#TBT: Leading the Culture

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Leading the Culture.

I used a phrase the other day that I think is very important to understand. I said that live entertainment had the chance to “lead the culture.”

Greg Sandow uses the phrase “gravitational pull” to describe what happens when something is highly relevant in the world. People are naturally drawn to it, as though by gravity. If I ask you “what are people interested in these days?” your answers will tell you in essence what has a gravitational pull in today’s culture.

iPods, Twitter, hybrid cars, In-N-Out Burger, Dancing with the Stars and LeBron James all have a pretty strong gravitational pull at the moment (circa 2009). The fact that the Beatles’ re-release had as strong an appeal as it did, despite the fact that the Beatles haven’t recorded anything in nearly 40 years, shows you how incredibly strong their gravitational pull was.

Greg Sandow’s point about classical music is that it doesn’t have much of a gravitational pull on today’s culture, and I suspect that he’s right. Despite the struggles of classical music, though, live entertainment shows signs that it will lead the culture. I certainly believe that the Detroit Tigers are positioning themselves to lead the culture in Detroit for decades to come, but there are other examples.

Lucha VaVOOM is reputed to have been the inspiration for the movie Nacho Libre. Note the contrast between that and the phenomenon on Broadway over the last few years of making movies into musicals, as in Young Frankenstein, Shrek or Legally Blonde.

The point of doing that, of course, is to borrow the gravitational pull of those movies for the benefit of the musical, but this is backward.

Broadway as a sub-segment of the live entertainment business is at its strongest when it is creating new intellectual property that becomes what the world wants. When that happens, movies get made based on musicals, not the other way around.

And it’s not just Broadway. Every aspect of the live entertainment business must be in the business of generating impactful intellectual property if the business is to lead the way that I believe it can. Don’t you think that the stand-up greats of the ’70s (Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Steve Martin and others) who built their reputation at the Comedy Store and the Improv in Hollywood had a major impact on the culture?

You don’t think Cirque du Soleil has changed the way all of us think about the circus? They’ve probably even influenced our general sense of aesthetics, too.

So if you’re in the live entertainment business, you simply can’t play Small Ball. You can’t have a mindset of simply satisfying the same old audience with material they expect to see at a level of quality that’s minimally acceptable to keep their attention. That might (or might not) keep you in business, but it’s not going to lead the culture.

There’s a lot of hope right now, for example, that Gustavo Dudamel’s unconventional style, youth and general likeability will increase the LA Philharmonic’s gravitational pull, but I think it’s an open question. It’s not Gustavo himself that ultimately will determine whether kids in East L.A. will think of him as someone they should emulate; it’s the whole organization and whether they can actually generate sustained interest in getting new people out to see performances. How will they do that? By giving those people reasons to come that make sense to them and keeping that commitment up for years.

Re-reading this article now, I see that I’ve waffled a bit on the question of whether Live Entertainment IS or merely COULD BE leading the culture. My view is that we’re not there yet. The business is so used to being a handmaiden to mass media that for the most part, we’re thinking small. We think we’re invisible. We think we don’t have the power to influence the world outside our little klatsches of loyalists.

In my view, it’s the very act of thinking that way that makes it so.

And now that you know that, what would you do differently if you knew your mission was to lead the culture?

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