Crystal Ball for Studio Execs or WWJD?

My dad and I had a long conversation over lunch today (at In-N-Out 🙂 ) about my most recent blog post. He mentioned that the studios are keeping a close eye on what is happening in the music industry as a preview of their own potential future 5 years down the road, and that they are taking preventative measures based on what they see. I replied with two reasons why I don’t think that’s something to brag about. First of all, that 5 years is more like 2 years (if that) and it’s shrinking every day. The pace of technological progress has only accelerated since it first began to disrupt the music industry, and it ain’t slowing down. Secondly, the film industry’s approach to understanding the data has been merely to plot historical events and interpolate a trajectory. They have made no attempt to understand the underlying equation and thus extrapolate the end-result. In high-school trigonometry terms, they are plotting points on the left half of a parabola without understanding that they are part of the graph of y=x^2. How do I know this? Because you can see it in their actions, they are clearly trying to treat a growing number of symptoms with no clue about the nature of the underlying disease.

My dad agreed with me and then said there’s a lot of money to be made by the guy who can show them what the future really holds. Being the giving person that I am, I hereby offer it to them free of charge (and with charts, no less!):

Audience Graph
First of all, your audience is moving from conventional offline distribution channels to new online ones. You may think you have the control to slow this, but you don’t! At this point, you must consider it *axiomatic* that every genie will get out of every bottle. There are over a billion people on the Internet, and it just takes one to put your content on BitTorrent and all your anti-piracy efforts are rendered moot. Content consumption is moving from offline to online whether you like it or not. So, you have a choice: get on-board by giving consumers what they want and keep some of them as customers, or drive them away entirely by ignoring their needs. If you choose the latter, you probably won’t ever be able to win those lost customers back. And even if you choose the former, you will most likely never be able to aggregate the same size audience for a given piece of mass-market content online as you could offline. Mainstream media (or ‘head’) content is a first-class citizen offline, where there is artificial scarcity and so being first in line counts for something. But, there is an (effectively infinite) abundance of content online and what matters most is finding what is most interesting to me.

ARPU Graph
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news, by moving online you can build deeper relationships with that smaller audience and explore variable pricing options to increase the average value of each individual fan (again I reference Josh Freese, who illustrates this point not without irony). However in order to fully engage your most passionate fans and get them to give you more money, you can’t continue to just sit back and pump out passive entertainment experiences with some snazzy marketing around it. You will need to invest in turning your content into 360° entertainment and change your mentality about selling it as a packaged good.

Cost Graph
Yes, I know that sounds expensive. It definitely won’t be cheap and will require you to build out new competencies you don’t have today. But you’ll be able to pay for it (and then some) with all the money you save by getting out of the very expensive mass-market content and offline distribution businesses.

So if you’re willing to become an online-first media company, I think I can promise you’ll return to profitability in 5-10 years depending on how quickly you move to jettison your legacy offline businesses. Now, your shareholders may not be so keen on all these restructuring costs and write-downs, not to mention all the money you’re going to be leaving on the offline distribution table by focusing on getting into the online business while you still can. But, that’s ok because they value the long-term survival of the company over short-term profits. Right? </sarcasm>

Mass-market content and offline distribution are declining businesses, but they are still quite profitable. Especially compared to niche content and online distribution, which are clearly ascendent but still a rounding error to the bottom-line of these major media companies (not to mention the corporations that own them). I believe the decline of the former is going to be a lot quicker than the entertainment industry thinks (because they believe they can control it and they don’t understand the exponential acceleration of technological progress) while the rise of the latter will be retarded by a lack of investment in developing the infrastructure to make it a profitable business. The film industry obsessively spends hundreds of millions of dollars to build the biggest anti-piracy stick they can while watering the online video carrot with an eyedropper. If they were to put meaningful time and money into figuring out how to make legal online content consumption compelling and profitable, it would be more effective than spending a hundred times that on anti-piracy efforts. But they won’t, instead they will continue to do everything they can to prop up dying (but profitable) revenue streams, including stifling the growth of the emerging revenue streams that could one day take their place. And so, the studios will some day (soon) find themselves with not enough offline money and not enough online audience from which to try to make money.

