Review of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg

in 2014 when I read that Scott Timberg was writing a book about the modern perils of people in the arts I got a bit excited. The topic of how the internet and digital economies had laid waste to many traditional arts forms, trades and professions, has been a story that is not told very often and rarely very well. While everything in Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class is pretty much depressingly true, it fails to address the most important question. Why and how is the creative class being killed?

A few of the professions that have been lost or are under stress are book, record and video store clerks, writers and in particular journalists, of course all performing artists such as musicians and dancers, architects – the list is long and pretty much everyone I know is well aware of the lower pay for creative work – people being paid ridiculously low wages to write, musician playing bars and restaurants for just tips..  Timberg seems to have had a soft place in his heart for the book and record store clerk as being a sort of cultural ambassador for the towns and neighborhoods where they live. Think of one of those cool small record stores you rarely see these days. Every employee has a strong personality, unique wardrobe and an expertise in a certain genre. Often such places would have favorite playlists of the week written on a chalkboard behind the register and it would range from thrasher metal to perhaps a new Brahms recording. Cool places no doubt. Hard to find these days save for a few stores in larger metropolitan areas.

The money being spent on music is not ending up in the hands of musicians, or even labels, or members of the creative class, from the record store clerk to  a label president. It’s going to Apple – which thanks to iTunes, could buy every surviving label with pocket change – and other gargantuan technology companies.
– Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg

The first few chapters “When Culture Works” and “Disappearing Clerks and the Lost Sense of Space” muse nostalgically about this bygone era. “Back in the day” reminisces. Local mid-level working bands with a full calendar of gigs, paying not much but a living wage. Entry level journalists doing beat writing. Those were the days.

San Francisco and New York are becoming cities without middle classes: writers and musician lacking trust funds are being replaced by investment bankers and software jockeys, as well as a large servant class that commutes into town from poor precincts to clean their lavish kitchens and watch the children.
– Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg

I have never heard the term “software jockeys.” Software programmer, UI designer, web programmer but not “jockey.” Indeed, the world changes and one thing that Timberg seems unaware of is that people graduate from art school and then get a job at Apple or a large construction firm designing marketing materials and email headers. Musicians often have day jobs creating “apps” or programming websites. Being flexible and learning new skills has always been the forte of studying the liberal arts. Writing the great American novel has always been a luxury afforded to only the wealthy or the scrappy staving poor.

There is a chapter where Timberg throws the  critic Pauline Kael under the bus for making fun of serious art and preferring popular trash. He also laments the avant-garde that pushed people away from the concert halls and museums. Indeed it seems that Timberg would prefer a well-attended Mozart festival to an auditorium a quarter-full of people trying to get their heads around some experimental modern piece.

The chapter near the end of the book entitled “Lost in the Supermarket – Winner Take All” is interesting as the book was published over five years ago, at a time when the monopolies of Amazon, Google and Facebook were solidifying and further buying out their competition. All books written that mention technology seem like dinosaurs by the time they are printed as the landscape does change.  The tech monopolies in 2020 are even more entrench than ever.

By the end of the book, the hope is that somehow we need to regain the middle again where instead of a anti-intellectualism so prevalent in society, ordinary people go to art museums and local jazz shows.  People read serious novels and discuss poetry. The gist of the book is a plea for the “middle-brow” world where culture is consumed by all. “Good luck” is all I can say. It’s a brave new world we live in with people mesmerized by social media, stupid YouTube videos and their cellphones.

Which gets me to my conclusion. What Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class leaves out is the”how” and  the “why. ”  Why is the creative class being killed? There is one mention of Telecommunications Act of 1996 which was like a wrecking ball for many artistic environments. Shrouded in the guise of fair competition, Clear Channel went into every market and bought out smaller players.  This ruined local radio, local music scenes, weekly papers and eventual laid waste to print journalism.

But the law that has done the most damage, and that was surprisingly never mentioned in Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class  is the The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. Just two years after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the DMCA was signed by President Bill Clinton, with every member of congress voting “yes” and cheering the law on like a high school pep-rally. Neo-liberalism ( a truly misleading term) was all in vogue with the silly notion that free competition, while never really free as the big players have teams of lobbyists in Washington, will solve every problem. As pointed out many times on this website, the 1998 DMCA was a massive gift from the creative class to the tech class.  It is a major reason “why” the creative class has been “killed.” It is odd that no one saw it coming. The internet has the potential to be a fair platform for publishing. The rules of “safe-harbor” have been so stretched and bent that for years technology companies’ revenue strategies are often a slimy exercise in cultural thievery – all perfectly legal. In 2020, it has gone a step further, as money is made off of peoples’ personal data, well-named as “surveillance capitalism.” But I digress. The DMCA is a failed law that needs revision every five years.  I have pointed this out since 2015.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act 18 Year Anniversary

Unfortunately, far too young,  in December of 2019, Scott Timberg passed away. A very good writer, a brilliant thinker, an idealist and surely a great guy. We need more people like Scott.


Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (January 13, 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9780300195880
ISBN-13: 978-0300195880