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Niche To Mass

One of the ongoing stories about culture over the past decade has been the rise of niches. Mass culture has broken down and atomized as the digital revolution made niche interests more viable. As people had access to more choice, more of them stopped going for generic mass culture served through limited channels.

Audiences for the traditional television, radio, movies, music newspaper and magazine industries declined precipitously. It’s been reasonable to think perhaps that the kinds of mass audiences television used to gather would not be seen again. And the music industry? A few weeks ago the No. 1-selling recording on the Billboard charts sold only 40,000 copies, a record low.

But there’s a new mass culture emerging, and it dwarfs the audience that TV used to command. It’s the kind where Justin Bieber can get 500 million views on YouTube for a single video, Lady Gaga can get one billion views for her videos and Charlie Sheen can get three million Twitter followers in under a week.  You don’t have to be famous to get an audience. A stupid farting baby video has more than 150 million views. Matt Harding has had 34 million views for his goofy dancing.

And it can be profitable too. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black got almost 50 million views after YouTube critics called her video the “most appalling thing on the internet.” Forbes says she’s a millionaire from all the interest from her video.

Then there’s Amanda Hocking, a 26-year old, who’s making millions publishing her own books online:

She gets to keep 70% of her book sales — and she sells around 100,000 copies per month. By comparison, it’s usually thought that it takes a few tens of thousands of copies sold in the first week to be a New York Times bestselling writer.

The comparison isn’t entirely fair, because Hocking sells her books for $3, and some $.99. But that’s the point: by lowering the prices, she can make more on volume, especially impulse buys. Meanwhile e-books cost nothing to print, you don’t have to worry about print volumes, shelf space, inventory, etc. And did we mention the writer keeps 70%?

There are thousands of these stories now.

Everyone seems to be complaining about information overload these days. Content is expanding at a faster and faster rate. And the nature of that content is shifting. Seventy percent of all the content made on the web this year will be made not by “professionals” but by internet users. There were 250,000 books published by traditional publishers last year. But there were 750,000 sel-published books. Traditional gatekeepers seem to have fled the building.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the choice. So the key to surviving the overload is finding trusted people or websites or services that  sort through the masses and deliver what we’re looking for. It’s the rise of the curator, who are like human search engines who better deliver the information we want.

I get more and more of my news from Twitter; I follow people who are interested in things I’m interested in and are sharing what they find. I don’t have time to closely follow all the things I’m interested in, so I depend on the 100+ people I follow to monitor and point me where I need to be. It’s like having an army of curator/editors working for me. In return, I point people to the things I find on ArtsJournal and elsewhere.

Maybe this is harder to navigate than when there were only a few news options, but put in a little work, and it’s possible to be much more informed about more things than it was in the “good old days.” And it means that if you have something to say it’s possible to be part of the conversation and find an audience.


The Walled Garden Problem

Wired Magazine declares the web dead.

Magazine publishers were excited when Apple introduced the iPad. There were all sorts of plans for i-publishing ventures – a new generation of digital magazines that would look better than the web and were more portable than laptops. Then the iPad launched and publishers were screwed. Sure you could sell a digital copy of a magazine. But there was no option to buy subscriptions.

Single-copy sales on newsstands are not what drives magazine revenues, and it quickly became clear that single i-copies wouldn’t do it for the tablet world either. Wired went from selling 100,000 copies of its first iPad edition to 30,000 in just a few months.

So Apple has now launched a subscription scheme. While publishers can set their own prices and terms, Apple takes 30 percent. Publishers can sell their own subscriptions elsewhere, but Apple won’t let them sell subs for less than what they cost in the  iTunes store. And customers going through iTunes will be able to decide how much of their demographic data is shared with publishers.

The problems with this deal have been much discussed elsewhere. Apple’s 30 percent is excessive. Dictating price to publishers selling outside the Apple store puts a lot of control in Apple’s hands. And no publisher wants to give up control of subscriber info, which, in some ways, is the most valuable asset publishers have.

Apple’s overreach may or may not work. iTunes has a huge lead in selling digital products. But Google has jumped in with a subscription plan that offers a more favorable deal, and others will follow.

There’s a larger issue.

One of the reasons the internet “works” is because “everything” speaks to one another and is accessible. Our browsers go almost anywhere. But with everything accessible, it’s been difficult to charge for content; so much choice means that people have alternatives to paid content. This has upended traditional publishing business models.