If I were the head of a studio, I would stop trying to figure out how to grow the buggy whip business by keeping down the automobile. I would also recognize that transforming my profitable if shrinking buggy whip business into a money-losing automobile business making it up in volume is probably not in the best economic interest of my shareholders. So instead of throwing good money after bad trying to keep the overall buggy whip market from shrinking, I would focus on getting as much share as possible while all my competitors spent their time futilely worrying about the cars. I would ruthlessly cut costs to maintain profitability in the face of shrinking demand. And, I would put all those profits into a dividend so my shareholders would stop pressuring me for growth that isn’t there. Finally, when it’s time to close my buggy whip factory’s doors, I would take all that dividend money I earned and put it into the best automobile company I could find (and then I would be sure to sell that ~80 years later 😉 ).

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Entertainment-as-a-Service

[Cross-posted from my company blog.]

I just got back from a really fun (and delicious) lunch with Peter of Pantless Knights, who is in LA working on a hilarious new video, and one of the main things we discussed was the idea of Entertainment-as-a-Service. The term is a reference to the concept of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), which is a business model generally contrasted with the conventional packaged or ‘shrinkwrap’ software model. Essentially, SaaS is a subscription business and packaged software is a retail business.

The entertainment industry is a retail business. Books, movies, tv shows, music are almost universally sold as one-off purchases. But, those things are just the packaging and the people selling them to you are just middle-men. The business of entertainment (not to be confused with the entertainment *industry*) is fundamentally a marketplace of attention between fans and content creators — fans have a finite supply of attention for which content creators are competing. So, then what is the entertainment industry? To use a very relevant analogy, it is the collection of intermediary businesses (i.e. publishers, studios, networks, labels) that have been acting like investment bankers, taking the raw materials of talent and creativity and packaging them up in a form they know how to sell (i.e. retail) and commanding a big slice of profit along the way. Entertainment doesn’t want to be a retail business, and that is the fundamental essence of the disruption the Internet has unleashed on the entertainment industry.

[Clarification: For the sake of this discussion, I’m using the term ‘content creator’ to represent those who add unique creative talent to the production process. As my dad pointed out, content creation is rarely a solo effort (most notably in film production, which can involve hundreds of individual contributors) to which studios, networks, labels, and publishers often contribute substantial value. But as those contributions are opaque and thus interchangeable as far as the consumer is concerned, I am excluding those who make them from the class I refer to as ‘content creators’ in this post. Otherwise said, even though the sound engineer plays a crucial role in creating the album, no one buys it based on *who* the sound engineer was.]

When you think about what elements of the entertainment business technology has really undermined, it’s nothing more than the packaging — the time slots and release dates and viewing windows and region codes that are artificial constructs of these middle-men trying to slice-and-dice the content into as many tranches as possible to squeeze out every last cent of profit. Just like the investment bankers and their CDOs fragmented and obscured the connections between investors and their investments, so have the studios, networks, publishers, and labels introduced complexity into the connections between content creators and their audiences. While that complexity, and the companies who created it, may have been a necessity in an era of technologically inferior marketing and distribution systems, they are simply market inefficiencies in the Internet age.

So, what is the difference between retail and subscription when it comes to entertainment? In a recent post on my personal blog about SaaS vs shrinkwrap software, I wrote:

The business model of packaged software invites feature bloat, because it’s upgrade driven and you need to continually find ways to justify why Thingamajig 2009 Pro Edition™ is so much better than Thingamajig 2008 Pro Edition™. Software as a Service businesses have a much different (and arguably greater) challenge, they need to continue to create value for their customers month after month….So, you end up with a much more customer-centric product…and a vendor who is truly interested in addressing your customer needs.

