The Curtain 095: The Perils of Mixing Venture Capital with Art

Plus: Approaching one year. I got a vaccine. And other things.
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Gus Cuddy
S02-07 (Issue 95)

I’m Gus Cuddy and this is The Curtain, a newsletter exploring arts, performance, technology, media psyches and cultural consciousness. New reader? Subscribe for free.

More than ever now, I can’t wait for this to be over. I long for the days where not everything needs to be contextualized with the pandemic. Where there are things to explore and write about that aren’t more takes on COVID and what it’s doing to arts and culture.

And it’s tantalizing: the weather’s getting warmer, sun finally breaking through the overbearing, wintry clouds that have marked the last few months; vaccines are rolling out slower than we’d like, but hey, they’re still happening; cases don’t seem to be rising.

We’re almost a year in now, and it’s all getting old, isn’t it? The masks, the limited physical touch, the constant Zooms. But we’re agonizingly close to finally being through — to finally putting so much of this in the past.

I recently stumbled across a great “COVID One Year Ago” Twitter account, which recounts how we were talking about COVID exactly a year ago, day-by-day. It’s a painful cringe read: one year ago today we were still on the “masks are bad” trend, and de Blasio was encouraging New Yorkers to go “out on the town”. The psychic collective trauma of this past year is almost too vast to conceptualize.

In a weird series of events I managed to get my first vaccine dose on Monday this week, tied to my job teaching chess to kids. I went to a FEMA-supported site at Medgar Evans College in Brooklyn that the Air Force was running. Wandering through the efficient but spiraling system they had set up, I was struck by how much this felt like a set from a sci-fi show: the militarized uniforms, the medicine, the bizarre chairs in the center of the rooms that we sat in for fifteen minutes to make sure there were no adverse reactions. And I felt like I was in a sci-fi universe as I left: somehow, some way, I was finally given a vaccine for this thing that has been terrorizing the world for the last year. As if my small universe — the pod-universe that has been all there is for much of this last year — had finally been met and subsumed by the larger one. As I walked home, overwhelming emotions came over me: deep joy and gratitude, for one. But also a sense of grogginess like waking from a nightmare. It’s not over yet, but it’s close: blinking our heavy eyes towards the incoming light, despite its florescence.

Here are some thoughts on the drama with Gimlet Media’s popular Reply All podcast, a show that was at one point about the internet. They’re having a reckoning that is extending to the whole podcast company. I recommend reading this blog post from James T. Green for more on working for Gimlet as a black employee.

# Gimlet Media and the Perils of Mixing Venture Capital with Art

It was always a mystery why Starlee Kine’s “Mystery Show” was cancelled by Gimlet Media in 2016. The show, by all accounts, was a hit: popular, buzzy, critically acclaimed; declared the “best new podcast of 2015” by iTunes, whatever that’s worth. Listening back to its six episode run, the stories feel special, considered. In particular, the “Belt Buckle” episode has gone on to be one of the more celebrated podcast episodes of all-time.

But in 2016, mysteriously, Kine announced she was no longer working for GimletMystery Show was over. She had been told the show was “unsustainable” by Gimlet founder Alex Blumberg. Kine lost her job, benefits, and production. The statement Gimlet put out was even more cryptic:

Mystery Show is an ambitious production and Starlee has an uncompromising vision for the show, which is what makes it so great. However, these factors combined make Mystery Show unsustainable to produce and publish on a consistent basis, and therefore Gimlet will no longer produce new episodes of Mystery Show.

Since its cancellation, Kine has been vocal on Twitter about her distaste over Gimlet pulling the plug. At the time, hers was the only show to have ever been cancelled by Gimlet; it seemingly was because of low ad revenue (Gimlet pre-sold the ads), which the second season could have made up for. She consistently accused Gimlet of being a bad place for artists and creators to work.

