This is an excellent article that underlines the importance of what we are presently doing with Castalia House and REDACTED. It’s not about production or distribution anymore, but curation. And while the SJWs in possession of the cultural high ground understand this, they fortunately do not understand how to properly utilize it in a manner that will permit them to hold onto it.
For thousands of years, media was a privilege of the elite, concentrated in cities and confined to a single moment in time. With Edison’s phonograph, music had become non-rivalrous, infinitely replicable and indefinite. Yes, it took decades until the average family could afford a record player or radio, but the dawn of democratized consumption had arrived.
Unfortunately, however, this same trend led to an ossification in content creation and distribution. Records, after all, cost money. Production was expensive – as was distribution, marketing and promotion. So expensive, in fact, that almost every artist lacked the capital required to actually release their music – a need that paved the way for record labels (or TV studios, film studios, publishers etc.) that would finance said efforts in exchange for hefty royalty fees and content rights. These money men though wouldn’t and couldn’t afford to invest in every artist with a dream. Given the upfront cost of talent development and distribution, labels invested in “Arts & Repertoire” men, whose job it was to sift through countless musicians in order to identify the select few with “commercial viability”. Potential artists were then further cut down in number when it came time to actually distributing their content – and then again via marketing/promotional support. Underlying this fact was an unavoidable truth: content publishers had scale-related disincentives to support more than a handful of artists. Why record, distribute, market and promote 15 albums if you can achieve the same unit sales with 10?
Though this system was far from ideal, it was the inevitable outcome of a market in which talent was abundant, capital limited, distribution bandwidth (e.g. shelf-space, broadcast spectrum, print layouts) scarce, barriers high, and the cost of failure significant. But as a result, the content industry slowly shaped itself around a mysterious cabal of financiers and executive tastemakers that essentially programmed the national media identity. And anyone who wanted in had to move to New York, LA or Nashville, pay their dues and hope to work their way up until they could call the shots.
Of course, the music business was far from alone. The more expensive the medium, the more constrained the supply, the smaller the community and more homogenous the content. Local disc jockeys, newspapers and TV affiliates did have the opportunity to repackage and reprogram – to imprint their personality or take, if you will – but this was limited in scope, drew upon only the content that was already distributed, had to fit within an existing corporate identity and, again, depended on access to capital or infrastructure.
Over time, however, technology did what it does best: production costs fell, quality went up and distribution bandwidth increased. Economics, in turn, improved, as did the industry’s carrying capacity – the number of artists, titles, and pieces of content that could be supported. The media business was beginning to loosen up.
But it took until the late 2000s – more than a century after the phonograph – for creation and distribution to truly democratize. With the Internet, distribution became free and truly non-rival (if a bit non-excludable), while the proliferation of low-cost media equipment, mobile devices, and powerful editing software dramatically lowered the costs of production. The rise of creator-based consumption platforms and crowd-funding platforms, meanwhile, eliminated many of the remaining barriers hindering independent content creation. This meant that content could not only be created by those outside the business, but that commercializing this content became significantly less expensive and risky. This led to a massive increase in available, indexed and distributed content.
While the media business benefited from many of these changes, the consequences have been fundamentally destabilizing. The television industry has experienced such a surge in original content that annual cancellation rates have quintupled over the past 15 years (twice as many original scripted series were cancelled last year than even aired in 2000). Since 1985, the indie film industry has seen a nearly twentyfold increase in the number of theatrical releases even though ticket sales have remained flat (in 2014, the Head of SXSW’s film festival decried that “the impulse to make a film had far outrun the impulse to go out and watch one”). Plummeting music sales and unprecedented competition have made launching a new artist so expensive that catalogue sales now make up more than 200% of major label profits (in 2014, David Goldberg privately encouraged Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton to essentially halt A&R efforts, as well as investments in actually making new music). With the democratization of media creation, it’s easier than ever to make content but harder than ever to make a hit.
Ironically, the increasing difficulty in creating hits has not bolstered the “hit maker” system but rather further weakened it instead. In 2013, Macklemore became the first unsigned artist since 1994 to have a number-one single in the United States – a feat he repeated just three months later. Mega-star Taylor Swift has been with an independent label since her debut album and multi-platinum groups such as The Eagles and Radiohead have left the majors to start their own. The struggles of print publishing are well-known, but the uniqueness of some of “print’s” recent successes are worth mentioning. The 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, which has outsold The Harry Potter septet on Amazon in the United Kingdom and made author E.L. James 2012’s highest-earning author, became a viral hit on FanFiction.net long before it was picked up in print (and it’s unlikely a publisher would have bought the rights upfront). Andy Weir’s The Martian is another self-publishing success story.
This metamorphosis is about far more than ever increasing amounts of content and a handful of stars existing outside the traditional media ecosystem. The entire media business is inverting. For decades, scarce capital and constrained distribution capacity meant that the media’s industry bottlenecks sat in the middle of the value chain. Today, however, the bottleneck has moved to the very end: consumer attention. This shifts the balance of power from determining what should be made to finding a way to convince people what to watch, listen to or read in a world of infinitely abundant content.
The preeminence of this challenge has given to the rise of a new type of aggregator-distributor, including news content sites like Gawker, the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed; video and music aggregation services like Netflix, YouTube and Pandora; and even physical products subscription offerings like Birchbox and Lootcrate. What’s more, it enabled the major social networks to use their customer data to build massive stickiness, launch their own publishing platforms and become traffic kingmakers. More broadly, this shift has swung the balance of power from programmers with the ability to greenlight content to curators with the ability to get that content heard, seen or read. Of course, the old programming and financing guard remain important, but with the democratization of production and the explosion of content creation, the power of 1st party programming is quickly being eclipsed by the ascendance of 3rd party content curation. The gatekeepers are still manning their posts, but the city outgrew the walls and the barbarians circumvented the gates entirely.
Content is still king, but distribution is no longer the gate at which the gatekeepers can control it. That doesn’t mean there will be no more gates or gatekeepers, but content will now be influenced rather than controlled, and the influencers will be different people with very different skill sets.
It’s easy to produce content now. It’s easy to distribute now too. But how do you reach the consumers, let them know your content exists, and convince them to try it instead of the myriad other options? That’s the curation challenge.