The first priority of a retail business is to maximize sales, building brand loyalty and repeat business may be means to that end but they always take a back-seat to whatever else will drive more sales. Whereas in a subscription business, customer retention (and thus customer satisfaction) is always top priority, even above new customer acquisition. So if a studio believes they can get a lot of people to see a crappy movie by spending more on marketing and less on quality, they will (and do, again, and again, and again…). Because all you’re buying from them is the packaging, they know you aren’t really paying attention to whether it’s a Fox or Warner Brothers or Paramount film (do you buy your cereal based on who made the box it comes in?). But, a director would rather disown a bad film than endorse the studio releasing something that doesn’t meet his standards and his fans’ expectations. This is because the director knows that his relationship with his fans is a subscription business, and if he disappoints them he will be unable to continue exchanging his content for their attention in the future. The studios understand this too — they don’t give Tom Cruise $25M (plus a cut of the gross) per movie because his acting skills bring $25M of quality to the screen, they do it because he has more than $25M in ticket, DVD, and merchandise sales worth of fans.

Entertainment is naturally a subscription business, and the Internet returns it to its natural state. The content creators who thrive online are those who understand this and focus on the ongoing satisfaction of their customers (see Ze Frank, Michael Buckley, Chris Leavins). The level of customer satisfaction these creators deliver is really only possible on the Internet because they can go direct-to-consumer without need of the middle-men and their packaging. These creators publish in all forms — video, photos, blogging, micro-blogging, music. They do not see themselves constrained by the legacy dividing lines of the entertainment industry, their goal is to entertain their audience by any and all means available. There is no distinction for them between primary and ancillary content, they are 360° entertainment brands. The other thing that has made these creators so successful online is their direct interaction with their customers. The best your most engaged fans can do offline is give you their personal attention (and the money that comes with it) and try to recruit others to do so as well. But online, they can interact with you and become part of the show. Empowering your customers is the surest way to make them even more engaged. As I wrote in another recent post on my personal blog:

Bringing your customers into the product development process has the dual benefits of helping you build better and more customer-centric products and making your customers your most passionate sales people (because after all, it’s their product too).

So, the Internet enables these creators to spend more time listening to their fans and creating new content they’ll enjoy while outsourcing the marketing to the community for free. This is the exact opposite of the offline retail model in which the studio takes money out of production budgets to put it into marketing campaigns. The ability to establish deeper relationships with their fans also allows online content creators to attain higher average attention per customer (ARPU) than is possible in the retail world, thereby making it easier to build more value by going deeper with a smaller audience.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say the only business model for content on the Internet is a recurring subscription fee. The ‘subscription business’ to which I’m referring is more the theoretical exchange of value between content creators and their fans, which can and will take many forms — including selling packaged goods. I’m also not saying that the online entertainment market is solely the domain of Internet-only content creators. In fact, I believe the Internet is most powerful as an entertainment marketplace when the quality and reputation of a historically offline content creator is freed of the constraints of the legacy packaged goods business model. Take for example Josh Freese, who gets extra points for using this freedom precisely to illustrate the absurdity of the conventional retail approach.

And now, I leave you with the profound product of the coming entertainment revolution:

P.S. Hat tips to Ian Rogers for the marketplace of attention thinking and Umair Haque for the marketing vs quality dichotomy.

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On Hulu and Boxee or Sometimes it sucks to be right

A little under two weeks ago in a comment on a GigaOM post about Boxee, I wrote:

I think [Boxee’s] current differentiation is based primarily on giving users the features and content they want in the form they want it, which is mostly a function of Boxee not being encumbered by the legacy business models of the incumbents.

Frowny BoxeeWell, today those legacy business models came knocking on Boxee’s door in the form of Hulu pulling its content from Boxee at the request of its conventional media incumbent content partners. Though the very diplomatic (but still genuine, which is a hard line to walk) blog post from Hulu CEO Jason Kilar doesn’t say why, I agree entirely with TechCrunch’s assessment that the content partners weren’t so keen to see Boxee getting all this great press for doing an end-around the legacy value chain these guys are fighting tooth and nail to prop up. Boxee was a stand-out at CES in early January and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Boxee first heard from Hulu on this matter just 2 weeks after the NY Times ran a very high-profile and positive article on how Boxee was so awesome for delivering major media content to the tv in the way consumers want (which also happens to be exactly what the major media companies have been fighting against). When you think about it, this timeline pretty much matches what it would take for the content companies to read the NY Times article, bitch about it to each other, decide to go to Hulu, get push-back from Hulu, and then steam-roll them.

