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«Hesmondhalgh-3508-Introduction.qxd 2/23/2007 10:31 AM Page 1 INTRODUCTION: CHANGE AND CONTINUITY, POWER AND CREATIVITY An overview of some changes ...»

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Hesmondhalgh-3508-Introduction.qxd 2/23/2007 10:31 AM Page 1



An overview of some changes – and the importance of continuity 1

Why do the cultural industries matter? 3

The cultural industries make and circulate texts 3

The cultural industries manage and circulate creativity 4 The cultural industries are agents of economic, social and cultural change 6 Outline of the argument 8 Matters of definition 11 Alternative terms 15 From ‘The Culture Industry’ to the cultural industries 15 Industries that make texts: the distinctive features 17 Risky business 18 Creativity versus commerce 20 High production costs and low reproduction costs 21 Semi-public goods 21 Misses are offset against hits by building a repertoire 22 Concentration, integration and co-opting publicity 22 Artificial scarcity 23 Formatting: stars, genres and serials 23 Loose control of symbol creators, but tight control of distribution and marketing 24 Author to reader 25



CONTINUITY Nearly all commentators accept that the cultural industries have undergone remarkable transformation since the early 1980s. Here are some of the major changes I intend to deal with in what follows.

• The cultural industries have moved closer to the centre of the economic action in many countries and across much of the world. Cultural industry companies can no longer be seen as secondary to the ‘real’ economy where durable, ‘useful’ goods are manufactured. Some of these companies are now vast global businesses and are among the most discussed and debated corporations on the planet.

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1 Throughout this book, I use bold italics to denote key concepts on their first major occurrence, bold to highlight key phrases and italics for titles and ordinary emphasis. The key concepts are defined in the Glossary at the end of the book and usually on their first appearance, too.

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To what extent, though, do such changes in the cultural industries really represent major, epochal shifts in the way that culture is produced and consumed? After all, alongside these changes, there are many important continuities that might be obscured by an overemphasis on change. For example, television continues to play a huge role, as a source of information and entertainment, in people’s lives; stars continue to be the main mechanism via which cultural industry companies promote their products; the USA is still thought of, across the globe, as the world centre for popular culture; copyright remains fundamental to an understanding of the cultural industries. Because continuities such as these are entangled with the above changes, I refer throughout what follows to patterns of change/continuity in the cultural industries. This issue – the interweaving of change and continuity – is the central theme of this book.





More than other types of production, the cultural industries are involved in the making and circulating of products – that is, texts – that have an influence on our understanding of the world. Debates about the nature and extent of this influence comprise, in the words of a valuable survey of the concept, ‘the contested core of media research’ (Corner, 2000: 376). The best contributions to such debates suggest the complex, negotiated, and often indirect, nature of media influence, but of one thing there can be no doubt: the media do have an influence. We are influenced by informational texts, such as newspapers, broadcast news programmes, documentaries and analytical books, but also by entertainment. Films, TV series, comics, music, video games and so on provide us with recurring representations of the world and thus act as a kind of reporting.

Just as crucially, they draw on and help to constitute our inner, private lives and our public selves: our fantasies, emotions and identities. They contribute strongly to our sense of who we are, of what it means to be a woman or a man, an African or an Arab, a Canadian or a New Yorker, straight or gay. For these reasons alone, the products of the cultural industries are more than just a way of passing time – a mere diversion from other, more important things. All the same, the sheer amount of time that we spend experiencing texts, however distractedly we might do so, in itself makes the cultural industries a powerful factor in our lives.

So, studying the cultural industries might help us to understand how texts take the form they do and how these texts have come to play such a central role in contemporary societies. Importantly, most texts that we consume are circulated by powerful corporations. These corporations, like all businesses, have an interest in making profits. They want to support conditions in which businesses in

general – especially their own – can make big profits. This raises a crucial issue:

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The cultural industries are concerned, fundamentally, with the management and selling of a particular kind of work. Since the Renaissance – and especially since the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century – there has been a widespread tendency to think of ‘art’ as being one of the highest forms of human creativity.

Sociologists and Marxists have argued in response that artistic work is not so different from other kinds of labour, in that both are orientated towards the production of objects or experiences (Wolff, 1993, Chapter 1, provides an excellent summary of these debates). This view is important in countering the idea that ‘artists’ are different from the rest of us, that they are involved in some mystically special form of creativity. Nevertheless, there is something distinctive about that area of human creativity often called ‘art’. The invention and/or performance of stories, songs, images, poems, jokes and so on, in no matter what technological form, involves a particular type of creativity – the manipulation of symbols for the purposes of entertainment, information and perhaps even enlightenment. Instead of the term ‘art’, with all its connotations of individual genius and a higher calling, I want to use the more cumbersome term symbolic Hesmondhalgh-3508-Introduction.qxd 2/23/2007 10:31 AM Page 5


creativity2 and, instead of the term ‘artists’, I prefer the phrase symbol creators for those who make up, interpret or rework stories, songs, images and so on.3 Symbol creators have been pretty much ignored in recent thinking about the cultural industries because of an understandable, but excessive, reaction against the fetishisation of their work as extraordinary. For many years, in media and cultural studies, this took the form of an emphasis on the creativity of audiences, of those who do not, in general, work professionally as symbol creators, but, in the 1990s, a number of writers in these fields began to put symbol creators back in the picture (Born, 1993a, 1993b; McRobbie, 1998; Toynbee, 2000). After all, symbol creators are the primary workers in the making of texts. Texts, by definition, would not exist without them, however much they rely on industrial systems for the reproduction, distribution and marketing of and remuneration for their work. This does not mean that we should romantically celebrate the work of all musicians, authors, film-makers and so on. Ultimately, my interest in symbol creators derives, like that of Born, McRobbie and Toynbee, from a sense that symbolic creativity can enrich people’s lives, even though it often doesn’t.

