End of the Mass Media and Pop Culture?

It’s been nearly a month, but here, finally, is a wrap-up of the last discussion, with my own recent thoughts on the subject intertwined…

How will musicians and writers, and other artists and tradesmen whose work is now primarily digital, make a living now that their product can be so easily and freely acquired?

Jeremy poses that the barriers to entry have been removed. Any musician with GaragePro can become world-famous: “The limits are only on ability, marketing savvy and drive.” He argues that the business model of the big labels is defunct, and I’ll grant that Big Music has lost its former sway, but can the model really be outdated if there are still commercial pop superstars making big money with the help of mega-amplified media attention?

But ok, bands don’t make much money from their albums anyway, it’s the record companies who take that home. The artist makes money on the tour, right?. That was true for a band like the Grateful Dead, who made all their money from touring and whose records sold poorly – but new, anonymous artists cannot conjure up legions of fans to follow them cross-country. According to EJ, who should know these things, the labels put the young artists out on tour and take most of the returns for themselves, leaving the artists with the merchandise take. “If you’re out on tour and you’re not selling merch, you’re not making money.”

It seems there’s no money to be made for anyone anymore selling CDs. Around the table, no man could remember the last time he’d bought one. Digital music purchases were also rare. All admitted to downloading free music, often illegally, though some said they had dialled back from the days when they could fill an entire hard drive in an afternoon. “I’ve got way more music than I could ever conceivably listen to.”

One participant brought up software downloads as a comparison. “I had a project for which I needed to have Adobe Dreamweaver. Well I looked it up and it’s four hundred bucks! But within minutes through a simple Google search, I was able to find the torrent, follow the crack instructions to load the software onto my machine and use it. Now, would I walk into a computer store and see this program for $400 on the shelf, put it under my coat and try to walk out? No fucking way! But I’m happy to do essentially the same thing over the internet, because it just doesn’t feel like stealing.” This sentiment was echoed around the table.

Despite the lack of legal, paid downloads happening, we were not hostile to the idea. But for most, it was the price. “Ten dollars for an album is still too much.” I asked what a good price would be, since I felt that $10 for an album is not so excessive. Five-dollar albums? Jeremy said yes, he’d buy albums at that price. But Don was obstinate, and said albums should be a dollar, because then he would just buy them on a whim. What didn’t occur to me at the time was that there could be a service that adjusted the price per album according to how much money each subscriber vowed to spend on a monthly or yearly basis. So I could sign up and guarantee that I’d spend $500 this year on music: at that level I could get albums for $2. Kind of like the BMG mail order service of my high school days, when I started my first collection (CDs) by becoming a member. (Join Now and Get 6 CDs FREE!)

Another noted the proliferation of auctioning sites like eBay and asked why there was not a platform for auctioning mp3 songs and albums, or tickets to movies. “Why is every movie the same price? Some movies are clearly worth more than others.”

What about cash donations? I related a recent story in which I had “otherwise acquired” an artist’s album and was so moved by it, and listened to it so often, that I decided it was absolutely criminal that I hadn’t paid this guy – I went online and bought the album I already owned, just on principle (and as a result, probably transferring about $0.89 to the artist in question). And it’s true that people support art they love with their dollars even when they don’t have to. But the argument that won the evening was, “altruism is not a business model.”

If not charity, what about “Artistic Freedom Vouchers” from the government? Each of us gets $100 from Uncle Sam to spend on art and art alone… I leave it to you, gentle reader, to pursue that thread or not.

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As for the news, we discussed James Fallows’s recent piece on Google “saving the news”, and it seems that the best news for the journalism industry is that everyone inside Google assumes that “users” (“readers”) will once again pay for their newspapers and magazines – and pay willingly – it’s just a matter of how. The argument is sound, because it also depends on the news changing somewhat. No longer will newspapers and media be able to provide the same stories as everyone else. They will have to provide something unique.

“Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” [Krishna Bharat, the engineer who designed Google News] told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.” He said this was not a purely theoretical question. “I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”

I think that maxim could be applied equally to producers of art and media everywhere.

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