Adjusting to an active audience

A purely electronic culture
Last week, I argued that new technologies -- iTunes, Google and YouTube for instance -- are like the phonograph of the late 19th century. A new, strange and innovative kind of technology, the phonograph and its ability to bring music into the home would go on transform our cultural consciousness by changing the way we hear (and perform, compose, conceive, understand and interact with) music.

It's no surprise recordings -- wax cylinders, phonographs, magnetic tape, CDs -- have affected how we value music and what we value in a live performance. (Flamboyant sonorities rather than subtle sounds were able to pierce through the hiss and crackle of those early records.) Recordings also raised the standards of performance (musicians are more likely to compare themselves to a recording than a live performance).

And recordings may have accidentally groomed us for surprise, as Alex Ross observed in a 2005 piece for the New Yorker: "The reigning unreality of the electronic sphere can set us up for a new kind of ecstasy, once we unplug ourselves from our gadgets and expose ourselves to the risk of live performance."

That might be an optimistic point of view. Ross also noted more pragmatically that Glenn Gould might still be proved right. The pianist predicted, in a 1964 essay titled "The Prospects of Recording," that given the power and perfection of advanced recording technology that "the concert would eventually die out, to be replaced by a purely electronic music culture."

Change in consciousness, change in media
It's almost too obvious to point out that technology is changing the way we experience music, movies, news and more over the transom of the 21st century. I haven't owned an iPod long and already I wonder why I have so many CDs, so many CD cases, so many record jackets for which trees were felled. CDs take up so much space and they constantly need reorganization. I lose them, I lend them, I forget I even own them. There's just no good way to organize something so corporeal.

Anyway, the change in consciousness following the rise of the phonograph can be compared to the change in consciousness that we are currently feeling in the wake of Web 2.0, with one big difference: While the phonograph changed the world of sound, the emerging internet technologies changing our lives are reconfiguring the entire world of media: music, movies, journalism, publishing, what have you.

This change of consciousness might end up being so total that the rise of mass media during the 20th century, as my colleague Joe Nickell deftly observed last week, may seem increasingly like an anomaly as media history continues to unfold.

I really don't want to sound extreme here, but writers, journalists and commentators are already talking about this change. David Shumway, in this piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, laments in a way the decline of mass media, because it means the decline of the once sacred status of the rock icon.

And as illicit downloading continues unabated (in fact, it's increasing according to this piece from the London Guardian), the power of musicians -- or the record label or the music publishing company -- to control the product gets lost in a feedback loop: the more music is downloaded illegally, the more it's downloaded illegally, because the more it's done, the less likely people are to pay for music.

Shumway writes: "In popular music, the decline of a genuine mass audience has meant that it is harder and harder for a performer to attain recognition beyond his or her niche. Those whose recordings now top the charts usually seem to be the least culturally significant, often lacking either the musical distinction or the political commentary that one can still find among less popular performers. But the bigger issue is that even this music reaches a small fraction of the total audience. One could argue that the term 'popular music' itself has become outdated because no style of music reaches a broad enough audience. My undergraduate students typically know the music from my college years -- the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, and so on -- but it is often difficult to find more than a few who are all familiar with the same current releases. As a result of this audience fragmentation, popular music and its performers have lost the cultural centrality they once enjoyed, and that means that fewer people are interested enough to pay for the product."

Surviving by suing
A few facts that bear repeating: CD sales dropped by 20 percent in early 2007. Sales of songs went up slightly but sales of whole records went down. (It's appears, to me anyway, that people have figured out that you no longer have to buy the entire record to get two or three good songs.) Some reports say that 1 billion songs are traded illegally every month. I've read elsewhere that number is more like 2 billion.

The downward spiral is so out of control that the Record Industry Association of America has, according to this Post article, resorted to sending letters to college kids threatening legal action if they don't stop swapping music on their university computers. The Post goes on to say that the RIAA is putting more pressure on college administrators to keep kids from using college networks to exchange music they didn't pay for.

It's as if no one from the RIAA stopped to think about the obvious: that if a student can't download music on his school computer, he'll go to a local coffee shop with free wireless access and do the same thing sans letters from asswipe attorneys.

The record industry, I believe, doesn't want to change with these new technologies because it likes the old way better. The old way certainly made more money. But there's more to than that. The old way made more sense: The music industry was in control and with control came profits. A lot of that control centers on copyright, but while copyright likely won't change, a bigger thing has: Big Media.

A little fairy tale
Once upon a time, bands made music. Then they recorded the music for a record label. The label then sent the band over to MTV to make a video to go along with the record's newest "single" -- an archaic word describing a new song on the radio.

Meanwhile, the label made deals with all the radio stations owned by one or two corporations and with all the national celebrity-driven magazines also owned by one or two corporations. Sometimes the record label and the radio stations and the magazines were owned by one company, making all this much much easier.

Anyway, the song, the video and the magazine spread would all come out at the same time, driving record sales through the roof. Then the band would go on tour and all the regional newspapers and publications would scramble to get interviews with the band, because, you know, the band is on all the radio stations, the MTV and all magazines at the Kroger -- the band, given all this hubbub, must be popular.

