Scott Timberg and “Boom Times at the End of the World”: the future that none of us wanted

Leading chronicler and champion

“Humans doing the hard jobs on minimum wage while the robots write poetry and paint is not the future I wanted,” wrote architect, satirist, and cartoonist Karl Sharro on Twitter today. It’s not the future anyone wanted, but here we are.

Perhaps no one foresaw our civilizational predicament with such clarity and eloquence as the late award-winning music and cultural critic Scott Timberg.

I’ve written before about the Stanford-born author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale University Press), whose 2019 suicide at the age of 50 dismayed not only his friends and family, but writers, artists, editors, and critics everywhere. (Go here and here.) Now we have a collection of his best essays as well.

“For many of us, Scott’s death revealed uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of creative professionals who had been squeezed and displaced in the ‘culture business,'” writes Ted Gioia in his eloquent introduction to Boom Times at the End of the World, just published by Heyday Books (Berkeley). If you want to read some of his music writing, go to the chapters on Glenn Gould or Gustvo Dudamel. If you want to understand his concern with the collapse of culture and media, you can read his essay, “How the Village Voice and Other Alt-Weeklies Lost Their Voice.” There’s lots to choose from.

Timberg writes:

My path into the creative class – as an observing reporter – was pretty typical. Growing up a middle-class kid, I had no illusion that I’d ever become wealthy, but I had a sense that I could get really good at something if I worked as hard as I could and surrounded myself with what someone once called – in a phrase that now sounds antique – the best that has been thought and said. Mine was a pragmatic, find-a-summer-job, get-Triple-A-and-change-your-oil-regularly kind of family. But there was also a respect for culture. Reading James Joyce‘s Dubliners showed me a new way to see: there was a world behind the world that you could discern if you squinted just right. …

But I’m telling this story not because of what happened to me, or what happened to my friends. … And while the Internet and other digital innovations had taken a huge bite out of some professions – disemboweling the music industry, for instance, though both piracy and entirely legal means – this was about more than just technology. Some of the causes were as new as file sharing; others were older than the nation. Some were cyclical, and would pass in a few years; others were structural and would get worse with time. There was a larger nexus at work – factors, in some cases unrelated ones, that had come together in the first decades of the twenty-first century to eviscerate the creative class.

As someone who has shared his struggles to make a living in the collapsing world of cultural journalism, I wanted to focus in this blogpost on his own journey in “Down We Go Together,” beginning in 2008, the year the housing bubble burst, as he was in Portland. He got the phone call so many of us dread (always assuming we have a house in the first place):

Then my cell phone rang, the face of my wife back home in Los Angeles showing up on its small screen. She didn’t waste time. “The bank,” she said, “is suing us.” She’d woken up to a courier posting a note on our front door. “I’m sorry,” was all he said before taking off. Pulling the photocopied forms off our door – in triplicate – she saw that one of the largest banks in the world had initiated legal action to take our little house from us. …

Timberg describes a world in which supporting players are being forced out of the culture industry, and hence “too much quality art becomes a tree falling in empty woods, and each artist, regardless of temperament, must become his or her own producer, promoter, and publicist.”

“These changes have undermined the way culture has been created for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place. The price we ultimately pay is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

The book is on Amazon of course, here – but you can also purchase directly through Heyday here.

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