Steve Raymond has a great post on why this is such a short-sighted move by the content providers, with which I totally agree. So, I won’t rehash it here. But, I will say that this issue is only the tip of the iceberg threatening Boxee. Though they have effectively found an un-endorsed end-around to the legacy living room value chain, this shows how dependent they still are on the goodwill (or at least ignorance) of the incumbents. They have poked the bear and it is now awake. The networks obviously don’t want to lose the high CPMs and concentrated audiences they get from broadcast tv, which can arguably be replaced by online ads at some point in the future. But, what can’t be replaced is the increasingly valuable fixed revenue stream from the carriage fees paid by cable and satellite operators (NBC and Fox, the primary content providers to Hulu, both own ~10 widely carried cable networks). A product like Boxee is a direct threat to cable and satellite operators because it eliminates their positions as programming gatekeepers and turns them into dumb data-delivery pipes. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if this move was driven more by the cable and satellite companies than the content providers.

In my original comment, I predicted if Boxee succeeded in pioneering this space they were likely to end up like TiVo. Now I think they’ll be lucky to get that far.

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Happyjoel on the CBS Evening News

Cross-posted from the Snowball Factory blog

Last week, our friend (and first client) Joel Moss Levinson, aka Happyjoel, appeared in a CBS Evening News with Katie Couric segment called Cashing In on YouTube (watch it below). For Joel, this follows an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a profile in the New York Times, and (our personal favorite) being named an AccessHollywood.com Rising Star. As you can see in the clip below, the majority of this coverage has been driven by the novelty of Joel’s success. He’s a guy who subsists entirely by making amusing music videos for products for which he has no personal affinity — what news producer wouldn’t love this story?!


Watch CBS Videos Online

For us though, the real story isn’t the wackiness of Joel’s success but rather how he has achieved it. Of course, having the ability to come up with witty lyrics about how awesome watermelons are and the time and energy to scour the interwebs for brands looking to crowd-source their marketing are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. Michael Buckley, the other online video personality covered in the CBS News segment, told the NY Times “I was spending 40 hours a week on YouTube for over a year before I made a dime.” Like Michael, Joel does a lot more than just what you see on screen. Arguably, making the videos is the easy part (at least for someone like Joel) — the real challenge has been building and cultivating the loyal fan-base (or as Joel calls it, his “contest voting army”) that has made him such a newsworthy phenomenon.

As of this writing, Joel has:

Each of these relationship channels has different strengths and weaknesses, and we have achieved a good measure of success using them in concert through best practices and a substantial time commitment. But, the system is far from perfect. In addition to the redundant work required to build and maintain relationships through all these various channels, it is very difficult to identify and de-duplicate the individuals across them, and it is basically impossible to have a cohesive view of what is going on in your fan universe.

While 800 lbs brands like Britney Spears or 50 Cent have enough clout to ask their fans to sign up for new services, the rest of us need to find effective ways to reach our potential fans where they already live online. YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, and other popular social media services provide access to their huge existing audiences, but the relationships you build through them have to be on their terms. We’ve learned from experience in the trenches with clients like Joel and Handsome Donkey, and we’re hard at work on a solution that gives independent online media brands the best of both worlds: access to existing social media audiences with greater control over the fan relationships it generates. So, stay tuned!

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If you love something (and/or want to make money from it online), set it free.

