Do we sell the bottle, or the wine?

James Sullivan is a bit upset in the San Francisco Chronicle to think that the compact disc might be dead by 2007. With the growth of digital downloads, he says, the young folks are moving past the ‘stuff’ of physical recorded media, and the ‘collectible’ connection that drove a previous generation, and framed their relationship with music.

Toward the end of the article, he contrasts the music download to a transaction, and the collection of physical recordings as a relationship.

It brings to mind another article by marketing maven Seth Godin on the distinction between content and the ‘wrapper’ that contains it. He had just thrown out all the jewel boxes to his CD collection, to the shock of his neighbors and friends:

People are quick to attach emotional memories to packaging, all the more so when the substance within that packaging is ethereal. Anyone who has paid to put her wedding dress in storage knows what I mean. You’re never going to wear it again, your kids are unlikely to want it, but you keep it because it’s an important wrapper. It was the packaging around a romantic, once-in-a-lifetime — and hard-to-recapture — personal experience.

Godin goes on to suggest:

If your company makes contents, get out of the wrapper business as fast as you possibly can….If you’re in the wine business, and your wine is well reviewed and has a huge following, maybe it’s time to sell a special vintage directly to your customers, bypassing liquor stores and forgoing fancy bottles. Sell the wine — not the bottle!….

If you’re in the wrapper business, get better at it!….Emulate the cosmetics industry in your packaging, Nordstrom in your customer service, and Apple in your sheer sexiness.

So, in an age where wrappers and content are becoming separable, in which business would we place the arts organization? Certainly, we’d be quick to say ‘content’ — the painting, the dance, the symphony, the theater work. But in the live cultural experience, what do our audiences pay for? A Mozart sonata or an evening on the town? A poetry slam or a hip, urban atmosphere? Of course, the true cultural experience requires the content, but it’s the wrapper and the context that define what we do.

As content is increasingly available on-line, on-screen, and off-site, the live arts experience is increasingly about the wrapper that contains it. Some have called this the ‘experience economy,’ some call it the art of ‘context-providing.’ Either way, it’s a funky new world for us all.