My taste in music and the radio-friendly, high-charting acts that generally dominate the Grammy Awards went their own separate ways long ago, so watching last night's show for the first time in as long as I can remember came as a bit of shock.
Specifically, I found myself bemused by the stratification of the artists performing live. They were either very old or very young, with little in between: Legendary artists in their 60s and 70s, or fresh-faced new acts in their 20s. Aside from a few cameos by popular acts of the early '90s — e.g. Dave Grohl and Beck's obligatory "give a forgotten artist album of the year in an upset victory" — last night's awards show had an almost mournful air to it. Aging acts creaked their way onto the stage to trudge through songs older than half the audience members.
But performances by elder acts didn't feel so much like celebrations of the classics so much as the Recording Academy trading in on past glory while they still can. Watching Angus Young and Madonna (both approaching 60) strut around in outfits that were novel back in the '80s and wildly inappropriate three decades later was painful. Meanwhile, the presence of Jeff Lynne and Paul McCartney inadvertently triangulated the absence of their mutual collaborator, George Harrison. All in all, a fairly gloomy night.
On the other hand, the newer acts were generally more energetic and on-point, but none of them seemed particularly inspired, either. The moment's best night came in the collaboration between Hozier and Annie Lennox, the later adding genuine power to the otherwise tedious "Take Me to Church," which seemed to suggest a certain future in combining the old with the new. Likewise Usher's tribute to Stevie Wonder. But then the weird sight of Lady Gaga hanging off Tony Bennett's arm and Paul McCartney stiffly strumming a guitar while Kanye West and Rihanna swirled around him undermined that notion.
Overall, the Grammys came off as an unhappily accurate reflection of a failing industry, clinging to the old while struggling to find a viable future. It's no secret that the music industry has been circling the drain for years now, fighting against the specter of piracy, the changing tastes of its core demographic, and a hard ceiling on what audiences are willing to pay for music. Much of the buzz from last night's show revolves around the Album of the Year Award, which is ironic given that the entire concept of the album has long since ceased to be the force in music sales it was in the '70s and '80s.
In other words, music as a medium is changing, and so it is audience. So is every medium, really. Print publishing — books, magazines, and newspapers — has faced up to its existential peril with varying degrees of bravado. Movies continue to struggle to struggle with exploding budgets and diminishing box office returns for all but a handful of blockbusters each year. And so on, and so forth. Like these other mediums, video games also grapple with their own challenges — specifically, the conflict between the desires of the audience and the needs of development.
That all of these forms of media seem to be experiencing the same general challenges at the same time is no coincidence. The factors that impact one form of entertainment affect the next as well. These industries slipped into a comfortable groove in the latter half of the 20th century, and all of them have been disrupted by the growth and globalization — not to mention the conveniences of digital communication — made possible by the Internet's commoditization over the past 15 years. To traditional media companies, the likes of Napster, YouTube, Netflix, and BitTorrent have simply represented different facets of the same inevitable challenge to their hegemony. On top of that, the vast majority of Americans have far less buying power than their parents did, forcing publishers to scrape shrinking money from an audience increasingly drawn to alternate forms of entertainment, or to new distribution channels for old-fashioned media.
For all the challenges that video games face in the next decade — and they're significant! — watching events for other mediums, such as the Grammys, offers a welcome reminder that gaming is probably best positioned to survive the transition. Games and the games industry have some challenges ahead of them, but the very thing that makes them so often derided by media critics also makes them far more agile than more established media: Their newness. As an industry, video games have only really had a sound footing for less than 30 years; by comparison, music solidified in the 1950s, film in the '30s, and books... well before that. The games industry has yet to come up with an awards show with the prestige of the Grammys or a statue as revered as the Oscar. When critics want to belittle a movie, a favorite go-to is always, "It's like watching a video game."
The old guard can sneer all they like, but the idea that video games are an unproven, immature form of media belies the fact that the industry surrounding them hasn't yet become calcified in its ways. Yes, plenty of developers and publishers have closed shop recently, but games have been a brutal business from the start. The video games crash in 1983 wiped out most American console makers; the move from sprites to polygon a decade later thinned the ranks of 8- and 16-bit studios; and the jump to HD a decade after that shook things out once again. The industry's current travails seem more like a cyclical pattern than the end of all things — and, based on the outcome of previous decades of gaming, the business will emerge different... but ultimately stronger.
You can see the medium's strength in how quickly the industry adapted to the concept of digital distribution. Video games alone were the only medium whose stewards embraced online distribution from the beginning rather than seeing the idea as a threat. While the RIAA was attempting to quash Napster, Valve was creating Steam. Today, the primary forms of distribution are largely owned by game publishers — Valve, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo — but that endemic ownership doesn't exist for music, film, or books. The media giants spent so long trying to prevent the move to digital sales and distribution that they allowed companies from outside their respective industries set up camp and take control: What Apple, Netflix, and Amazon have in common is that none of them are media creators. As much as studios and labels would like to break the stranglehold that iTunes has over their content, their efforts to date have proven fruitless.
Of course, iTunes also has quite a grip on video games as well, but it's a different and more intimate connection than with other mediums. Apple has no real stake in other forms of entertainment, but they create the devices and OS on which the games sold on iTunes play. This puts this into the same category as Nintendo or Sony, with their fortunes in that area closely tied to the quality and sales of their own systems. And they were able to establish this connection in large part because of the youth and flexibility of the games industry; while movie studios and record labels have been entrenched for decades and built up a system that places them at the center in a position of power that seemingly can only be unseated through their own failings, the games industry still had room as recently as six years ago for Apple to become a major player. No doubt they're hardly the last company that will play a role in defining the fundamentals of the medium, either.
Which isn't to say that the difference between video games and music are necessarily all to the younger medium's advantage. Despite games being a relative newcomer to the scene, it's all too eager to throw aside its heritage. The clash of old and new at last night's Grammys ceremony is something you'd never see in a celebration of video games. Video game publishers regard their own history as something to be either commoditized or discarded, and creators are only as relevant as their last multi-million seller. The Grammys may have presented us with an embarrassing spectacle of senior citizens trying to rock out like college students, but the games industry treats its veterans like garbage and would be just as happy to forget its formative minds never existed. The medium's few enduring hitmakers receive adulation — the Shigeru Miyamotos and Hideo Kojimas of the world — but they're the exception.
Of course, as someone with a tremendous interest in game history, this particular tendency vexes me to no end. But better to push relentlessly to future advancement at the expense of the past than cling to the past at the expense of the future. While we're all a little concerned about the direction the games industry is headed, sometimes a little perspective helps you realize it could be worse.