Newspaper publishers have been lashing out at Google for aggregating headlines and selling ads on the news feeds. The criticisms are controversial (my thoughts here). Google directs huge rivers of traffic to news stories, and publications like that. But aggregation has in some ways come to compete with the news organizations themselves.
Most newspapers have thought of themselves as producers of news. But journalism isn’t just writing stories, it’s having the news judgment to decide what stories are important and explaining why. Google is a kind of uber-curator of news, somewhat diminishing the important news curation role of traditional editors and reporters.
More important, it pushes news organizations into the position writers have been in for years. Writers have always been a commodity whose fates have largely been determined by the publications in which they appeared. Because publications did the hiring and deciding what stories were published, they generally had the power in the relationship.
If aggregators assume the gatekeeper role, publications step down a rung, joining writers as producers rather than gatekeepers. This is a significant weakening of traditional publisher power. Publications still compete if they have a strong brand and it still means something to be published in the New York Times or the local newspaper. But even this brand power is being challenged by crowd-rated news services like Digg, which try to qualify and organize stories based on how people rate them.
So news organizations are caught in a wildly expanding consumer marketplace where they offer products (stories) that are only a click away from any of a million other stories. News organizations still have an advantage as brands and they have resources they can throw into coverage. But increasingly, individual writers and small websites can compete more efficiently because they don’t have to carry the institutional overhead. Thus a classic example of innovation (the web) subverting a less efficient model (print). Another way of putting it might be that as production and distribution gets cheaper, competition increases.
A similar dynamic might also be playing out in the arts. Traditionally, arts organizations have seen themselves as producers. But they were also gatekeepers/curators who determined what their audiences would be exposed to. If you’re the symphony orchestra in town, your programming is what people heard, and what they heard shaped their aesthetic.
Now there are more options. If you’re just one producer in an increasingly crowded marketplace you have the news organization problem. If your brand is strong like the Metropolitan Opera, you still have an advantage. But if you’re just another theatre company, you’re just another theatre company competing with YouTube and streaming and music and video and e-readers and games.
Now you not only have to make the case that what you do is excellent, you probably have to make the case that an audience should choose live theatre over music or video or… Saying you’re the best chamber orchestra doesn’t mean much if you can’t make the case for chamber orchestras. Advertising a star singer doesn’t mean much if you can’t make the case for the live opera experience.
The weakest place in the chain to be these days is to be the producer. Content may be king, but if you’re just another choice among many, it’s difficult to compete, especially if you’re carrying high overhead. Instead, you have to define your niche and be the expert in that niche. It’s not enough to a chamber orchestra that plays well, you have to define the niche in a way that makes you central to it.
For example: The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has billed itself as “America’s chamber orchestra.” Well, it may be that the SPCO plays better than any other chamber orchestra in America. But what makes it “America’s chamber orchestra”? For anyone outside of Minnesota or Chicago, it’s a meaningless boast.
What if instead the orchestra attempted to define what a chamber orchestra is in America? If it pointed to the best performances and programs elsewhere, if it made itself into a resource for anyone interested in chamber orchestras? If it touted the accomplishments of those it worked with? If it created a community around the idea of and interest in chamber orchestras? Then the claim has something to back it up.
This season the orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary, not just with a concert but with invitations to the world’s best chamber orchestras to come to St. Paul so audiences could make comparisons. That’s owning the space, a brilliant, gutsy thing to do. But outside the city the swagger is invisible.
Because success isn’t just about selling tickets in the short term. It’s about creating a community of relationships, about being more than a producer lost in a sea of choices. It’s about setting yourself up as the aggregator of an aesthetic and positioning yourself at the center of it.