Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: One of the most promising young companies of the new journalism revolution just ran out of money and closed its doors — likely forever.
The victim this week is Circa, the San Francisco-based news app which launched in 2011 with an intrepid “mission to fix journalism” but now appears to have spent the last of the $ 5.7 million given to it by investors without ever figuring out a business model.
During that time the startup built a bold product worthy of its valiant ambitions, pioneering an unprecedented new format for storytelling comprised of atomized bits of information delivered via push notifications to mobile phones.
This vision won over some of the world’s most high-profile investors, entrepreneurs, and venture firms –Lerer Hippeau, David Karp, Russell Simmons, Matt Mullenweg, and dozens more helped fill Circa’s modest but supremely well-connected cash coffers. And to go along with its murderer’s row of backers, the company enlisted impressive names in the content industry to work on both the editorial and technology sides of its business, like Reuters’ social media svengali Anthony De Rosa and the CEO of the Cheezburger Network Ben Huh.
At the time of its debut, many commentators swooned over Circa – present company excluded – and why wouldn’t they? Audaciously ambitious, stacked with talent at all levels of the organization, and driven by a rare and genuinely original central conceit, Circa looked to many like one of the safer bets among the content gold rush of the early-aughts, when venture capitalists finally overcame their allergy to investing in journalism.
What could possibly go wrong?
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For the security guard I find myself sharing a joint with Saturday night, this is his tenth consecutive year working at Bonnaroo. We’ll be killing time waiting for Mumford & Sons to finish their crude, capitalistic heist of Western folk traditions for at least another 45 minutes. That’s when salvation will take the bodily form of the neo-soul demigod D’Angelo, sent to Earth to clear the miasma left by Mumford’s recycled melodies, hanging in the air like the accumulation of farts at a roadside rest stop. Until that time, I’m content to listen to the 31-year-old guard, kicking back mid-way through a brutal 8 pm to 8 am shift, tell me his contemptuous — but all too plausible — unified theory of Bonnaroo.
“It’s genius,” he says. “The place is designed so that you walk around in circles. ‘Where’s the band I came to see? Oh, here’s a different band, they’re okay I guess. Oh look, there’s a store.’ Buy. Buy. Buy. Buy.”
He’s not wrong. At the all-too-frequent moments this weekend when not a single band worth seeing was on-stage, my aimless wanderings inevitably brought me to chintzy retail pop-ups selling jewelry made out of beach shells, $ 7 pizza slices, and enough Grateful Dead paraphernalia to turn every item in your home into a symbol of hippie culture’s commercialization. One shop, as far as I could tell, sold nothing but pinecones — though it was difficult to observe the store’s full selection of wares because the cashier had taken a break from profiting off of nature’s detritus to do a DJ set, naturally. Selling pine cones is just her day job, you see. Meanwhile, the beach shell salesman, who with a shell rubg, a shell bracelet, and shell earrings proclaims that shells “changed his whole style,” before quickly giving himself away:
“When I get back to Nashville,” he says. “I’ll be like, ‘What the hell am I wearing?’” You and everybody else here, my man.
As a business model, Bonnaroo is insidiously brilliant, and the guard hopes to replicate this model with the same success in his home-state, Virginia. He’s already launched one festival, a non-profit event that in its debut last year attracted 1300 people. For his next festival, however, the guard wants to apply the knowledge he’s picked up over a decade of service to Bonnaroo to build something just as popular and profitable.
“These people are so stupid,” he tells me.
Efforts like this to capitalize on youth culture under the guise of providing a revolutionary, mind-freeing experience have been around at least since Woodstock. Moreover, the guard’s blunt characterization of Bonnaroo in this commercial context, though informed by years of experience, is nothing new.
What’s striking to me, however, is how Bonnaroo has become a microcosm of youth culture’s broader relationship to music today — a relationship that’s lost much of its intimacy since the Internet rendered music into a commodity — like oil but in far greater supply. But music is not formed by dispassionate geological forces, nor is it designed to be consumed indiscriminately and without emotion. It’s created by humans, some of whom for the purpose of communicating something meaningful to other humans. Though at Bonnaroo, music is at best a perfunctory opportunity to rhythmically move your limbs and, at worst, a way to look cool to friends back home and win cultural credibility points. And that’s just from the listener’s perspective: The real point of all these cymbal crashes, guitar skronks, rebel yells, and synthetic pre-programmed melodies is, in the words of my new friend, to get you to “buy, buy, buy” — and not to buy music, but to buy extra large jumbo Miller Lites.
This contention isn’t really up for debate. What’s more unclear, however, is whether this phenomenon is isolated to individual events like Bonnaroo? Or are these the sociological, psychological, and economic contours of the broader American music-making apparatus? And if so, what does that say about the state of art and culture in America?
Music plays many roles in the lives of young adults. It can be a window into experiences not yet felt, inspiring listeners to seek out new ways of living heretofore unconsidered. Or it can offer perspectives and stories to which young listeners can specifically relate, allowing for catharsis, comfort, and the alleviation of that sense of loneliness unique to teenagers who falsely believe that they are the only ones in pain. It can exist as both the soundtrack and the catalyst for political change. And perhaps most importantly it forms the connective tissue that holds micro-communities and subcultures in place, bringing together disparate strands of lost and confused youths through their shared love of strange and exciting sounds.
