Economic Models, Commodity Computing & Something Beautiful
A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a group of (primarily) engineering students about how our need for scale is forcing all sorts of changes in our industry … some technological, some economic, some social / cultural, and so on.
As engineers the temptation is to focus on the technological changes, which is good so far as it goes … but there is so much more.
For example, think about the differences between the first bubble and now. For my money the single biggest difference is that now there are some pretty successful economic models in place … ways to monetize crowds, to actually reward investors for taking risk to build an enterprise.
Of course, because of the ability to monetize a crowd, it becomes necessary to serve the crowd … and these crowds are (hopefully) instant mobs, seething, roiling, exploding and demanding more … all the time.
In that climate there are many businesses that can be built, fortunes made, technology consumed … always a good thing for those of us who enable reliable, cheap scale!
The recent sale of Bebo.com for the better part of a gazilion dollars / euros occasioned an opinion piece by Bragg that makes a pretty reasonable case that much of Bebo’s value came from the content provided by musicians. You may be thinking “duh … that’s why it’s called user-generated content”. I’m sure that Michael Birch (a Bebo founder) would contend that he delivered plenty of value to the musicians by providing them exposure, and besides nobody forced any particular musician to upload their stuff on bebo.
Michael Arrington then posted a mostly-reasonable, albeit coldly analytical dismemberment of Bragg’s piece. Better than the post itself, is a lengthy and at times entertaining comment thread that continued to argument for awhile. In any case, Arrington’s basic case is something like “that’s just the way the world is now, so deal with it”.
Except that as Nicholas Carr observes Arrington’s whole argument revolves around one central idea:
Recorded music is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of an artist.
Which is one way to view the world … the world as pure commerce. But doesn’t that seem to be a bit impoverished?
Maybe that’s inevitable when you’re commercializing your words by the pound … so to speak. Not much time to craft a particularly artful post, just barf and run. While that’s probably too harsh, I doubt if anybody who blogs thinks that some future readers will be considering the merits of any particular post forty or fifty years from now.
A week would be pretty good staying power for most posts, two weeks awesome, a month the stuff of legend.
But music is different in this regard … by a lot.
That the creation and distribution models for all sorts of content are in complete flux is obvious enough … all the economic rules are changing, and in that change is real opportunity.
The music biz is just one example, but it is instructive.
Furthermore, the rapid technological change driven by the rapid commoditization and corresponding ubiquitous nature of computing, bandwidth, and consequently reliable software is adding mega-fuel to this fire.
All of this is good … even very good, but there’s much more.
That this new world (even in the transitional state that we’re in) will provide tons of opportunity is clear enough. I first realized this seven or eight years ago when one of my sons, who was in a jazz-performance program at the time, pointed out that all of his professors (all working jazz musicians) were big proponents of the music-sharing sites.
They universally hated the labels and the rest of the music distribution business, and were so taken by the opportunity for new avenues to expose people to what they did that they were happy to overlook some rough spots.
Better to be “ripped off” by individual people in the short run … after all, they might become fans someday (even attend a gig and perhaps actually buy some music … presciently agreeing with one of Arrington’s contentions!), than by a label who would be very happy to kill your career if you ever got out of line.
So new economic models, new technological means to create the art, distribute it, even to scratch out a living (or hopefully do even a bit better than that) at the same time … all of those are certainly upon us. Good enough as far as it goes …
But none of that changes the meaning of beauty, of truth … thankfully those have meaning that transcend our economic maelstrom.
I for one, am glad of it.