Regression To The Mean - Or, The More Things Change...

Reading about journalist Andrew Sullivan’s decision to fly solo, I couldn’t help but think of how in corporate finance, we go through alternating periods of consolidation (through mergers and acquisitions) and separation (through spin-offs, divestments and sales).  Executives and bankers basically flip-flop their arguments to convince shareholders that it all makes sense (and to be fair, sometimes it does), but it’s bizarre: how could 1+1=3 in one year and then 2-1=4 the next?

In any case, similarly, the media world sees a pattern of

-       Talent getting tired of working for Big Media and striking out on its own, and

-       Talent then either a) realizing that they miss Big Media and flocking back to the mother ship, or b) actually succeeding, but then becoming what they hated: a big corporation sucking up their time and energy and not letting them actually be creative and focus on what they’re passionate about.

This past year, Louis CK made headlines when he decided to go indie by foregoing Big Media’s distribution and marketing muscle, instead charging viewers $5 per download for one of his shows.  I’m not sure how much of the success was a result of the novelty factor, but the bottom line is that it worked.  Louis CK made a killing; people noticed. 

What the long-term impact will be remains to be seen.  It’s one thing for viewers to be online, but it’s quite another thing for viewers to become consumers and pay an entertainer each and every time (sometimes, a bundle is a good thing).

In the online video world, we have seen loads of YouTube personalities drop “new media” when they heard “old media” calling.  Some did it for money, others for the credibility.  A cynic would say they sold out. I think it was largely due to the velvet rope factor – there’s nothing separating professional from amateur on the Web, and  Big Media provides that filter. 

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Everybody wants to be successful, but everybody has a different defintion of success. Some are driven by respect, money, power or fame. 

Whatever the case, success is subjective, relative and fluid. 

Needs vs. Wants

But once the violin music stops, people have a bare minimum income they need to earn -- while others want a lot more.

It’s really only a matter of time before that reality sinks in. 

Sullivan echoes the sentiment: “[W]e work our asses off. And my colleagues and I deserve to be paid for it. [For the best defense of this basic principle, see Louis CK's explanation here.] If the money doesn't come in, we'll have to find another way to make a living.”

He then explains his decision to forego an advertising business model and instead seek out subscriptions from readers: “We're also mindful how online ads have created incentives for pageviews over quality content.” He has a point. The pageview not only didn’t die, its role as currency du jour has only strengthened, as readers are at the mercy of slideshows everywhere they go.

Following your gut

You can’t live your life – personally or professionally – trying to please others or live up to the definition of success that others have defined.  You need to be able to determine what makes you happy and then just focus on that, realizing that nothing is easy.  And, if that doesn’t work, you can always return to Big Media.

I commend Louis CK and Andrew Sullivan for flying one way as much as I commend the YouTube personalities for flying the other.  Then, recall, that third category of talent, the one who succeeds but then finds himself beholden to the mundane and repetitive administrative chores that prevent him/her from doing what they actually are best at. 

People have a funny way of following their gut.  In 2013, I’m sure we will find the denouement for that character, too.

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