The Oscars

I’ve watched the Oscars for as long as I can remember. When my family didn’t have TV, we’d end up going to family friends to watch it. It’s just what we did. Later, we started to watch the short film nominees at this single screen theater kinda close to my neighborhood, so we’d end up having a category that we had all watched (depressingly, that theater has closed due to COVID. I’ll keep my memories of watching Dragon Inn at The Ken forever, though). My family has never been huge film buffs, but that didn’t matter. We just watched the Oscars because we all thought that the stuff that goes into filmmaking is cool as hell. 

This year, matching the trend from previous years, the Academy has once again changed the format of the Academy Awards to try and boost viewership, under duress from Disney . This time, it’ll be to cut down on the number of awards given out on air, in favor of dance numbers and other such stuff. I’m not here to talk about the reasoning here, as Bilge Ebiri already wrote something tearing down how stupid of a decision this is for the Academy here at Vulture. But it is a stupid decision, just for the record.

Instead, I’ll talk about how it marks an honestly worrying trend in entertainment; the erasure of the people who actually make it.

To be clear here: I haven’t worked in film, the closest I’ve been to a camera was a few TV shoots. I’m not a musician, nor a gamedev. I am, for all purposes, a fan only. So don’t take anything I’ll be saying as a statement from the people who actually do put in all the work to keep the rest of us entertained. I aint that, as much as I’d love to pretend with this blog. But I can observe, and compare notes. And this all looks like a pretty concerning trend to me.

The awards that the Oscars are cutting are all awards for the more technical jobs and small directors. Production design, editing, and music have all been cut. This, I feel, is crucial. We do not have sets without production design. We do not have coherent movies or TV without editors. I’d just like to point out, these are union jobs (and, infact, only one of the awards broadcast live will go to an IATSE member – the award for Cinematography), and that’s not good! Regardless of what people like to believe, the crew on a shoot are just as important, if not moreso, than the directors, actors, and producers. Unions are one of the only things making film a good place to work, but the fact that it means less money goes into the pockets of the producers has always made them contentious – and with that, Hollywood has always searched for ways to get around the union. Chief among them has been moving to mostly non-unionized animation labor. But the simple fact is, one of the things that keeps the Union around is that people recognize the people who work on movies, who make the art. 

So what happens when we stop recognizing the people who make our art?

Well, we can look at Music as a cautionary tale.

Spotify is pretty much the most popular streaming service on the planet. We all use it, and it essentially is music now. With that pull, Spotify has essentially been able to set the price for music, and as a result notoriously artists get pennies for their streams, if that. This is on top of how wildly exploitative the major labels (who, you guessed it, funded Spotify in the first place) are. I don’t have the time or knowledge to run this down, so read this thread from absolute legend Steve Albini instead to get the gist of how deeply exploitative the majors are. But one of the ways that Spotify has been able to keep this arrangement going is the erasure of musicians. Spotify makes its brand mostly off of discovery and its curated genre playlists. What do those have in common?

They aren’t musicians.

While Spotify bases its business off of music, musicians are essentially irrelevant. Funded by an infusion of capital including the back catalogs of the majors, which were purchased essentially with money stolen from musicians, the big sell is stuff that is algorithmically created with little human input. But this music doesn’t exist because of a recommendation algorithm, or some kind of feedback loop. It was made by musicians, and the real role of the recommendation algorithm is that it obscures the work of musicians, and puts another barrier between their work and you, creating another avenue for Spotify to extract money. This is also convenient for the majors, who mostly do not make money off of new music – instead, almost all of their money is old songs, which are also much more profitable. 

The result is a stale music industry so dominated by old art and old musicians, playing the same songs on repeat. With streaming destroying revenue from record sales, the only option left for many musicians, big and small, is endless live shows until you can’t. No time to rest, record better art, or even just relax. It’s music festivals run by corporations that cut corners wherever possible – inevitably leading to injuries and deaths. It’s inhumane.

The Algorithm is the erasure of labor. This isn’t unique to capitalism – companies try to hide and disguise where they get their product from, to obscure the fact that there are real people creating their products. If you drive through Central California during the harvest season, you won’t see which fields are Vons and which are Wal-Mart. But this feels newer and darker.

This has been an ongoing phenomenon with Cinema. Movies become “content”. Algorithms are used to tell when a show is canceled (conveniently, when the cast & crew will start asking for raises). It’s an ongoing struggle to be aware of, because there is a very real risk that all entertainment goes the way of Music, where everyone is precarious and exploited.

I don’t really have a conclusion to make here. Shit’s bad! This isn’t a good trend! All we can do is hope that the unions, the directors, the people who actually make our art, push back.

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