we are entering a peak era of market monopolies, where a group of huge corporations, many of which trade in personal data, also have a stranglehold grip around the neck of every non-megastar artist in the country.
Monopolization in the tech sector is directly responsible for consolidation in the culture industry. The merger between Penguin Random House (itself an agglomerate of two giant publishing corporations) and Simon & Schuster, for example, came as a result of the publishing industry’s ongoing struggles with Amazon.
As Alex Shephard wrote earlier this year, these enormous publishing houses are consolidating their lists into “a system in which bestselling authors are making millions” while leaving “many more adventurous projects to wallow.” The PRH-S&S behemoth will lead to one corporation controlling something like 30 percent of the entire publishing market, inevitably leading to slashed advances, less diversity of thought, and fewer books.
Shephard quoted literary agent David Kuhn on the deadening effect that such corporate consolidation has on writing: “There are projects that would have sold for $150,000 years ago that might not sell at all now to the big five [publishing houses], whereas the book that would have sold for $500,000 might go for a million.” This situation is guaranteed to engineer grade inflation for mediocre work as the pool of titles shrinks.
Pressure from the tech industry has also forced the media to consolidate, and with it coverage of the arts. There are simply fewer critics, fewer reviews, and less exposure to different kinds of art for interested readers.
But nowhere is the convergence of tech and entertainment more pronounced than in movies and television, where the pandemic has only accelerated the shift to streaming. Warner Bros recently announced that all its movies in 2021 would be simultaneously released on HBO Max, upending the traditional theatrical release model, which raises the question of whether Warner Bros is really a movie company or a tech company whose content is movies. Meanwhile, Disney+ unveiled a slate of offerings—10 new Marvel movies, 10 new Star Wars movies—that suggest the movie industry is homogenizing in much the same way as the tech sector.
All these developments have knock-on effects with culture-wide ramifications. The Wrap recently reported that Marvel was planning to “adjust” its compensation packages for its actors, should the pandemic force it to release all of its 2021 titles via Disney+. Marvel stars make extra money when their films perform well at the box office, which means that streaming-only will inevitably cut wages, stifle competition, and ultimately cause the product to deteriorate. Part of Marvel’s problem is the pandemic limiting theatrical runs, of course, but its industry-dominating franchise was already sucking all the money out of Hollywood’s corpse with its infinite parade of sequels.
Netflix is pumping out “Netflix Originals” that frequently star the same cast of actors, used over and over again, as if determined to wear them to breaking point. If Carla Gugino (Gerald’s Game, The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor) manages to stagger through to 2021, she deserves a medal. The company is meanwhile producing new works of wildly varying quality, many of which are seemingly done on the cheap. The Haunting of Bly Manor, for example, featured close-up shots of supposedly real vegetation clearly played by plastic plants jammed into soil.
This shift has long-term consequences for actors. As Refinery29 has reported, many Black actresses end up doing their own hair on set. Despite wig technology being mastered every day by ordinary people all over America, some of the wigs we’re asked to accept as a part of television simply stretch credulity. This is partly because of the high price of entry into the cosmetologists’ guild, in an industry where membership is everything. It would appear that the anti-labor tech giants can’t disrupt the power structures of Hollywood production, only everything else.
The homogenization of the arts happened slowly, then all at once, over the course of my lifetime. In the 1990s, the murder of bookshops by the likes of Barnes & Noble was a crisis sympathetic enough to fire an entire rom-com. In the 2000s, the tech bubble rocked print media, with the long-term effect of eviscerating local news and kicking thousands of journalists out of a job. Spotify announced one million paid users in 2011 and killed the possibility of making a living from album sales.
Nobody really cares—until the quality of the products starts to dwindle, and America is suddenly no longer a global leader in previously lucrative exports like cinema or television. Acquisitions and mergers are usually treated purely as business news, particularly if the acquisition, like Mulan, can play well in China’s enormous market. A former staffer with Apple, which also wants to get in the streaming game, told the Times that a senior vice president has told people that “the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China,” out of fear of offending the Chinese. In the same report, the Times revealed that Apple CEO Tim Cook killed a Gawker television show in the works, likely as retaliation for outing him as gay some years ago.
These problems are the natural result of companies enjoying unencumbered growth in the post-recession twenty-first century, which has inevitably led their ever-more-powerful executives into politics.
As the Times reported this week, until now regulators have “exercised restraint in enforcing antitrust laws” against tech companies. Now a “cascade of antitrust lawsuits, with three cases targeting Google and two suits against Facebook” is tumbling into the courts, with lawyers from Texas and nine other states alleging that the company is collecting our data too much and too often. Google meanwhile maintains a monopoly over digital advertising, according to a paper by Dana Srinivasan, “by engaging in conduct that lawmakers prohibit in other electronic trading markets,” like sharing superior trading information with Google-owned intermediaries.
House Democrats recently reported that Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook are all holding literal monopoly power over their respective tech sectors. As the Democrats put it in their 449-page report, all four of these corporate titans were once “scrappy underdog[s],” which have now swollen to the point that Mark Zuckerberg can write in an internal memo that Facebook “can likely always just buy any competitive startups.” He bought both Instagram and WhatsApp, after all, just as Google’s parent company, Alphabet, bought YouTube and Waze and Amazon bought Whole Foods.*
These companies only have more power under pandemic conditions, not less. After a terrible year for independent artists and companies, this monopolization of the tech sector, and the concomitant homogenization of culture, is going to gather steam. When we’re all stuck at home, we lose access to the flavor of creative rebellion that comes from making things with your friends in your free time. We’re forced to connect on social media, which is structured by the very power hierarchies that are undermining cultural diversity in the first place.
There are signs that alternative models are forming. The imprint Spiegel & Grau, for example, was one of the victims of consolidation at PRH. Now its founders are rebuilding the press from the ground up. There are other ways to develop or revive a brand than digital advertising, other services for a writer’s needs than Google’s. As our lives increasingly move online, the divide between the entertainment company and the branding agency and the tech company and the publisher has become ever thinner. The culture industry needs to show that it can find and preserve those lines before they disappear forever, and time is running out.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Amazon bought Waze; it is owned by Alphabet.