Saturday, August 19, 2006

Old White Males & Hollywood Suicide

White guys have fallen far and fast. And now, it seems, they are helping themselves out of this world of disappointment and into the next one faster than nature intended. The question: why?

Hollywood and the music industry is worried about the sea of changes brought on by new technology. Industry insiders are being down-sized and quitting. The question: why?

The answer to both these questions is the same. Bear with me here. I am not trying to trivialize the societal changes either men or creative types or even creative white men face, but everyone in all these groups has a choice: adapt and change, stay the same and be relegated to the irrelevence pile or, die.

Society has changed. We can argue about whether or not this is a good thing, but it has and here is how: technology has empowered the average individual so that traditional power structures are no longer necessary to reach the consumer.

Case study #1: Men. Technology and competition have transformed the playing field for men. Men who had dedicated themselves to their employers faced market pressures that resulted in huge down-sizings, firings of mostly men (because men made up the majority of the workforce--kinda like the rich are taxed the most because they pay taxes). Big salaries, declining motivation to sacrifice all for the disloyal corporate giant, the influx of women into the workforce and anti-discrimination policies that encouraged and promoted based on race and gender, fractured the system that men had grown up in and counted on for survival. Now, even their pensions are in question.

Where white men thrived, almost no matter their economic level, that has changed. Today, they retire or work in jobs the consider beneath them or they simply quit working and rely on someone else to pay the bills--their wife or the government. They missed their kids growing up years. The company that they loved dissed them. They are at home with a shrunk pension. Their wives are out working. Or, their wives divorce them after years of raising the kids and taking care of hearth and home on their own. He is alone and lonely. A man must reinvent his notion of manhood or die.

Case Study #2: The creative industry faces the same hurdles. I read an article in Fortune magazine, you can read it here online for free (see?), about how Ice Cube the West-coast rapper, looked for a record company to distribute his latest CD release. Cube would produce and mix and do the creative things musicians do and pay for it himself. He took the risk. He just needed distribution help. Well, that takes a huge chunk out of a record company's bottom line. Cube owns the music instead of the company, he took the risks afterall. He also reaped the reward.

The companies were the gatekeepers between the artists and the audience. If you wanted your video played on MTV, you needed a major label. If you wanted your CD displayed at Tower Records, you had to have a big record company. Sure, the company paid you a big advance. Then it would bill you for production, distribution, and marketing costs using accounting methods that would give people in Hollywood pause.

The record companies are no longer so powerful, because artists have more ways to get their music to fans. Garth Brooks sells his albums exclusively in Wal-Mart (Charts) stores and on the retailer's website.

Radiohead's contract with EMI's Capitol label has expired, and the band is in no rush to sign a new one. In July, Thom Yorke, Radiohead's lead singer, released a solo album, "The Eraser," on an independent label. It was promoted on the homepage of Apple's (Charts) iTunes Music Store and became the No. 2 record on the Billboard 200. Who needs a major label when you can do that?

The success of "Laugh Now, Cry Later" raises the same question. Ice Cube didn't need a record company to get radio play. He's Ice Cube, dammit! He personally courted DJs around the country. The rapper also expanded his fan base on the web.

Rob Stone, founder of Cornerstone Promotion, which Ice Cube and the Firm hired to push the album, says he got DJs to urge listeners to check out the rapper's singles on his MySpace page, and the number of Ice Cube's "friends" climbed from 2,000 to 150,000.

This development is unnerving to the Labels and for good reason. But lets face it, most of the arrangements benefitted the few. Some wildly successful musicians made gazillions but it was a fraction of the gazillions the label made. The labels in turn covered their losses from other losing projects that went nowhere. No more. First of all, anyone with an Apple and the proper software can create decent music for next to nothing. Second, with on-line distribution networks, word of mouth sells music. I myself bought a song from a buddy I went to High School with whose work is on iTunes. He doesn't have a label, yet. Maybe he never will, if enough people get his work.

And then there is Hollywood. Stars are getting their contracts renegotiated. Disney is downsizing. "The industry is no longer a growth industry," titters Laura Holson in the New York Times.