This past Sunday, I had a long discussion about the NY Times article on Time-Warner’s new content-centric strategy with my father, who happens to be in the film business. While the article touched on some of the complexities that exist in the legacy value chains for both movies and tv, I thought it glossed over important details and ended up being somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the author labels the move to spin off T-W Cable as “eviscerating the once-popular corporate notion peddled by business consultants and merger specialists that content and distribution should reside under one roof.” But just a few paragraphs down, he talks about T-W’s interest in NBC Universal, primarily as a distribution outlet for the tv shows T-W produces.

In theory, a pure-play content company would *just produce content* — it wouldn’t program (i.e. tv network), it wouldn’t distribute (i.e. movie studio), it wouldn’t deliver (i.e. cable/satellite provider). This type of horizontal focus (or modularization) is advocated by Clayton Christensen once a market of vertically-integrated solutions has reached a “good enough point” for consumers, because it enables the firms at each layer in the value chain to focus on what they do best and exploit best of breed solutions available in the rest of the stack to do the rest, thus maximizing overall efficiency and profit. In our terms, a company purely focused on making the best content is free to choose *whatever* distribution solutions will make it the most money from that content. In NewTeeVee’s analysis of this same NY Times article, they said “How we watch is all the same. What we choose to watch, however, is a different story.” In other words, distribution is the commodity and content is the differentiator. I couldn’t agree more if the only channel in question is online. But as long as content creators want to exploit their content beyond the Internet, there is a different set of rules, and those rules generally extend to what those creators can do with their content on the Internet as well.

Studios can no longer claim ignorance of what consumers want — Jeff Bewkes (T-W CEO) tells a story of how he was told by file-sharers “We’ll pay for movies if you give it to us the right way” — but, they are now claiming (however ironically) impotence to deliver it —  that the major stakeholders in their other (more lucrative) means of exploitation, like Walmart (DVD), theater owners (theatrical, duh), and cable/satellite operators (PPV), won’t let the studios innovate too much online for fear of cannibalizing the other channels. As much as this may be true, the studios are pretty happy to have their hands tied because they already know how to (and do) make a lot of money from those other channels and they have barely started to figure out how to make real money online. Going back to Christensen, this is a classic example of an entrenched incumbent seeing disruptive innovation coming a mile away and doing nothing, as epitomized in this quote from the NY Times article:

But until technology forces Hollywood’s hand — Mr. Bewkes suggested that it would take three to five more years before high-definition videos are delivered conveniently over the Internet — the industry will retain its grip on sequential windows of release.

This all stems from the fundamental discontinuity of extending an offline media business online. In the offline world, control is the key to success — it is what enables the winners to exploit the inherent inefficiencies in the system at the expense of the losers and, to no small degree, consumers. In the online world, attempts to retain control generally stifle growth by limiting exposure — you have to be willing to let go of your content to a certain degree and you need to build business models designed to take advantage of that approach. Not only is this counter-intuitive to a lot of conventional media executives, who have built careers (and personal fortunes) retaining the tightest controls possible, but it may also be in direct conflict with other important revenue streams, as we see with T-W above.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for those trying to bridge the gap. Some companies, like the NY Times itself, are leaping across this digital divide while they still can and largely abandoning efforts to artificially protect their offline business from the specter of cannibalization. And, they seem to be having some success. This past Sunday evening, there were five NY Times stories on the front-page of Techmeme (the next closest sources were TechCrunch and CNET with two stories each), which should be driving some solid traffic to nytimes.com. By making their high-quality content available for free on the web, instead of holding it back to drive paying offline subscribers, the NY Times is aggressively driving readers (and thus ad revenue) to its online business. While those online readers may not be as lucrative as the offline subscribers today, there’s lots of room to improve online monetization if you have the readers, and offline readership is only going down and fast. On the opposite end of this spectrum is the Philadelphia Inquirer and their recent moves to consciously make their online offering *less* competitive in preservation of their offline business. T-W and the rest of the film industry seem stuck somewhere in the middle — keeping abreast of what consumers are demanding and giving them just enough incremental progress to remain satisfied without actually doing anything really disruptive to the studios’ other businesses. Christensen would argue that waiting too long on the offline side will preclude one from successfully making it to the online side when it’s finally more attractive (see Recording Industry). I guess we’ll see which side Bewkes and company end up on when “technology [finally] forces [their] hand.”