Apple’s app market suggests this problem can be solved. Apps don’t talk universally. They offer content or services that can’t generally be accessed from the outside. They often only work on proprietary devices. Publishers can charge not only for the app, but also for the content, and the iTunes app store experience suggests that consumers will pay.

More and more pieces of what would formerly have been on the net are now finding refuge behind these walled gardens. Facebook, for example, while it’s great for pulling in links and content from the outside, is not much accessible from the outside, and Facebook controls privacy and dictates rules of interaction and who owns your content. Twitter can be displayed on the net, but it too decides rules of the road. Last week, for example, Twitter shut out the UberTwitter and Twidroyd applications after supposed policy violations. Apple regularly declines to allow apps it doesn’t like into its app store. And the iPad, as marvelous as it is, is frustrating as hell when you try to get content in or out if Apple hasn’t approved it.

Digital rights management (DRM) was an attempt to control distribution of content, but it irritates consumers, and many resist. Somehow, though, apps (which are even more restrictive in how they allow sharing) seem to be more acceptable with users.

As we become more digitally mobile, more and more content is being moved behind app walls, and mobile carriers are fighting to control content. In the recent net neutrality battles, some of the big providers were willing to concede neutrality for the traditional web as they pushed to be able to control the flow of data on mobile networks. If the future is mobile (and it is), then there’s a lot of power (and money) to be made on who decides what gets delivered and how.

The online world, which has been an untamed, Wild West in which anyone with access could play, may be evolving into an app-driven model with walls everywhere you turn. This more closely resembles the physical world in which access is controlled by those with the power and resources to pay for it.

One of the great things about the internet was that it democratized access to ideas and information, simply because it spoke a common language. But on such an internet where content moves freely, charging for content is more problematic.

Digital subscriptions are seductive for publishers looking to be more profitable. Apps might be attractive to consumers wanting higher quality products and experiences. But apps – and the app stores that regulate the transactions and offerings – are beginning to change the nature of digital content and who can produce, distribute and see it. Maybe this was inevitable. A Wired cover story last August declared that the web is dead. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing. But we ought to spend a little time thinking about what that next thing looks like.


Today we launch a new blog on ArtsJournal. It grew out of discussions Jean Cook, Adam Huttler and I had after a week-long group blog conversation we had here last summer on artist rights and creativity.

What are the animating ideas of our time? Certainly the revolution in the ways we get information is one. But it’s not just the idea that technology has made it possible to get access to more information than ever before and gee, look what we can do now. Nor is it just about the democratization of access to more stuff. The tools of the revolution are fascinating and cool and sometimes just plain fun, but it can’t just be about the tools and what’s possible.

I think what is more interesting is what this technology revolution is changing in our values and what it is not. Values like who owns information and the products of our creativity. Values about how power is shared and how it isn’t. Values about how (and how much) artists get compensated for their work.

Technology is changing notions about how things can best be accomplished. Technology challenges the ways we organize to get things done. Do we still need institutions? If so, should they be different kinds of institutions than the ones we have now? What’s a recording worth – not just the money value, but the reputational value, the community value? Who owns it, and what does it mean to own something now?

Then there’s the whole issue of government; technology holds out the possibility that we the people will be more informed, better organized and better able to see how our government really works (or doesn’t). But technology might also be the thing that makes government better able to repress and control us. What protections do we need? What rights do we need to assert, and how do we have a reasonable discussion about them?

For me, technology is a values debate. Which of our traditional values reassert themselves in the new technology. Which need to evolve because technology removes some point of friction or reward that was important in the old but not so much in the new.

One of the surest ways to fail at technology is to not understand the values or the people who will be using it. Technology can’t change our fundamental values with a click of a switch. But it can certainly change how those values are expressed – for both good and bad. This blog is where I’d like to see some of those debates about values play out.

Jean and Adam no doubt have different aspirations for posting here, but this is the way I’ll be approaching things. A small administrative note: You’ll see in the side right column the RWX newswire. These are stories about issues that seem to fit the RWX idea that we’ve curated from sources we all read and they’ll be updated daily. The column on the right below our lead story will be filled for now by links to stories we want to especially draw attention to. We’ll add other things as we go along. Thanks for coming.

an ArtsJournal blog