As new technologies emerge that make it easier to share ideas, gain fans for your work, and influence the marketplace conversation, there is increasing celebration on the web about how these new models of distribution are making it possible for anyone to have a platform. In other words, if you have something to say, there is no one standing guard at the gate (e.g. publishers, music labels, TV Networks, etc.) telling you whether or not you’ll have access to the masses in order to share your idea.
This is remarkable indeed. There should, in fact, be much rejoicing.
Until…one day we wake up and realize that all media is now digital, which means that there is no longer perceived scarcity. This means that artists have to shift their business models to give away (or make available for cheap) their main art, and instead focus on selling scarce peripherals. Authors sell lectures. No longer able to make a living from recording, bands sell tickets to concerts and survive off of merchandise sales. Content creators give away their content in order to gain eyeballs and ears, but the glut of content makes advertising profitable only to those savvy enough to take advantage of it, or to the aggregators of the content (ironcially, the “networks” of the web.)
The problem is…some people are just great at being artists. They aren’t great at business models, distribution or line extensions. They just want to make great, valuable art and sell it at a fair price. What do these people do?
The web-perts say “adapt or die!” From a business standpoint, they’re probably right. From a cultural standpoint, my heart sinks and weeps.
Would we have had The Beatles if they’d been told, “Never mind spending years in the studio crafting your records. Those things are just promotional fodder to sell these snazzy Sgt. Pepper t-shirts and posters. You should focus instead on how you’re going to monetize.”
I don’t know.
What cultural gaps will exist when we make the creation of art financially unprofitable? What happens when the thrill of having eyeballs and ears on your work wears off? (In other recent news, scientists have pinpointed that this “enthusiasm lag” seems to correlate with the monthly arrival of the bills.)
I fear that in the “race to the bottom” we are devaluing art. We’ve shifted the conversation so that the scarce piece of the business model is the plastic or paper rather than the years of sweat and focus that went into crafting the content. When our mindset is that digital books should be cheap because there’s “no paper” involved, or that music should be free because there’s no physical cost of distribution, we are ignoring the inherent value of art to the sustenence of our culture.
Yes, I realize this is a rant and I also realize that I probably sound out-of-touch with much of what’s being said about where the marketplace is speeding. I am excited about these new technologies, and I’m thrilled that more artists have unprecedented ability to connect with potential fans. Truly. Deeply. I am one of those artists.
I am not taking a contrarian position. I believe in where technology is leading us. This is simply a cautionary tale.
My concern here is that we are building models in which artists will get pushed to the side and that – in the end – our culture will wake up with a giant hangover wondering what in the world we did last night. I’m concerned that we’re killing our artists in order to get their art, and in the end we will lose both.