Death and Opportunity

As another old-world institution dies, more opportunity opens up for independent business creators

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the French government’s Académie des Beaux-Arts held great sway over world culture through its annual exhibition of art, the Salon.

However, to make a long story short, the Paris Salon eventually died of irrelevance.

The plot

A tidal wave of new thinkers and artists grasped cultural change much better than status quo-enthralled Académie members ever could. The latter group shut the avant-garde out of their big show. Shunted to “off-broadway”, these artists organized a series of independent salons which, like the mid-2000s blogosphere, formed a Petri dish of new ideas. Tiny echoes of the French Revolution; democracy vs monocratic bureaucracy. Artists from this era would eventually go on to assert that the core competency of art was to stimulate not “the retina”, as Duchamp put it, but the mind.

This plotline is repeating itself more than a century later, as another academy’s big show, the Oscars, is also dead from irrelevance. Or if not dead, a sickly shadow of its former hale and hearty self.

For the past half-century, about 1 in every 4 US-Americans watched the Oscars, most years. 

But in 2020, the Academy Awards face-planted almost as badly Ellen Degeneres  (whose cringey pandemic-lockdown behavior stood in contrast to her polished, scripted stints as Oscars host). The 2020 Oscars had their lowest ratings ever, by far. 

Then a few days ago, it got even worse – only about 1 in 40 US-Americans were willing to subject themselves to the 2021 Oscars.

Of course, that’s still a lot of people (9 million) but this 10x drop in viewership represents a seachange collapse in the cultural relevance of Hollywood and the larger entertainment industry.

This matters to you.

With institution-death comes opportunity for independents [creators, consultants, entrepreneurs…], whose core competencies lie, as with Duchamp, close to the mind.

*     *     *

This is bigger than the death of a single media event.

The Academy Awards has been the shining star of the film industry, which is itself the most important (ie. profitable) part of the celebrity-media-news complex. This complex integrates movies, broadcast and streamed TV, awards shows, late-night “comedy” shows, and journalism-entertainment.

The industry’s most important marketing asset is the celebrity, which is a profitably attention-generating persona projected onto a very famous person as if it were their actual personality.

It’s this business model that’s breaking down, not just the Oscars.

The Superbowl sells Mazdas, life insurance, toilet paper. But the Oscars has never been primarily about moving products. Its larger goal is to market the entertainment industry itself, by super-polishing its core assets. It’s like a Mercedes showroom event that worries not about selling cars but about reinforcing brand image. But far fewer people want to look at shiny cars now.

The upshot? Less status quo-influence on:

  • products we buy
  • the services we buy
  • our cultural values
  • our political views
  • our lifestyle

In short, the status quo has suffered the “Death of a Salesman”. One of its most effective ones, in fact.

The opportunity in this death’s wake is to emulate the Refusés from 19th century Paris by doubling down on being independent.

  • organize events independently
  • build networks of complementary talent
  • write and talk about your work
  • take responsibility for your own sales and marketing

Because those 36 million people that aren’t paying attention to the Oscars anymore? Maybe a few hundred of them would rather pay attention to you.