Or at least that’s the role music played for my generation, and my parents’ generation. It’s no wild hypothesis to suggest that the Internet, by providing instant, frictionless access to millions of songs with just a slide and a tap of the thumb, has dulled music’s impact on the lives of digital and mobile natives, neutering its power to shape and reflect back one’s personal identity — a precarious concept to begin with. Children of the pre-digital age were required to stare at record store racks until their eyes ached to find anything older or more obscure than what MTV’s content guardians allowed through their gates. That’s assuming a kid even knew the names of these arcane and mysterious bands, which demanded having a good college radio station in town or at least a subscription to Spin Magazine. Because of the effort needed to unearth these obscurities, and the specific and often serendipitous factors that facilitated these discoveries, communities were formed out of the strong foundations of shared taste. If someone liked a band like Slint in the 90s, and they met someone else who also liked Slint, there would be a good chance the two of them had a lot of other things in common, too.
But — and I say this at the risk of sounding even older than I am — when there’s no need to expend energy or effort to “discover” a band on Spotify or YouTube, the bar of fandom is much lower, making fandom itself is a far more shallow pursuit. With millions of songs suspended in the cloud, available for the picking at any given moment of our waking lives, music becomes like a commodity — particularly for young listeners who know no other reality. And commodities are not things we engage with beyond a level of utilitarianism, as in: “I need something to put on at a party.” Or, “I need something to dance to after taking drugs.” Or, “I want to know all the cool bands so I can sound smart.” Or even, “I am tortured by my inner thoughts which invade my brain during moments of silence and solitude.”
When music is used merely as a tool of the pragmatist, a song’s genre, instrumentation, lyrics, and message — if the song even has one — don’t greatly matter. Extra points are assigned to songs with continuous 4/4 rhythms, as these songs are easy to dance to. This helps explain the enormous popularity of EDM — the only genre that makes performers any money these days — which exhibit an emphasis on visuals and movement. Most people over 30 don’t “get” EDM, in large part because to them these artists are merely DJs who don’t play anything, per se. But it’s possible that many digitally-native consumers don’t think about music as a piece of human expression, targeted at reaching remote quadrants of other humans’ souls.
This surface-level appreciation of music — and the overwhelming ease of accessing it — also helps explain the rise in popularity of mega-festivals like Bonnaroo that play host to over a hundred musical acts. In the past, if a listener was only familiar with one or two bands on a festival lineup, there would be little reason to attend. But today, a listener can brief herself on the other hundred-plus acts in just a few afternoons of diligent streaming. Or not at all! These kids are outside, half-naked, high, and listening to loud music. Who even cares what’s playing?
This isn’t an entirely negative consequence. As I wrote on the first day of Bonnaroo, this “democratization” of fandom may help facilitate a different type of bond than the ones that form within sub-cultures and micro-communities. These connections are forged within a much larger community of listeners with wildly divergent backgrounds and lifestyles. Moreover, by removing the pretense of “work” and “effort” from one’s appreciation of music, perhaps that appreciation is even more sincere. Mac DeMarco’s roaring Thursday night set, for instance, in which he deftly fused the intimacy of his songwriting with the visceral anthemic qualities of a large festival sound system, brought together hippies, hipsters, bros, and girl-bros. For hippies and hipsters, the digital media revolution strips some of the pretension out of music appreciation while for fratboys and sorority girls, it provides easy opportunities to unearth deeper and more meaningful songs than the mass media they’re most familiar with generally allows. It’s a win-win, right?
But there’s something odd about watching the same young listeners who swooned at Childish Gambino’s sloppy Drake approximations lose their shit with equal fervor at Slayer (who, by the way, ripped out the heart of every other Bonnaroo performer and devoured them one-by-one on stage — or at least that’s the vision I had during their thundering, unforgettable performance). Certainly it’s entirely reasonable for someone to be a fan of both Childish Gambino and Slayer. And the optimistic interpretation of this is that young fans today are simply more eclectic than generations past.
But I wonder too about the depth of appreciation for individual artists when the only limits put on the amount of music listeners can consume are their own. And in turn, what incentive is there for artists to make grand statements, to tell stories, and to make the kind of artistic overtures that take patience to appreciation, when they’ll fall on deaf ears?
It’s possible that as the fourth day of the festival draws to a close, I am feeling a bit jaded (and a lot old). The last three artists I’m about to go see this weekend are pretty killer: Caribou, Robert Plant, and Billy Joel. And maybe when I hear Joel sing, “Cadilac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac,” I’ll want to take it all back.
David Holmes is Pando’s East Coast Editor. He is also the co-founder of Explainer Music, a production company specializing in journalistic music videos. His work has appeared at FastCompany.com, ProPublica, the Guardian, the Daily Dot, NewYorker.com, and Grist.