The concern so far seems largely psychological, although many here predict dark days ahead. Movie-making is no longer a growth business, and has lost its luster among investors. Even the most well-run large movie studios often return only 5 percent to 7 percent annually. And other forms of entertainment — the Internet, sports and video games — are fiercely competing for consumers’ attention.

“When you hear what people are afraid of, it’s that movies are not special anymore,” said Terry Press, who runs worldwide marketing at DreamWorks Animation. “It’s the single issue no one wants to think about or say out loud.”

"Movies aren't special"? Yes, they are. For example, this last week, Steve and I just saw one of the best movies of 2003 that no one has heard about outside of artsy-fartsy circles: My Architect: A Son's Journey. Riveting, low-budget and a documentary, it far outweighed any commercial movies I've seen lately. And I'm just now hearing about it thanks to technology: Rotten Tomatoes "certified fresh" feature. None of my friends saw this movie, but I'll tell everyone I know about it.

So a unique, unseen movie is on DVD. We rent it and take it home to our comfy bedroom. No theater. No gum on seats. Home. With the advent of home surround sound systems, flat screen TVs and skyward prices to just go see a movie, people are choosier. I know I am. Here is the Melissa Clouthier movie worthiness scale: If the movie is heavy on special effects and is "big", as in car chases, flying through outer space, there is big action and big sound, and the movie gets good ratings (and sometimes even when it doesn't and I waste money and time, I get irritated at myself for not following my criteria) and/or if it's really funny and/or the film garners incredible reviews and I'm in the mood, then and only then will I go to the movies.

Still, lots of people go to theaters to see movies, just like lots of musicians work through Labels, just like lots of white guys still work (and are now creating the "Gray Ceiling" that Gen X can't bust through), but the almost monopolistic influence has diminished and continues to decline. Hollywood, Labels and white old guys still exist and thrive, it is just that they must mutate and change and adapt to do so.

Some are not adapting so well. Some are choosing suicide over change. Let's go back to men, for a moment. It took me a minute, but thanks to Google, I found the research abstract the articles were based on. Here are the findings:

Figure 1
Death Rates for Suicide by Age and Sex, 2003

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2005.

White men also commit suicide at a substantially higher rate than other races:

Grim Comparisons by Sex, Race, and Ethnicity

Overall, three times as many women as men in the United States report a history of attempted suicide.5 But men are four times more likely to actually kill themselves.6 Choice of method may play a role in explaining this gender disparity: White men tend to use more violent and more lethal means than other suicide victims. In 2001, 73 percent of all suicide deaths and 80 percent of all firearm suicide deaths were white males.7

Disparities along ethnic lines for elderly males are also substantial. Compared with white males ages 65 and older, African American males (9.2 suicides per 100,000), Hispanic or Latino males (15.6), and Asian or Pacific Islander males (17.5) in the same age range had significantly lower suicide rates (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Male Death Rates for Suicide, by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, 2003

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2005.

And as black and white men age, the gap in suicide rates between the two groups widens considerably. White males in the 45-64 age range commit almost three times as many suicides (26.1 per 100,000) as their black male contemporaries (at 9.0 per 100,000). The disparity grows among those ages 75-84 (37.5 per 100,000 for whites, compared with 11.3 per 100,000 for black males).

Why does this happen? Researchers aren't sure, but here's a guess:

Suicidal women and men have also been portrayed differently in suicide research, according to Canetto. Women's suicidal behavior is usually conceived as a private problem—an expression of an individual disorder or deficiency, or as the outcome of a "mental breakdown." On the other hand, Canetto has noticed that the research literature views men's suicidal behavior as a "tragic but rational" response to a loss or adverse circumstances.

And because men's suicidal behavior is often linked afterwards to external factors such as an illness, a business failure, or a forced retirement, suicide-prevention plans often fail to address individual internal or psychological factors such as feelings, personal shortcomings, or relationship concerns. [emphasis added, -ed.]

