i have been writing comments on forums and blogs for a really long time and lately it feels like i am writing the same stuff over and over.
in the last couple of years, there have been all of these articles about saving the newspaper industry, or the music industry, or the publishing industry, or the insert content type here industry, and there are all of these industry shills saying the same stuff. it’s gotten pretty repetitive so hopefully i can write one of my long screeds that will collect all of these ideas into one place and i can just start posting hyperlinks instead.
industry that is based on content is sort of like energy: it can be neither created, nor destroyed, it simply shifts state. there will always be an industry surrounding the creation of content, but changes in the market and technology can cause drastic changes in the industry. those changes can be so drastic that the industry may be completely unrecognizable.
if you want to read something, then someone has to write it for you. the printing press made it cheaper and easier to create copies of writing, which meant a huge increase in the availability of books, so now if you want to read something, you simply buy a book that someone wrote. other advances are made: public libraries make books available temporarily for free, paper backs are cheaper than hard covers, second hand resellers offer used books for less than new ones, the list goes on.
and then the internet shows up. suddenly books are free and we are worried about books ending up like music: all digital, all the time, all pirate/all free, all the time. this same story has played out for just about every content industry, and it actually started with software. you see, digital stuff is easy to copy, so people copy it and share it. they’ve been doing this since solid state devices made digital stuff possible, and people will continue to do it for as long as they are human and stuff is digital.
before you can “save” an industry you have to realize a couple of universal truths about content. one: content has always been a vehicle for marking up the price of physical media. two: there will always be a demand for physical media, it just won’t ever be what it used to be.
content is a vehicle for selling media. it’s essentially a markup on ink and paper, binding, plastic disks, basically whatever physical materials you can use to deliver content. media is sold at a significant markup, along with distribution and promotion, in order to subsidize the the entire production process. digital distribution has taken these materials out of the equation, and in doing so, has wrecked the subsidy model for production. people are writing words, shooting videos, and making music in record numbers, while the sales of CD’s, DVD’s, newspapers, and books have given way to websites and downloads.
sounds bleak, huh?
remember that industries based on content cannot be created or destroyed, however, industries based on physical goods can be. people can stop buying cars and refrigerators, and the reason to sell those items goes away. likewise, people can stop buying ink on paper and plastic discs, and the reason to sell those will go away as well, for the most part.
there will always be demand for physical media, it just won’t ever be what it used to be. some people will always treasure books and records, and so some people will be able to make some money selling those items, but that is a specialty market, like the people who collect obsolete machines or electronics.
so the ebook will not be the death of the traditional book, but it will probably become the default state, just like the MP3 has replaced the CD in the minds of young people. the baby boomers will not be around forever, and when they are gone, their preference for physical media will go with them. my mother is a baby boomer and she reads the newspaper, watches broadcast television, and has a land line telephone. she also has an ipod and a nook. let this be a warning to the $content industry: she was once your ideal customer, she has evolved and it is time for you to do the same.
there are more physical things that can be sold than just paper, vinyl and plastic. traditional merchandising goods, like t-shirts and posters come to mind, but not all consumers are teenagers looking to decorate their bedrooms or make a statement when they go to high school or the mall. adults may not have use for these items. in japan it is possible to buy literally any physical item with “hello kitty” emblazoned on it. perhaps that should be true for everything else. any item that is useful and is capable of displaying a brand name would be suitable. look at the sheer volume of goods that carry the logos of sports teams as an example. my father in-law has an entire room full of objects devoted to ohio state, i should be able to do the same for my favorite nerdcore act, or william gibson novel.
this also assumes that the point of making music is the sale of goods for a profit. one could sell other goods which are both non-digital and non-physical (like face time), but that might be appropriate for another screed. also, as production costs lower thanks to technology, there may not be a need to profit from the creation of content. one might be happy to make things in his or her spare time simply for personal enjoyment. this isn’t a bad thing.
a lot of this drama comes from a confusion or conflation of price and value. a lot of people assume that price is a reflection of value, and a lot of times it is, but a lot of times it is not. i derive great value from linux, but the only time i have paid money for it, was when i got a linux CD with a book. i have gone on to buy several linux books with no CDs in them. conversely, i pay a great deal of money in taxes and for the life of me i cannot find any value in them.
so the plastic disc industry is most likely doomed. the newsprint industry is also doomed. the music industry, the film industry, the news industry, and the novel industry are all going to be fine after a significant period of adjustment.
rather than wax philosophical [again], perhaps i should simply share an experience. i ran across dual core music one day while reading penny arcade. i do pretty much whatever tycho and gabe tell me to do, and gabe told me to check them out. a quick search of my favorite torrent trackers didn’t reveal any tracks, so i bought a download of their first album, which i had never done before then. i was immediately hooked. i also became a serious fan, following them on myspace and discovering that the rapper, int80 lived in cincinnati. one status update indicated that they would be downtown to appear on NPR, and so i arranged to meet them for lunch at dewey’s pizza. int80 turned out to be really friendly and suggested i start coming to cinci2600. we became good friends and i met other friends via 2600 started going to hacker cons and stuff with the cincinnati crew.
in that time, i have not just bought music and tshirts, i have helped carry equipment and sold CD’s and merchandise at 80’s booth at cons. in exchange, i get to hang out with 80 and be treated like i am a small part of the act, and get small previews of tracks before anyone else. a girl actually came up to talk to me because she thought i was part of the band. i am not just a fan or friend, i am like a volunteer soldier.
imagine what an author, a newspaper, or a movie producer could do with a small group of volunteer soldiers like me, who pitch in to help when necessary, not because they want money, but because they believe in the project. penny arcade doesn’t have a bunch of fans, they have a standing army of loyal soldiers.
it’s possible to cut down production, distribution, and promotional costs, but there will always be labor and logistics associated with content and promotion, and building a community around your content is a good way to find and recruit fanatical followers to become your volunteer army to help you out when you need it.