“The profile of the Spanish cultural consumer is similar to its European counterpart”
Victor Fernández Blanco, Associate Professor of Foundations of Economic Analysis at the Department of Economics of the University of Oviedo, and specialist in the field of the economics of culture
In this interview, Víctor Fernández Blanco highlights the fact that, in contrast with what the majority of people may think, the digitalisation of certain cultural products does not reduce socialisation capacity, but rather the channels of this participation are mutating towards different pathways. This means, according to Fernández Blanco, it is necessary to adapt to the changes of a culture that no longer exists as it was understood some years ago and to face up to the fact that its consumption changes from day to day.
Researcher Fernández Blanco explains that no clear differences can be distinguished between Spanish people’s participation in culture and that of citizens of other European countries. The same can be said of cinema, a sector in which Fernández Blanco is a specialist. In his opinion, access to cinema has become democratised, among other reasons, due to the arrival of new technologies. The film industry, he affirms, no longer entrusts its entire turnover to the screening of films at cinemas but also seeks new channels for the release of its products, adapting to the growing changes that are taking place in viewing platforms.
What do you believe are the individual and social benefits consumption and cultural participation provide?
There are various individual and social benefits of consumption and cultural participation. They are traditional, because they meet one of the basic needs of human beings, that is: to communicate, have contact with others, establish channels of relationships, offer your experiences, discover new experiences in others... Thus, from that point of view, that goes beyond even the economic point of view, culture offers personal and relationship benefits that are clearly essential nowadays, as they have always been throughout the history of mankind.
But we must also add some clearly economic benefits to that. It meets a basic need of human beings; generates economic activity for cities, for regions; allows for the defence and maintenance of certain values that would be at risk of disappearing; stimulates education, training, the creation of human capital both individually as well as socially in each person; it facilitates social relationships; creates channels of socialisation and, therefore, enriches societies. Moreover, culture is always an open field and, thus, not only enriches endogenously the society itself in which we are living, but as it is always a field open to new sensations and new experiences it also serves to enrich the relationship of a society with both the closest and also the most distant neighbouring societies.
Do you believe investment in culture in times of economic crisis is justified?
Of course. I believe that public investment in culture is justifiable at all times, and also in times of crisis. As is known, culture generates a series of external values that private supply and the autonomous functioning of markets would not be able to grasp and appreciate. Therefore, the State intervention to protect and stimulate these external values, the external effects which we mentioned in economic terms, which are highly valuable for society as a whole and particularly for individuals, is necessary. Both from the point of view of creation and conservation of heritage, as well as the creation of networks between citizens and the social, cultural and not just cultural participation, by citizens... These are effects that deserve attention by the public authorities. And this attention is coupled with strictly economic values such as investment, but also with a firm policy of action for the benefit of culture. It’s not just a budgetary problem, it is also a problem of cultural policy decided in favour of culture and the participation of citizens in it.
Which factors most affect cultural consumption in Spain?
The factors that most affect cultural consumption in Spain are basically factors that have to do, firstly, with education. The higher the level of education, the greater cultural consumption there will be in all kinds of products. From the products, let’s say of higher or classical culture, such as classical music, opera or participation in art markets, even to the most current type of culture, dynamic, or if we use old profiles, popular culture. Also in classical music or pop concerts, increased education fuels the consumption of culture. Another factor is age: consumers of culture are young. In general, young people predominate in most goods of cultural consumption. At the same time, family responsibilities act as an obstacle, as an impediment to participating in cultural events and facilitating cultural consumption, especially when you're away from home. People with family responsibilities increasingly focus on domestic consumption in the world of culture. There is also some influence of regional and local character. There are two regions in Spain that are large aggregators of cultural events. Madrid and Barcelona facilitate the consumption by citizens. However, medium-sized cities such as Valladolid or Bilbao, have a sufficiently abundant offer and some facilities, in terms of cost of time, that greatly facilitate cultural consumption. Perhaps it’s in locations with a lower volume of population where one finds greater difficulties to accessing culture not so much in terms of cost of time as in terms of supply. The supply is lower and, once again, we return to what we were saying before: public action is absolutely necessary in those smaller-sized locations. Public investment is needed that doesn’t concentrate so much on having a market size that makes investment in culture profitable, but concentrates on providing basic services to citizens.
Are there significant differences with respect to other countries in Europe?
One cannot see clear differences in the participation of Spanish citizens compared to citizens of other European countries. The profile of consumers of culture, in general, and of each of the products in particular is very similar. There may be small differences in certain kinds of cultural products, which are authentic or more widespread in one area than another. For example, although it is one of the gaps, consumption of zarzuela or operetta is much more frequent in Spain and Austria, for example, than in the UK. But, in general, thinking about large constructs of cultural consumption, the Spanish consumer profile is similar to that of any European consumer.
Are there different profiles of cultural consumers in Spain? Have those profiles changed in the past few years?
Changes have been observed in the profiles of citizens in some types of cultural products. We’ve especially seen a gradual aging process in the performing arts and, particularly, in opera and zarzuela. They’re areas that are scarcely permeating the younger generations; therefore, a phenomenon of aging is occurring. However, in other cultural products, the importance of young people has taken root. We are talking, for example, about the world of film. Films are one of the most consumed products by citizens of all ages, but especially by younger people. Individuals between the ages of 15 and 30 are really the biggest consumers of cinema. In the last four or five years, this difference tilting towards younger people has grown even more.
How has Digitization impacted consumption of cinema in Spain?