The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Music 2.0 [Abridged]

[Updated February 17, 2008. Comments #1-3 are in response to the original full-length post, which can be found here.]

I’ve been marinating on this post for a few weeks now, but haven’t gotten around to it because of some other events I’ll blog about soon. However after only being reminded that the Grammys were tonight by the fact that two people I know were looking to give away their tickets, I felt this was an appropriate night to dig in and get ‘er done.

<snip>

That the music industry is currently undergoing a profound transformative change is not news by any means. And, the retrospective analysis of the whys and the hows of this change is well-trod territory at this point. But, I don’t feel there is much clarity, let alone consensus, around what the future of the music business will look like, which I believe is a much more interesting conversation. My personal view is that it will look a lot like Saul Williams, in honor of whom this post is titled.

Saul Williams, Photo by: nsdesigns via Flickr Saul’s latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, was produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and quietly released in October in a manner very similar to Radiohead’s In Rainbows — with consumers being able to choose between downloading an inferior version for free or paying to download a higher quality version (both DRM-free). Not many people noticed until a few weeks ago when Reznor, unlike Radiohead, posted the sales figures on the NIN blog (which for some unfathomable reason doesn’t have publicly visible archives — but, you can read the original text here) and said he found them “disheartening.” His subsequent interview on the subject with CNET provides a view into the mind of someone who looks at the Internet and digital distribution as basically new tools to propagate the legacy record industry business model.

If that had been all, I would have just chocked it up to music business as usual. But, then Saul jumped into the mix and pretty much blew my mind. In his own interview with CNET in response to Trent’s, Saul basically defined the archetype of my vision of the musical artist of the future, and in so doing illustrated where IMHO the music industry is headed. In contrast to Trent, Saul characterized himself as “extremely optimistic” based on the results of the online promotion. This polar opposite reaction is illustrative of a fundamental difference between the two artists that is best summed up in Saul’s own words:

I think Trent’s disappointment probably stems from being in the music business for over 20 years and remembering a time that was very different, when sales reflected something different, when there was no such thing as downloads. Trent is from another school. Even acts that prospered in the ’90s, you look at people like the Fugees or Lauren Hill selling 18 million copies. That sort of thing is unheard of today. But Trent comes from that world. So I think his disappointed stems from being heavily invested in the past. For modern times, for modern numbers we’re looking great, especially for being just two months into a project.

Williams goes on to talk about the importance to his livelihood of what the record industry has historically characterized as secondary revenue streams, like concert ticket and merchandise sales. The record industry has generally viewed these revenue streams mostly as promotion for their recorded music/packaged good business, in no small part because the artists and their management keep the bulk of the touring revenues and the labels keep the bulk of the record sales. However, touring has now become such a profit center for artists that Madonna now has an event company as a label. And just like how in the late 80’s and early 90’s artists started making songs with the music video in mind to take advantage of the emerging promotional power of MTV, you now have “ringtone rappers” overtly writing music to maximize the extremely profitable mobile revenue stream. By locking out emerging artists and ripping off established ones, the record industry has forced them to make money from sources other than recorded music, thus sowing the seeds of its own destruction. As a result, the new breed of artists now sees recorded music not as a primary revenue stream but as promotion for other revenue streams that go (more) directly into their own pockets.

At the end of the same interview with CNET, Williams also talks about how, even with Reznor’s backing, they couldn’t find a label that could wrap its head around what Williams was trying to do. It basically boiled down to the fact that none of the labels’ marketing departments had a promotional formula set-up for a black alternative artist. While defying the ability to be pigeonholed into a particular genre is to be admired artistically, it’s apparently not so desirable in the record industry. Because it’s a packaged goods business with high fixed costs (advances, studio time, sample clearances, mastering), relatively low variable costs (pressing and shipping CDs), and extremely high opportunity costs (promotion and shelf-space could be going to that Rihanna record that’s a lot more likely to sell), the model only works if you can aggregate a substantial audience around any given product. The marketing formulae the labels use are designed to predict and maximize the probability of aggregating the largest possible audience. And black alternative acts just don’t cross that bar.

