In corner offices around the world, in marbled boardrooms and in whisky bars, they gather: movie executives, trying to figure out how to keep people coming to the movies. Music titans, scheming about suing file-sharers. Television producers, debating how they can force people to watch commercials. The business models of the last 60 years are under threat, nobody’s figured out yet how to make enough money out of the new ones, and everybody’s worried.
Well, maybe not everybody. There are those who thrive in this climate, artists who delight in ditching their distributors and relish the direct contact with their fans. At TED this year, Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer described her wont to fall into the arms of her crowd, literally and figuratively, surfing on hundreds of upraised arms at a show or sending out a tweet pleading shelter in a new city.
Her closing commentary was arresting: “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, how do we make people pay for music? What if we started asking, how do we let people pay for music?”
Beautiful. Stirring. Compelling. And, like all utopian visions, somewhat misleading. Palmer described a fellow musician, reluctant to ask the crowd for money; she empathized with his shame and wished people didn’t make him feel that way. Her talk, in fact, suggests that shame, the fear of being judged as a beggar, is the only reason someone would be reluctant to ask fans for money.
But where in this vision is there room for the introverted virtuoso, the prodigal performer whose art rests in the art itself and who does not, when offstage, seek direct intimate relationships with thousands of people? The old paradigm said that, in order to be successful, you had to be good (or sort of decent) and have a big label backing you. The new paradigm seems to say that in order to be successful, you have to be amazing and amazingly skilled: at marketing and tweeting and blogging and sharing your life and being always on.
Journalism faces much the same transition. Two weeks ago, paidContent’s Mathew Ingram ran the headline: “Don’t think of it as a newspaper -- think of it as a platform for talent.” Ingram’s recommendation is that the news organization should become an enabler for the journalistic equivalents of Amanda Palmer, making it easier for them to connect with their fans and ask them for money.
Ingram also heavily references a book by former Howard Dean operations director Nicco Mele, “The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath.” Nifty name. But here’s the thing: if you’re the new Goliath, there’s still a Goliath. Recently, I was chatting with the manager of a highly successful independent band, one that has made it big on every form of new media imaginable and whose millions of YouTube views make it a poster child of the online music scene. I asked him whether the very fact that there are no gatekeepers means you now have to work twice as hard to be heard above the crowd. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “It’s very much a case of meet the new boss.”
Same as the old boss. In a world free of middlemen, there are still a thousand Davids for each Goliath. Those elite few at the top may have gone through a different initiation process to get there, but the end result is the same. Even in the disintermediated digital age, success is rare, and we still haven’t figured out a good way to make it pay.