A digital future, but an inclusive one for the indies?

I should be using this space to pimp the awesome reviews London Horror Comic 5 has been getting, but I’ll do that in a subsequent post (ever the business head on these shoulders).

Right now the HMV closures have rattled the old hornet’s nest and I’ve got some thoughts I need to get out of my head.

On a recent trip outside the UK I saw two closed HMV stores with local reports saying that 300 people in the area would be put out of work at several outlets.

As discussed in a previous post, HMV was one of those few places that offered something for everyone and was a place where, when you walked in, could take the cultural temperature of what was on offer at a point in time and what people – not some customised widget designed to reflect your buying habits alone – were viewing and listening to.

You could browse in a way designed to promote serendipity, rather than feed disappointment in the way that repeat-clicking through to the single product category on a website manages to achieve.

In HMV’s absence, we’re left with the homogeneity of supermarket best-sellers in the physical world. It’s doubtful that I’ll be able to walk into a supermarket store and buy, say, the gorgeous Arrow Blu release of Black Sunday with a tin of beans.

The advent of ordering via the web may render my bleating obsolete as it offers low price and convenience, but it reduces the physical footprint of the things I like in the real world to an anonymous abstract transaction.

Part of feeling comfortable in any physical space is knowing that there is a place for you: a bedroom to call your own, a friendly coffee store or a place that sells weird shit that you enjoy.

Buying in the real world gives you a sense of agency in it: the decision of you buying, say, comedy films gives rise to a comedy section in store and in part to the store itself. That’s one of the reasons people have bookshelves: to build a wall that’s a physical manifestation of their likes.

We still have cinemas because we have an agency in the viewing experience it offers. If, however, the content being projected onto the screen becomes predictable or diluted for the widest commercial audience, then it won’t be long before people say ‘cinema’s not for me’.

Extrapolating from this situation, we can see how niche or non-mainstream works of art or genres suddenly become accessible and economical only through web delivery. The physical footprint of art in the real world becomes dominated by the least offensive or the highest grossing (usually one and the same).

Our belief in web delivery democratising access to smaller or independent artists shouldn’t be overestimated, either. A cursory look at Apple’s News Stand essentially shows it to mirrors what’s on sale in your local WHSmith. There isn’t a digital-only competitor to say, Men’s Health magazine, that has materialised through News Stand and managed to usurp its mainstream competitor.

That’s not to say there never will be. The role of the taste maker grows increasingly important but that taste maker doesn’t include Google. Google and big-name internet brands make their money by presenting you with a personalised view of the web to increase the chance of you clicking on a link and converting.

There’s no incentive for Google saying, “You’ve been watching bloody loads of horror films and you really should try and watch a couple of dramas that you might like. Stop searching for that and instead look at this.”

How new, interesting and independent pieces of work find an audience large enough to recoup costs and fund ongoing ventures within a homogeneous physical world and highly-personalised digital world becomes the question.

The next five years will be very interesting for seeing how some of my favourite things like the horror genre, comic books and cinema will be affected by increasing sophistication of digital and the mutation of our high-streets.

Digital offers convenience on several levels, but does it offer sustainability and choice for niche players and genres? Time will tell.

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posted by JP at 10:47 pm