One of the first comments posted on this site when it launched a month ago mentioned a book called The Black Swan. So I went to the library and checked out a copy, and I have to say that it’s an interesting read written by an interesting person who’s not shy about letting you know how interesting he is.
I agree with the basic premise: that there’s too much attention paid to meaningless detail, when the really important stuff is usually not indicated by measurable shifts in meaningless detail. Rather, it’s indicated by a one-off event that pretty much everyone seems not to have anticipated at all. (My own take on the heavy use of the bell curve — which the author rightly despises in so many instances — is that the bell curve is a useful indicator of markets and demographics. Since most of our lives and the meaning in and of our lives revolves around money, the bell curve is a useful device for both measuring how much we have and whose reserves we can most easily target.)
The following passage on p. 29 of my copy, just past the section heading titled The Advent of Scalability, seems to me to perfectly set the stage for what is happening in the music industry, and about to happen in publishing.
Consider the fate of Giacccomo, an opera singer at the end of the nineteenth century, before sound recording was invented. Say he performs in a small and remote town in central Italy. He is shielded from those big egos at La Scala in Milan and other major opera houses. He feels safe as his vocal cords will always be in demand somewhere in the district. There is no way for him to export his singing, and there is no way for the big guns to export theirs and threaten his local franchise. It is not yet possible for him to store his work, so his presence is needed at every performance, just as a barber is (still) needed for every haircut. So the total pie is unevenly split, but only mildly so, much like your calorie consumption. It is cut in a few pieces and everyone has a share; the big guns have larger audiences and get more invitations than the small guy, bit this is not too worrisome. Inequalities exist, but the us call them mild. There is no scalability yet, no way to double the largest in-person audience without having to sing twice.
The author then goes on to describe what happens when technology makes it possible to record voices and hear them at the time of one’s own choosing or to choose which voices they want to hear at any give time. The results are obvious: a few voices begin to drown out the others, because those voices can now be distributed by technology to places where they might otherwise never be heard. And in an evolutionary way, this all makes sense: given a level playing field, the best voices should win out.
But wait a minute. The advent of technology — even if available to all singers — did not equal a level playing field. In fact, it destabilized the equality that previously existed by allowing better-funded artists to poach into territories dominated by under-funded singers, who could not return the favor. If you’re at La Scala, you probably have access to better recording technology and more patrons, and are making more money that the little guys in the small villages. So you get the advantage of being able to project your voice (through technology) into the countryside, but the countryside can’t sing back.
And that’s pretty much what we’ve had in music and publishing since the advent of recording technology. But it’s not inherently a technological advantage, it’s a distribution advantage which leverages technology. Both the music business and the publishing business became survival-of-the-fittest, where fittest usually meant fittest-to-be-marketed, as opposed to best. (See also: Living Colour.)
Then along comes the Black Swan we now call the internet. And suddenly, technology is now wiping away the distribution advantage it once conferred on the very few, because now almost anyone can project their voice into anyone else’s market. It’s not just the big voices being sent to the countryside: the small voices in the countryside are now also accessible by everyone.
And that, it seems to me, is the real story here. Where it used to be the norm that a very few voices had access to all markets, now all voices have access to all markets. Yes, dedicated marketing campaigns and deep-pocketed voices will always sell more books or songs, but marketing advantages will no longer be the economic hostage-takings that they have been.
In effect, the internet is creating the first truly level playing field since before the introduction of the printing press or recording technology. First everyone competed in their own locale. Then distribution advantages tipped in favor of the people with the most money. Now the internet is making it possible for everyone to be able to compete in every locale.
The upshot of all this is that companies which have traditionally predicated their success on leveraging distribution inequalities are now facing a landscape they have never seen. Where before they effectively had almost monopolistic control of which voices got heard in which locations (often to the disadvantage of minority voices in both the literal and figurative senses), they must now compete almost entirely on the merits of the voices they represent.
Finally. A fair fight.
— Mark Barrett