Digitization in cinema has caused significant changes in recent years both in the sphere of consumption as well as in the sphere of production. But I think that, rather than simply referring to movies, we should talk about the audio-visual world. Because now it’s not just movies being watched on the big screen, but increasingly we are seeing audio-visual products through other channels, through other windows, the media offered by new technologies. And now not just traditional cinema is being viewed, but we are seeing more and more serie, more and more products made directly to be exploited by all audio-visual channels. The same thing happens from a production point of view. What used to be two separate worlds - the world of television and the world of the big screen - are, nowadays, two converging worlds. These days a film is made thinking of all possible display windows. It begins with the big screen, because that’s the large showcase. From there, it goes to pay TV, to syndicated and local TV, to DVD sales, the increasingly important consumption by streaming, or downloading of movies… Therefore, it is a completely different world; as mentioned, it goes beyond being just films to being part of the entire audio-visual world.
Do you think that it has benefitted film consumption and, therefore, its democratisation to broader layers of society?
It can undoubtedly be said that the arrival of new technologies and, in particular, Digitization, has facilitated access of all citizens to the audio-visual world and the world of cinema. Cinema was born with an ambition to be classless, intergenerational, and to reach all individuals. But when we put cheap media within people’s reach, ones that consume little time and are easily accessible, we’re simply allowing more people to enjoy more products and under different conditions, which are much better suited to their personal or family needs.
Have cinema consumption habits varied?
Cinema consumption habits vary nearly every day. There is a common denominator that has remained constant virtually since cinema was invented in the early twentieth century. That is the appeal of a dark room and the ability to socialise. But new technologies, i.e., Digitization, have opened new avenues for doing this, for a consumption one might think that, theoretically, is less socialising because you consume the movies with your own computer, in your own home, and not with the mystique of the big screen. That's true, but today consumption of film through digital platforms, tablets, computers, also becomes a mechanism of socialisation, because, increasingly, consumption of cinema is associated with communication through social networks. What we are changing is the way of socialisation; it’s no longer the darkened cinema, now it’s the Internet that allows individuals to socialise and even comment over time how a movie is going or generate discussion forums for products like series, that generate their own discussion forums where individuals participate.
Has consumption of cinema on the internet (by way of downloads and/or streaming) substituted or supplemented traditional consumption in cinemas?
Evidently, cinema consumption over the internet has a certain effect of substituting traditional consumption of films. Above all, people who have higher transaction costs, who have higher opportunity costs (family problems, commuting problems, distance from cinemas...), have greater facilities for consumption. But again, we’re not talking about substituting films for another product, but a means of seeing audio-visual productions for another means of seeing audio-visual productions. In fact, in recent years, even some rebound in attendance at cinemas can be seen. Cinemas underwent a very significant crisis starting in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, associated with an overabundance of cinemas in shopping malls. That put citizens off a bit, but they’re slowly coming back to cinemas. Therefore, they’re different means for seeing the same audiovisual product.
Do you think consumption of films on the internet brings about a change in consumer habits and practices, shifting it from the social sphere to the private sphere?
Film consumption on the internet obviously has an individual component. It dispenses, in some way, with the traditional method of socialisation that was involved with going to a cinema where you took in a story side by side with others. Therefore, it had a clear, obvious and traditional socialisation process that has been told from multiple fields: scientific, journalistic, even from the common logic of citizens. What consumption through new digital windows does is change the socialisation channels. Socialisation is done through social networks. Forums about movies or web pages where you can vote, where you can become a film critic, where someone like you, your peers, other movie fans can share experiences, discuss them with you... They offer different means of socialisation, it’s a different kind of socialisation. It offers the possibility of watching a series, an audio-visual product, while you keep in touch through networks with your friends or with your acquaintances. So, I think it's a different way of socialising, because the world is changing and we face a different world than the traditional one.
What subjects do you deem as significant for understanding the economic dimension of culture?
It’s highly important to understand the economic dimension of culture to understand that culture is a mechanism to meet a basic need of human beings, which is the need for communication. Hence, the first thing we must understand is the economic and not just the economic value culture has, especially for citizens but also for societies as a whole. Once we appreciate that value, the basic argument is how to provide citizens with cultural products. What part of cultural products can be provided by way of the market and what part needs the participation of the public sector, the provision of cultural assets via state, local and municipal mechanisms in short, public mechanisms? Once those two routes have been understood, which are not opposed but complementary, it is very important to know what is the efficiency in the delivery of these two mechanisms of provision of public goods. The market itself generates the need to be efficient, but provision through institutions and public agencies is not subject to market logic. Therefore, one must generate efficiency control mechanisms; not sacrificing principles such as equal access to culture, but providing equality in the best possible way, in the most efficient manner.
What subjects do you think might be of interest to future investigators?
The new research topics in the world of culture that may be relevant to new investigators have much to do with the change being observed in our society with the emergence of social networks. You have to research on networks. You have to research the connection between production and consumption, among the creators of cultural value themselves (from the authors to producers and distributors) on the one hand and, on the other hand, the networks established between the citizens themselves who consume cultural products and how you can connect that type of product with suppliers. In that field, everything that has to do with the digital economy, with big data, are extremely promising routes for the world of culture. Similarly, in a current situation exacerbated by the economic crisis we have been suffering, efficiency in the use of public resources: we cannot spend a single euro without knowing what it is intended for and we should know that we are making the best use of it. Once we have decided where to invest, we must try to do it in the most efficient manner possible. Thus, efficiency analysis is another extremely valuable field and with a great future in the world of culture.