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Kakutani on Keen’s Kakistocracy

The NYT’s senior book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, has given a generous review to Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur.  As she relates, Keen’s thesis is that Web 2.0, by

undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights . . . is creating a world in which we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens, he suggests, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”

Kakutani appreciates Keen’s “shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers,” while failing to acknowledge that she’s one of those gatekeepers.  Nice way of cultivating trust in the old order.

Kakutani complains that “new artists will discover that Internet fame does not translate into the sort of sales or worldwide recognition enjoyed by earlier generations of musicians.”  But exactly how many people was the old system serving?  As Frank & Cook observed a decade ago:

For a parable in modem economics, consider the local opera house. At the turn of the century, Iowa alone had more than 1,500 of them. Thousands of sopranos earned adequate, if modest, livings from their live performances. But now, thanks to modern recordings, the world’s best soprano can be literally everywhere at once. And since it costs no more to stamp out compact discs of Kathleen Battle’s Mozart arias than her understudy’s, most opera fans listen to Battle. Thus Battle earns several million dollars a year while most other sopranos, many of whom are almost as talented, struggle to get by.

Any given author knows that if he writes a book, he has about a one in a million chance of getting reviewed in the NYT, even if he makes all the right moves, parlays all the right connections, etc.  Before people like them can take screeds like Keen’s seriously, he’d better explain exactly how the “crumbling media elite” served those they’ve shut out for so long. 

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