Other traditions of study have focused on especially talented or fêted symbol creators, at times hardly referring to the means by which authors, musicians and so on have reached their audiences. Some such studies amount to a pious and complacent celebration of the achievements of Western civilisation (Clark, 1969). The work of Raymond Williams (1981) and Pierre Bourdieu (1996), among others, suggests better ways of historicising symbolic creativity, by showing how such creativity has been a more or less permanent presence in human history, but its management and circulation have taken radically different forms in different societies. In Europe, for example, systems of patronage gave way in the nineteenth century to the organisation of symbolic creativity around the market. It was at this point that the cultural industries began to emerge. From the early twentieth century, this market organisation began to take a new, complex form (see Chapter 2). Examining changes in the cultural industries allows us to think about how symbolic creativity has been organised and circulated in our own lifetimes and, crucially in this book, how this might be changing.

Again, I must emphasise here the fundamentally ambivalent nature of the cultural industries. The way the cultural industries organise and circulate symbolic creativity reflects the extreme inequalities and injustices (along class, gender, ethnic and other lines) apparent in contemporary capitalist societies. There are vast inequalities in access to the cultural industries. Those who do gain access are often treated shabbily and many people who want to create texts struggle to earn a living. Failure is far more common than success. There are great pressures to produce certain kinds of texts rather than others and it is hard to come across 2 My use of this term is borrowed from Willis (1990), but I differ from him in focusing on industrialised symbolic creativity, whereas he is concerned with the creativity of young people as consumers.

3 In the sense in which I am using the term, journalists and others dealing in the more information-orientated parts of the cultural industries are also symbol creators. Studies of journalism have a long and noble history of focusing attention on key symbol creators – that is, journalists.

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information about the existence of organisations and texts that attempt to do things differently. Some types of text are made much more available than others. These are bleak features of the cultural industry landscape, yet, because original and distinctive symbolic creativity is at a premium, the cultural industries can never quite control it. Owners and executives make concessions to symbol creators by granting them far more autonomy (self-determination) than they would to workers of equivalent status in other industries and to most workers historically. Paradoxically, this freedom – which is, in the end, a limited and provisional one – can then act as a form of control by maintaining the desirability of often scarce and poorly-paid jobs. However, it may also help to explain the ambivalence in texts referred to above.

Cultural industry companies face another difficulty, too. They have to find audiences for the texts that symbol creators produce. Usually, this is not a matter of finding the greatest possible mass audience for a product. Different groups of people tend to have different tastes, so much of the work of cultural industry companies attempts to match texts to audiences, to find appropriate ways of circulating texts to those audiences and to make audiences aware of the existence of texts. As we shall see, this is a risky business. Many texts fail, even those that companies expect to succeed. The upshot of these processes is that cultural industry companies keep a much tighter grip on the circulation of texts than they do on their production.

The importance of symbolic creativity helps to explain the fact that the main focus of this book is on patterns of change/continuity in the cultural industries, as opposed to, say, change/continuity in the texts produced by those industries or in how audiences understand texts. As I should have made clear by now, however, this does not mean that I am interested only in the cultural industries as systems of production. The underlying interest is really systems of production in relation to texts. But all writers, given their limited time and energy, must make decisions about where to concentrate their attention and, rather than focusing on the texts themselves and then working backwards from there to the industries, my primary interest in this book is in the cultural industries.

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concerned what we might call theories of transition. Have we moved from industrial societies to post-industrial or information societies, based on a much greater emphasis than before on knowledge? This was a line of thought initiated in the 1960s and 1970s by the work of, among others, Daniel Bell (for example,

1974) and maintained by writers such as Manuel Castells (such as, 1989, 1996) in the 1980s and 1990s. Have we moved from societies best characterised as ‘modern’, because of their increasing ephemerality, fragmentedness and flux, to a situation better characterised as ‘postmodern’, where these features become so accentuated that rationality and meaning seem to break down (Harvey, 1989;

Lyotard, 1984)? In one version of such debates, some analysts (notably Castells, 1996; and Lash and Urry, 1994) suggested that symbolic creativity and/or information were becoming increasingly central in social and economic life. An important implication of this, drawn out more fully by Lash and Urry than by Castells, was that the cultural industries therefore increasingly provided a model for understanding transformations in other industries. Others claimed that the cultural industries themselves are becoming more like other industries and losing their distinctiveness as an economic sector (Padioleau, 1987).

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