Thursday, October 11, 2007

Observations on Internet Publishing and Distribution - Radiohead, Trent Reznor, Madonna, etc.

There's been a fair bit of Internet buzz about how Radiohead and, apparently, Nine Inch Nails and Madonna are "dumping the record industry". Some have called it the "last nail in the coffin" of the record industry. I have a couple of points to make about that, as well as some comments about Internet distribution replacing traditional distribution channels.

First, all these bands that are getting this news have the record distributing business to thank for their traditional commercial success. They are all reasonably mainstream (mainstream for their genre?) acts that have reputations built on the many, many years that they recorded and were distributed under major labels. In many ways, their ability to do this is dependent upon the advertising and promotional work that they benefited from during the early years of their careers. So, the music industry as it exists made them. We wouldn't know that these people existed if not for the record industry. Their success away from labels is BECAUSE of the record labels. I think it's important to remember that.

(Generally, the only people who can successfully get away from traditional distribution systems are artists who have a following because of their success in the traditional distribution system. Not just musicians but artists in all media.)

Second, saying that the Internet will magically cure the problems of traditional distribution also ignores the realities of getting successfully distributed and promoted on the Internet. What it does is externalize all the labor of production, promotion, advertising and distribution. It's basically saying to the artist, "Well, in addition to mastering the extremely demanding skills of creating art, you have to not master a bunch of additional skill sets that have nothing whatsoever to do with artistic creation. Now, you've got to prepare files for download, create websites and master the arts of promotion and advertising - all without any real help" or it says, "You've got to have substantial capital investment to hire the people to create your website, promote you and advertise your work."

I mean, this is what I struggle with. I have two skillfully written, interesting novels, but to be successful outside of traditional media distribution channels requires mastering a lot of skills that have nothing whatsoever to do with writing. To be financially successful as a novelist would require convincing thousands of people to buy a book that I wrote. I mean, I have a number of stories and a screenplay up on my site. The feedback I've gotten from my writing is overwhelmingly positive - recently someone told me that my screenplay for The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is one of his favorite pieces of literature. But my site statistics do not show me having anything like thousands of people downloading my stories - much less being willing to pay me for it. Even when I included a way to have people pay me for my material, in over two years, no one bothered to do so.

And far from being an apocryphal story - I mean, maybe it's my own fault, maybe my website sucks, maybe I don't do enough promotion or the wrong kind of promotion, whatever - it is typical for artists in all media. It requires the success that comes from being distributed to get to the point where you don't need their distribution in all but a tiny handful of cases. I mean, take Cory Doctorow who has managed to become a successful novelist under alternate systems of distribution. He has an amazing resume, with access to organizational skills and social networking far, far outside the reach of the average (or even quite talented) writer. (It isn't a particular secret that skillful artists often have poor organizational skills in many areas, I think.) Almost no one has the kind of organizational, social skills, contacts and education of someone like Cory Doctorow.

And that is . . . that's really the bar. You have to have skills, contacts and education similar to Cory Doctorow's to make it as a writer without support from the traditional distribution system. This is, I believe, similarly the case with other artists who have managed to make it outside the traditional distribution system - they have these amazing resumes, tremendous organizational skills, social skills and contacts that make it possible for them to succeed.

I don't think a world where, in order to succeed as an artist, you've got to have a skill set like Cory Doctorow's or Immortal Technique's is superior to the one we currently have. It is externalizing the production, distribution, promotional and advertising skills and it also means that almost no artist will "make it". The system that seems poised to replace the traditional distribution system is at least as effective in keeping out artists as the one it seeks to replace.

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