But, the cost structure of digital distribution (mostly the even lower variable costs and the diminimus opportunity costs) lower that bar considerably. 154,449 people downloaded Niggy Tardust (of those, only 28,322 paid) in the first 3 months with no paid promotion, that’s almost 5x what Williams’ self-titled first album has done in nearly 4 years since its release. So it’s not the fact that no audience exists for a black alternative artist, it’s the fact that audience isn’t big enough to make money from CD sales. But it’s apparently plenty big for Williams to make a living from touring, merchandise, and other revenue streams. Last weekend I was over at Ian‘s and we were talking about the Yeasayer album, which I only recently discovered but Ian told me was a blog favorite of 2007. We agreed it was an album that probably wouldn’t have even been made 10 years ago (or if it was, would have resulted in the sacking of whatever young A&R exec snuck it through). But through the magic of the interwebs, these guys are now going on tour and selling out shows in LA and SF.

As we all know, the Internet has the power to unite people around a common interest, creating substantial audiences where little to none was thought to exist before. The result of this is that the tens of discrete genre-based marketing formulae Hollywood has relied on to program popular culture through mass media for the last 50 years are being atomized into a spectrum that represents the fluid reality of cultural tastes. For those of you familiar with calculus, it’s like the labels’ marketing departments are trying to do integrals by adding up the area of boxes under the curve and the web has just shown up with a graphing calculator.

Yes, Saul Williams isn’t even a blip on most consumers’ radars today, and artists like Trent Reznor, Ghostface Killah, and Robbie Williams, whose management has publicly objected to EMI’s stated aim of cutting the conspicuous excesses for which the record industry is infamous, are still dominating the charts. But at this point, there are more and more Saul Williamses and fewer and fewer Trent Reznors coming up everyday, and so the shift in the balance of power is only a matter of time. While Doug Morris is frantically trying to figure out how not to be the Shmoo (and Rio Caraeff is frantically trying to keep Doug Morris from sounding like a moron), the artists the labels wrote off as not viable in the legacy system are out there pioneering a new system in which they are. Back in the day, Overture decided to ignore small “tail” publishers because the margins sucked and Google decided to instead find a way to make the margins better, which resulted in AdSense and Google ultimately being able to come after Overture’s core “head” publisher business with margins that were that much higher. Christensen calls it the low-end disruption, and it’s an economic force of nature. Like Ian sez:

Environmental forces are easily ignored. Do so at your (or your company’s) peril.

So, what will the music industry of the future look like? I think it will be many more artists individually making less money on average than today, but collectively making a ton more for 2 reasons:

  1. The diversity of choice that will be available to consumers means more of them will find more things they enjoy more passionately and engage with more deeply resulting in them being willing to spend more money
  2. The decreasing importance of the recorded music revenue stream will spur innovation in exploitation and business models in a way that was impossible with the labels trying to protect their packaged goods cash cow

I firmly believe music will be a profitable business in the future, just not as profitable as it is now (but a hell of a lot more sustainable). If you love making music and you’re good at it and work hard, you’ll be able to make a good living — not an MTV Cribs living, but an upper middle-class living — and your music will touch more people who will identify with it in meaningful ways. If you love making music but don’t want to work as hard or aren’t that great, you’ll still be able to get some recognition and maybe even some money on the side of your day job. And most importantly, if you love listening to music, you’ll have an exponentially wider variety to choose from, a greater chance of finding artists you really like, more opportunities to engage with those artists in myriad new forms, and a real feeling of value from the time, energy, and money you spend. Sounds like a pretty bright future to me.

In case you couldn’t tell, this is an area that really fascinates me and one I will continue to explore on this blog. In the meantime, those interested in following my research in realtime can check out my ‘media 2.0’ del.icio.us stream.

Photo by: nsdesigns via Flickr