It's easier to sue
This is what we used to call, with deep nostalgic feeling, Big Media. The old days are coming to an end and I suspect the industry knows it. That's why it's putting abundant resources into fighting court battles instead of finding new business models. Eminem is suing Apple over similar control issues and so is the National Music Publishers' Association. It's getting on YouTube's ass about music used on homemade video without permission. As if YouTube controls what its users do.

When acquiring music without having to pay for it becomes so commonplace that nearly half the population, according to that Guardian report, doesn't fear legal action, then it's mainstream. And once something gets to that point, the moral foundation has changed: Sure, it's still illegal, but it's acceptable. Like speeding, you can enforce the law on many people some of the time, but not all the time. It's just not possible.

But the music industry isn't alone is feeling threatened. Now newspapers are beginning to look more interested in taking positions against the "threat" of new technologies, like Google. In May, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that it was losing more than $1 million per week. As a result, it cut 100 newsroom jobs. In response, media scholar Neil Henry, in a piece appearing on that paper's op-ed page, called Google a threat to journalism's role as a public trust in a free society.

"It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists," Henry argued, "should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism's plight. Is it possible for Google to somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully, for example, to become a vital part of possible solutions to this crisis instead of a part of the problem?"

It's a good question, but not one Roger Moore, the movie critic, wanted to debate. He advised in a letter to the Poynter Institute that newspapers and newspaper guilds take the trail being blazed by an anxious music industry -- let the law-suits begin.

"It seems to me that while the big media companies might be reluctant to go after some of Google's billions, no newspaper would be facing Wall St. pressure if investors knew Google and Yahoo, et al., were going to have to part with a big portion of their billions in paying copyright fees, click-charges, or whatever, to those same companies Wall Street has written off as a doomed industry."

An active, not passive, audience
I don't know if newspapering is doomed, but there's certainly a change in consciousness underway, as I've said. A fundamental component of that change is a shift of positioning for the reader, in the case of newspapering, from the place of passive consumer to active participant. And it seems that any effort to discover a new business model to save an ailing newspaper industry will have to address this shift in the reader's position.

Doug McLennan, our host here on Artsjournal, hinted at this shift in positioning in his response to Roger Moore's complaint at Poynter. He said lawsuits are a false solution; the real responsibility for dealing with this change of consciousness lies on the shoulders of newspapering's publishers.

"If I was pointing fingers, I'd aim squarely at the business managers who are so locked into the old ways of doing things that they don't even understand what the new issues are, let alone solutions to them," McLennan wrote. "Journalists are being failed by those whose job it is to figure out the business side, and now journalists are paying the price for that lack of vision. Like somehow cheapening the product and giving readers less is going to attract more customers."

"Fast-moving web companies [like Google and Yahoo] have learned to move with audiences and make those audiences part of a community. Newspapers, for the most part, hold on to rigid models and jump on new tools (everybody blog now!) without understanding how those tools can be used."

Making the audience "part of a community" is a theme you see often in writings by commentators trying to understand the changes in Big Media. Neal Gabler wrote a piece headlined "The movie magic is gone" for the LA Times some months ago and he hit the nail on the head. With movies -- as with music and newspapers -- the producers of culture are not in charge.

The consumer is.

What's Brad Pitt got that I ain't got?
Stars used to be the center of attention, Neal Gabler wrote for the LA Times, but now it's the audience. Just as the music is being separated from the people making the music, the glamour of Hollywood and of being a celebrity is being separated from Hollywood and its actors.

"[Movies used to] provide a common experience and language -- a sense of unity. In the dark we were one. Now, however, when people prefer to identify themselves as members of ever-smaller cohorts -- ethnic, political, demographic, regional, religious -- the movies can no longer be the art of the middle. The industry itself has been contributing to this process for years by targeting its films more narrowly, especially to younger viewers. In effect, the conservative impulse of our politics that has promoted the individual rather than the community has helped undermine movies' communitarian appeal.

"All of this has been hastened by the fact that there is now an instrument to take advantage of the social stratifications. To the extent that the Internet is a niche machine, dividing its users into tiny, self-defined categories, it is providing a challenge to the movies that not even television did, because the Internet addresses a change in consciousness [my italics] while television simply addressed a change in delivery of content. Television never questioned the very nature of conventional entertainment. The Internet, on the other hand, not only creates niche communities -- of young people, beer aficionados, news junkies, Britney Spears fanatics -- that seem to obviate the need for the larger community, it plays to another powerful force in modern America and one that also undermines the movies: narcissism.

He continues: "It is certainly no secret that so much of modern media is dedicated to empowering audiences that no longer want to be passive. Already, video games generate more income than movies by centralizing the user and turning him into the protagonist. Popular websites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, in which the user is effectively made into a star and in which content is democratized, get far more hits than movies get audiences. MySpace has more than 100 million users worldwide, and Fortune magazine reported that 54 million of them spend, on average, 124 minutes on the site for each visit, while 11.6 million users spend 72 minutes a visit on Facebook. YouTube's most popular videos attract more than 40 million hits, which is substantially larger than the audience for all but a very, very few movies.

And: "But these sites are arguably not only diverting viewers who might be attending the movies, they are replacing one of the movies' functions: If stars' lives are superseding movie narratives, audiences are superseding the stars. Who needs Brad Pitt if you can be your own hero on a video game, make your own video on YouTube or feature yourself on Facebook?"

August 8, 2007 12:02 AM |



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