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Artistry is under fire in the age of celebrity after digital streaming services such as Spotify.
Celebrity is at once astonishingly mesmerising and mind-numbingly dull, crazily libertarian and depressingly conformist. Our culture of celebrity feigns the new, the contemporary, the up-to-date, as it recycles the past. Celebrities are constantly on the brink of obsolescence, of appearing out of date. Today Lorde, yesterday Lady Gaga, the day before Beyonce. Celebrity is radically excessive. In a world teeming with images and information, celebrities trade in sheer novelty as a means of transcending the fame of others with whom they compete for public renown. The conduit of celebrity arises from massive institutional changes throughout the West, involving a wholesale shift from industrial manufacture to a post-industrial economy orientated to the finance, service, hi-tech and communication sectors. As the economy becomes cultural as never before – ever more dependent on media, image and public relations – so personal identity comes under the spotlight and open to revision. The new economy, in which the globalisation of media looms large, celebrates both technological culture and the power of new technologies to reshape the order of things. The current cultural obsession with the remaking and transformation of celebrities is reflective of this, and arguably nowhere more so than in what Andy Warhol termed the “15 minutes of fame” of the celebrated. The historian Leo Braudy, in his pioneering book The Frenzy of Renown, argued that the era of Hollywood and its invention of glamorous stars served to personalise fame, with public renown arising from factors including personal uniqueness, artistic originality or individual creativity. Fame, in a sense, was tied to genius. From Laurence Olivier’s dramatic talents to Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet grace, from Groucho Marx’s comic mastermind to John Lennon’s pop virtuosity: fame was primarily cast in terms of value, art, innovation and tradition. Today, celebrity and fame no longer look like this. A radical transformation is underway. Thanks to technological advances and the spread of digital culture, the terrain of public renown has migrated from Hollywood-inspired definitions of fame to multi-media driven forms of celebrity. This has involved a very broad change from narrow, elite defi nitions of public renown to more open, inclusive understandings. This is a shift, in effect, from the Hollywood blockbuster to reality TV, and from pop music to Pop Idol. Perhaps nowhere is this transformation more obvious than with the rise of digital music streaming. From Spotify to Pandora, streamed music online has been killing the purchase of downloads in the web marketplace. In a remarkably short space of time, Spotify has become the second largest source of digital music revenue for record labels across Europe, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. But note that’s record labels, and not artists, musicians or composers. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke was onto this early last year when he pulled his solo releases from Spotify, arguing that digital streaming is destroying the livelihood of artists across the creative industries. Oblivion might be a better description for the current fate of music culture. One recent estimate is that Spotify pays a majestic $0.007 per stream. UK indie artist, Sam Duckworth, wrote in The Guardian that 4685 streams on Spotify netted him only $32.57 – the equal of selling two CDs at one of his gigs. Perhaps this might help to explain why so many emerging artists feel distressed. Perhaps it also explains why a number of established artists – from Brian Eno to Beyonce – are limiting their exposure on Spotify to sample tracks only. What it does certainly explain is that artists no longer sell but stream their work. And they do so for far less money than ever before. The entire enterprise looks insanely self-defeating. In the age of celebrity after Spotify, artistry is under fire. Forget Warhol’s diagnosis of 15 minutes of fame. In our present popular culture of streaming – where the consumer can discard, delete and disconnect at the push of a button – celebrity is recast as purely episodic. Anthony Elliott is Director of the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia. His book The Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies will be published in 2015. The Hawke Research Institute presents an evening with UK musician Lloyd Cole in conversation with Elliott on Wednesday, July 2. unisa.edu.au/lloydcole