Sunday, May 03, 2009

On the passing of the analog era

What my generation regards as normal in the worlds of music and movies is coming to an end. And by "my generation" I mean people old enough to remember buying music on something before CDs, and old enough to remember when watching a movie at home on videotape was a novelty. In reality, everything that we take for granted about the economics of music and movies is a brief aberration in the history of art and performance, one that is now passing.

When the history of the music industry is written, the introduction of the digital representation on CDs will probably be pointed to as the turning point, although the change really didn't reach critical mass until distribution (the internet) and reproduction (MP3s) were added. After that, it became inevitable.

But what makes this really interesting is the realization that this is not a revolution so much as a counter-reformation.

The 20th century gave us a small window of time in which music, films, prints, etc. could be distributed as analog physical products, meaning that they could be mass-produced easily, but not too easily. This oddity put economic power in the hands of companies that could marshal manufacturing, distribution, and marketing resources, and also made it possible to charge for every copy. It also made a painful necessity of the "star" system: with so much fixed cost involved in creating a record, from the recording sessions to the manufacturing to the shipping, records had to sell in large quantities. That in turn meant expensive promotion -- another fixed cost -- and an upward spiral that resulted in stars, superstars and megastars, where people who were only slightly more talented and slightly more fortunate were rewarded exponentially more.

And so a generation of artists, managers, agents, etc., grew up expecting to get paid for every copy, and from there it was just a small hop to getting paid for broadcasts or other performances that "cheated" them out of selling a copy. In the space of a couple of generations, this bizarre entitlement had become the new norm.

With digital reproduction of music and movies supplanting mass production/distribution, that assumption is breaking down. A generation is growing up that knows perfectly well that it costs essentially nothing to make copies of recordings... and that arbitrary rules aside, it's not actually depriving the artist of anything. The artist doesn't have to work any harder, and the artist isn't being deprived of any payment they might otherwise get... unless you assume a priori that they should get royalties. And frankly, that's not a very convincing argument.

Before mass production, musicians and actors had to go out and perform. With the passing of the analog interregnum they will have to do so once again if they want to get paid.

The companies that profit from the analog model are desperately fighting this shift as if the current state embodied some inherent moral and ethical right, rather than merely a profitable business model, and its end would be a catastrophe. "Nobody will be able to afford to make $120M movies", they say, as if that were self-evidently a terrible thing.

But really, the worst thing that will happen is that people like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie will be merely moderately rich rather than absurdly rich.

The second-best thing that will happen is that, in the absence of a compelling economic reason to manufacture and market celebrities, the whole ridiculous world of "celebrity culture", of Hello! magazine and awards shows and wedding pictures and paparazzi and TMZ, will evaporate.

And the best thing of all that might happen is that "reality" television shows, which are essentially the bastard offspring of pseudo-celebrity culture and over-elaborate game shows, a world that feeds on exposing people with neither talent nor shame to brief notoriety and passing ridicule through the lens of mass media and calling it entertainment -- will return to whatever circle of hell they escaped from.

Well, I can dream...

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