Generation X men are living, parenting and working differently. (It's worth reading this whole article.) Not willing to make the extreme trade-offs as their fathers, they are more involved on the home front. Their wives are most likely working (73% of them do). There is more equality at home. While some might lament this turn of events, fathers are more connected to their children than in the past.

One week earlier, I had met Fowler along with a half-dozen other fathers in their 30s and early 40s who gather monthly at a Watertown bar called Conley's. Everything about them seemed to confirm the latest research trumpeting a new breed of father. They experience, as working women have for decades, the joys and anxieties of wanting it all: the satisfying career and the time with their family. These guys dub themselves "Dads in the Dark," though they see their group as far from unenlightened. They grab paternity leaves and reject overtime even when they could use the money. They are as adept at sculpting Play-Doh as they are at drafting memos. A manager at Fidelity Investments says being home by 6 p.m. is not just a target, "it's firm."
Will the different choices younger men are making make a difference at 65 and 75? Will the mutation of manhood integrate coping mechanisms the Baby Boomer and Post WWII men just don't possess? I look at the example of this family, that is similar to mine, and have trouble imaging my husband feeling suicidal at 65:

As we ride the Red Line, Fowler talks easily about the routines of his two children, Caitlin, 4, and Kyle, 3, including dinner, cleanup, and teeth brushing. He says his wife was laid off a few years ago as a consultant but is looking to return to work any day. "I don't know many Stepford wives anymore, do you?" he asks while we retrieve his car from the Alewife commuter lot. When we arrive at his home in Belmont shortly after 6 p.m., his children pounce on him, screaming, "Daddy!"

Within 10 minutes, Fowler has changed out of his work clothes, downed a plate of spaghetti and meatballs at the kitchen table (everyone else has eaten already), and bounded up the stairs to be the evening playmate to his children. His wife, Jules Giggie, is a warm and outgoing woman who met her husband while studying for her master's degree in social work in Austin, Texas. She says she and her husband have typical marital spats, but she describes him as always being "about fairness and respect." They work hard, she says, to break down male-female stereotypes in front of their children. Giggie, who has volunteered at a battered-women's shelter, tells her husband: "Just because I have ovaries doesn't mean I'm better at making meals."

Later in the evening, Caitlin, an exuberant preschooler with a tumble of short curls, races into the kitchen, trying to enlist more adults in her game of hide-and-seek.

Who gives you a bath at night? I ask Caitlin.

"Mommy and Daddy," she says, twirling around the kitchen table.

Who helps you brush your teeth?

"Mommy and Daddy."

Who takes care of you when you are sick?

"Mommy and Daddy!" And then she zooms off into another room.

Do older men see how their sons are dealing with their families an feeling fits of despair at what has been lost both personally and professionally? Clients in their 30s and early 40s tend to deal with the role shifting better than those in their late 40s and into their 50s. This seems like a transition time. These old-school men might have wives that work but still hold the same expectations that their fathers held--laundry, household chores, ironing, clean-up, a hot meal at a certain time in addition to her other responsibilities. Others, like my father-in-law morphed into staying at home and taking care of the homefront during a time of unemployment while my mother-in-law went back to work. It wasn't easy for him. Now, she is quitting her job to care for her mother, and he is guiding a start-up--back in the business saddle. That isn't to say this new-found flexibility hasn't been stressful, but he has managed it fairly successfully.


So Hollywood and Record labels and Cable TV worry about the future. They should. They can go kicking and screaming or they can innovate or they can die. It is their choice. With power dissipating and "An Army of Davids" like Glenn Reynolds book trumpets, making choices by niches as The Long Tail by Wired editor Chris Anderson elucidates, people and business must change. The internet and technology and sociology have changed everything. The key to living and thriving is adaptability and catering to the needs of the individual.

Lots of opportunity exists whether you're a retired white guy or Hollywood honcho. The business cliche is appropriate here: the Chinese character "Crisis" is a combination of "Danger" and "Opportunity." There is lots of opportunity in these crises, hopefully the parties envolved will embrace them, instead of dwelling on the danger--choosing a premature death over change.

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