graphic showing conglomerates

The Cultural Industries

The Cultural Industries

David Hesmondhalgh’s The Cultural Industries was first published in 2002 with a fourth edition released in 2019. Exploring the production and circulation of media texts, the book offered a comprehensive overview of the creative and cultural industries, including the shifting economic and social contexts.

Here are some definitions and examples of key terms from Hesmondhalgh’s analysis.

Symbolic Creativity

The production of media texts and “the manipulation of symbols for the purposes of entertainment, information and… enlightenment”. Television, film, theatre and music are obvious examples.

Symbol Creators

People who create media content. The workers.

Hesmondhalgh noted the difference between “the small number of highly-rewarded superstars” compared to the “majority of people attempting to make a living out of cultural production”. He also highlighted how many symbol makers “accepted poor working conditions” because they wanted to be “involved in creative projects and the glamour surrounding these worlds”.

Commodification

The concept of commodification refers to the process of “transforming objects and ideas into commodities” which can be bought, sold and exchanged. Hesmondhalgh believed the commodification of culture was a “long-term and ambivalent process” with “different stages and taking multiple forms”. Adapting an example from John Frow’s (1997) Time and Commodity Culture, Hesmondhalgh identified three stages of commodification:

  • The commodification of the material object (the book) taking place – as early as the 15th century.
  • The commodification of the information contained within the material object as ‘the work’ in copyright law – from the 18th century onward.
  • The commodification of access to printed text information via electronic databases and so on in – in the late 20th century.

Hesmondhalgh argued we should “resist the more negative aspects of commodification”. There is no doubt culture is increasingly packaged as a product to be sold to consumers, but Hesmondhalgh was concerned the process produced “unrecognised and under-rewarded paid labour”. For example, we focus so much on the glamorous stars of Hollywood films we tend to forget the huge amount of cultural labour that went into making the product.

Globalisation

In terms of economics, globalisation refers to the incredible movement of goods and services around the world. Cultural industries are also dependent on cross-border production and distribution of media texts. This internationalisation is an effective way for companies to reach new markets and audiences.

Conglomerates

A conglomerate is the concentration of companies under one corporate group. The parent company owns its smaller subsidiaries which usually operate separately from one another. Henry Jenkins labelled the pattern of merges and cross-ownership as corporate convergence.

As the scope for investment in culture grows, corporations grow bigger and come to undertake more and more of the cultural production that people see and hear.

David Hesmondhalgh

Vertical Integration

When a single company owns most of the chain of production for media text.

Horizontal Integration

A company buys a competitor in the same sector.

Artificial Scarcity

Media texts are expensive to create but relatively cheap to reproduce. Hesmondhalgh gave the example of the time and effort needed to compose, record, mix and edit a song until it sounds right to its makers and their intended audience.

Since media texts are easy to copy, companies involved in the cultural industry will often limit and control access to their products. For example, copyright laws enable companies to maintain ownership of their intellectual property. Companies will also try to limit access to the means of reproduction so textual poachers will find it difficult to appropriate the material.

Vertical integration is an important factor in this sort of control. If a production company also owns the distribution and retail channels, they can withhold the release of product or make the text available on one platform and create a sense of exclusivity.

Formatting

The development and production of media texts is incredibly risky, so companies will format cultural products to improve the chances of success. Hesmondhalgh identified three key strategies:

  • genre;
  • star power; and
  • serialisation.

You can read our summary of formatting and Hollywood cinema for more detail about the concept.

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