With the recent revelations over the toxic workplace culture fostered by Gimlet Media’s biggest show, Reply All, the story of Mystery Show seems an even bigger harbinger. Kine was clearly right:

This tweet by @StarleeKine has been deleted. You can try this internet archive snapshot, though!

Gimlet is a for-profit startup; startups take venture capital; venture capital prioritizes growth and profits; growth and profits, considered above everything else, kills art and contributes to a toxic working culture. Gimlet was beholden to its investors, through its $15 million Series B funding, and eventually its new boss, Spotify, which it sold to for $230 million in 2019.

Mixing venture capital and art is a dangerous combination. While it’s true that great art can emerge out of many conditions, the environment that is fostered by the demons of venture capital is profoundly anti-art. (I’m using a generous definition for art here that encompasses most creative and artistic endeavors that aren’t done strictly for profit.)

Growth, profits, and sustainability are not bad words in and of themselves. It’s the reality of capitalism that a small business needs to make a profit to be sustainable. And artists need to make money, and more than they do currently. But when a startup, backed by venture capital, has to make “art”, things get messy, and fast. Venture Capital prioritizes growth at all costs — when it makes no sense. Art gets reduced to ‘content’ — something to be managed on a spreadsheet, mined for intellectual property, and contracted out to cheap labor.

Merely looking at quantitative data to judge a creative work leads to a cold, algorithmic trap: culture never evolves because the future is based off the quantitative past. Art, still, after all these years, requires time and resources and care; attempts to optimize it never last long. It requires qualitative assessment and experimentation and mystery and secrets. Venture capital’s view of art is, by necessity, shallow — there’s no sense of poetry or context, bumps and warbles are flattened out, and culture isn’t viewed as a living organism. (When writing about the success of the great online theatre piece Circle Jerk, critic Helen Shaw wrote that the first step to producing a great play is to “start out with a long development process already behind you.” In other words, it can’t be produced on demand.)

Instead of properly letting work like Kine’s Mystery Show gestate and grow artistically, Gimlet cut off work to maximize profits and margins. When maximization of profit becomes the primary driving force, care for artists and the collective is often thrown out the window. A toxic workplace is created; unions are discouraged or vilified. We saw this with Reply All‘s P.J. Vogt and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, who both actively worked against the diverse unionizing efforts at Gimlet Media. (Former Gimlet producer Eric Eddings’ Twitter thread is worth a read for an overview.) And capital tends to lead to damaging, lazy storytelling in art that prioritizes the status quo over underserved communities. Former employee James T. Green recalls egregiously bad examples from his time there: “this very idea of extractive storytelling without the investigation of power dynamics, was the value that investors bought into and mechanized into a hyper-growth assembly line with extractive processes that left husks of people of color in its wake.”

# Notes from the Week

# re-opening watch

It’s starting to happen: New York will allow limited live performances to resume in April. The terms: 33 percent capacity, maxed out at 100 people indoors or 200 people outdoors; obviously, masks and social distancing required. The limits increase to 150 and 500 people if testing is provided.

Honestly, this seems overwhelmingly soon! Like — it’s in less than a month! I expect the ramp-up for theatre to be slow. But I’m sure we will see some intriguing small shows. It’s going to feel weird — and probably really good, right? — to finally be amidst a breath-sharing audience-performer relationship.

Meanwhile, movie theaters in New York City are set to re-open TODAY, March 5th.

# nft hype center

In case you missed it, last week I started to cover non-fungible tokens (NFT), which are gaining a lot of hype.

  • Devendra Banhart enters the NFT craze:

This tweet by @withFND has been deleted. You can try this internet archive snapshot, though!

# what godforsaken world have we wrought

# good thing from the week

The wonderful photographer Alec Soth has started a Youtube channel that is now one of my favorites — slow, calming, anti-Youtube: just Soth talking in his library about pictures and words.

# end note

agnes martin's 'summer 1964'. a lot of blue squares inside a big white one.
Agnes Martin, Summer 1964

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See you next week,


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