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June 18, 2007

Everything Old Is New Again

by Douglas McLennan

Robert says he tends to think things stay the same. Greg suspects (okay, more than that) that fundamental change is afoot and that the traditional arts as we have known them in the recent past are finished. Moy is energized by the possibilities of change, and Ed thinks the museum model for symphony orchestras might be the best. William Osborne seems to think that lack of public funding is at the root of all that ails us in America. And Molly? She seems amused by all the hand-wringing. (have I managed to mangle and mischaracterize everyone's positions?)

It's interesting to me that everyone who creates anything these days is having some version of this conversation. Certainly anyone in the arts. But also Disney and CBS and Universal. And Starbucks and the Los Angeles Times and BMW and Coke. We've moved from being a service economy to an experience economy. Service is now assumed. The question is what's the experience going to be.

Some of these entertainment companies (and even car companies now think of themselves as entertainment companies) have been losing audience at rates the arts would find catastrophic. Top-rated TV shows, radio stations, recording companies and newspapers are seeing their audiences down by 30-40-50 percent from what they were when the 90s began. By comparison, the 90s were the biggest expansion of the arts economy in American history. Even the softening of arts audience numbers since 9/11 is nothing compared to some of the retreats in the commercial sector.

The changes in audience behavior we've been talking about here are all things that commercial "content" makers are also addressing. I'm not sure they have any better answers than we do yet.

So where is there growth? I don't want to be tiresome, but we're seeing huge growth in online communities such as MySpace, in massively multiplayer online games and in sites like YouTube. I do not think these companies are anything new. They have identified some basic human nature and facilitated bringing it to a much larger community with technology. The technology might be new, but the human nature isn't. If anything, the technology allows us to go back before one-size-fits-all mass media (pre-Television Age) to the more traditional needs for community-building.

In a mass media world, you find success not necessarily through creating something excellent, but by finding a mean that the largest number of people can attach themselves to. In other words, with limited choice, you create audience by finding the commonality that the most number of people can tolerate.

In our new evolving scenario, that mass market strategy actually works against you. Tolerating something is no longer enough for getting someone to commit to you. One-size-fits-all (we mean you, subscription series) isn't enough. I think the new successful "content producers" see themselves as not just maker-of-product, but facilitator of an experience that an audience can participate in and that they might not be able to get anywhere else.

Posted by mclennan at June 18, 2007 9:44 AM


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