By Jim Miller
This easy life knows no pity.
Recently Nelson D. Schwartz of the New York Times did an interesting feature on luxury tourism on cruise ships, “In an Era of Privilege, Not Everyone is in the Same Boat,” that described the experience of travelers as “a money based caste system” catering to the rich rather than the unwashed masses. While there is clearly nothing novel about elite travel, the story noted that “What is new is just how far big American companies are now willing to go to pamper the biggest spenders.”
The remarkable thing about this trend is not what it says about cruise ships but what it reveals about where we are currently with regard to economic inequality and the way it has come to shape the way we live, work, and play—separately and unequal. As Schwartz observes:
With disparities in wealth greater than at any time since the Gilded Age, the gap is widening between the highly affluent — who find themselves behind the velvet ropes of today’s economy — and everyone else.
It represents a degree of economic and social stratification unseen in America since the days of Teddy Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan and the rigidly separated classes on the Titanic a century ago.
What is different today, though, is that companies have become much more adept at identifying their top customers and knowing which psychological buttons to push. The goal is to create extravagance and exclusivity for the select few, even if it stirs up resentment elsewhere. In fact, research has shown, a little envy can be good for the bottom line.
And envy is precisely what the average Jill or Joe is likely to feel when looking at nearly every form of entertainment on the market these days, from vacations to sporting events or simple pleasures like going out to eat or see some music. The fact is that the options are stacked against you as the kind of marketing we see on the luxury liners has penetrated every crevice of American life.
Take rock & roll, for instance, a form born out of the blues and working class rebellion that was later seized upon by a youth culture that gave it a patina of revolutionary consciousness. Back in the dark ages of the sixties counterculture and the subsequent punk subculture, rock used to like to pretend that it was unpretentious, at least on paper.
Now hip is not just dead, it is a zombie come back to eat the young.
A case in point is the recently announced Desert Trip Festival featuring rock legends the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCarthy, Neil Young, Roger Waters, and The Who. While it would be absurd to expect a geriatric version of Woodstock to re-emerge in Indio, what is striking about this festival is the sheer scale of the sell-out to high-end consumers with the artists, according to Forbes, expecting to pull in “upwards of $7 million per set” with the overall gross expected to come in at over $50 million.
With a 3-day pass in the standing pit priced at $1,599 and hotel packages ranging from $2,000 to $8,000, you can see why. And all of this fun will be happening on the edge of Riverside County where the average monthly income, somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,212, is under the national average of around $3,769 and, more specifically, Indio where 21.5% of the residents live below the poverty line. Let’s not forget, while we are at it, that California is the most unequal state in the union with an obscenely high rate of child poverty.
But perhaps that just makes it more fun.
If you weren’t already cynical enough, consider the fact that this spectacle is brought to you by punk rebels of old. Goldenvoice, the promoters who started out in the Los Angeles of my youth promoting punk shows in places like boxing arenas and roller rinks, was originally funded with Gary Tovar’s weed-smuggling money. Now that punk is dead, they fund rock orgies for the oligarchy—young and old.
In a 2014 article in the Guardian, Tovar attributes his massive financial success to the victory of the counterculture, “When I was doing both my things – smuggling and concerts – I considered them crusades. Now I think we won on both ends. Our music won – you can hear a Ramones song in an elevator – and we won on the marijuana front.”
With the Desert Trip Festival, Goldenvoice is bringing to the baby boomers what they had previously done with the “alternative” rock set. While many music lovers still lust after the set lists of Coachella, others have long been turned off by the prohibitive pricing, the conspicuous consumption, and privileged decadence that accompanies it. As the Daily Beast pithily put it back in 2014:
Each year, as the Ides of April approaches, a deluge of douchebags, trust fund babies, and payment plan-enticed artistes join a gaggle of celebs in donning wacky, barely-there duds (think: Dazed and Confused on MDMA) and head out to the desert of Indio, California, for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. What was initially intended to be a celebration of music has degenerated into a weird marriage of fashion and commerce.
Thus it really doesn’t make a lot of sense to bag on the sell-out sixties generation when the youngsters’ music has been just as thoroughly commodified and packaged for the 1%. What seems abundantly clear now in our new Gilded Age is that while poverty might suck, oligarchy rocks.
Indeed for those at the top, the party never stops. As Schwartz notes in his report on our vastly unequal boats:
Emmanuel Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that the top 1 percent of American households now controls 42 percent of the nation’s wealth, up from less than 30 percent two decades ago. The top 0.1 percent accounts for 22 percent, nearly double the 1995 proportion.
But even as income inequality and the wealth gap stoke the discontent that has emerged as a powerful force in this year’s presidential election, for American business it represents something else entirely. From cruise ship operators and casinos to amusement parks and airlines, the rise of the 1 percent spells opportunity and profit.
Today, ever greater resources are being invested in winning market share at the very top of the pyramid, sometimes at the cost of diminished service for the rest of the public. While middle-class incomes are stagnating, the period since the end of the Great Recession has been a boom time for the very rich and the businesses that cater to them.
From 2010 to 2014, the number of American households with at least $1 million in financial assets jumped by nearly one-third, to just under seven million, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. For the $1 million-plus cohort, estimated wealth grew by 7.2 percent annually from 2010 to 2014, eight times the pace of gains for families with less than $1 million.
“You go where the money is,” said Steven Fazzari, a professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis. “This is where companies are innovating and where there is demand.”
So while the Stones might sing about not being able to get any satisfaction, it’s unlikely their well-heeled fans in the desert will share the same complaint. The only real hassle some of them might have is getting over their hangovers in time to plan for the Future Festival, “the Burning Man for the 1%,” where the elite can have a shame-free time partying in total comfort:
While Burning Man’s hidden luxury camps on the edge of town are criticized by old time Burners who value labor on the desert, Further Future is a splinter group that’s unapologetic about wanting a good, hard-labor-free time. “Unabashed luxury”, the website reads. Burners are judged for using Wi-Fi or having private chefs; Further Future advertises its connectivity and personal festival assistant service. Nobu hosted a $250-a-seat dinner on the first night of the festival. Partiers included Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet; Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman; and top Facebook executive Stan Chudnovsky.
As for you, Jill and John Q. Plebian, you can take your shitty little dome tent and get lost.
Ah Paradise of the Plutocrats! Ah Tartarus of the Masses!