Low Barriers To Entry Fuel Citizen Publishing

The most significant thing to happen to newspaper and magazine publishing since the printing press was the Apple Macintosh. I vividly remember what happened to my high school newspaper when we moved from doing pasteup with Xacto knives to laying out the entire paper in PageMaker after acquiring a few new Macs. It was like an overnight revolution.

At about the same time, I was spending most of my money not on cars or girls like most high schoolers, but on music gear. When I was in high school in the mid-'80s, I had a decade of music lessons under my belt, a drive to learn how to play popular tunes on my portable keyboard, and a bunch of friends who played other instruments. I spent much of my disposable income on pro audio gear, and much of my spare time playing in bands. Around this time, music was going through the same transformation that publishing was undertaking. While the phrase "desktop publishing" was beginning to take hold, it was simultaneously becoming easier to use the phrase "home recording studio" without being laughed at.



I spent the entire summer of 1986 digging ditches for my dad's sprinkler company so that I might have enough money to buy a Roland D-10 synthesizer, an entry-level keyboard for professional musicians and one that had full MIDI capabilities. (MIDI is the electronic language that electronic instruments use to talk to one another.) Dad took the money I earned, added a few hundred bucks of his own, and presented me with the synthesizer that Christmas. It became the basis for my home recording studio.

Over the years, I dumped thousands of dollars into instruments, amplifiers, and recording gear. A MIDI sequencer, which recorded and played back whatever I played on my Roland keyboard like a digital tape machine, was another purchase that set me back almost a thousand dollars. It wasn't until I got to college that I realized that most of the devices I had been buying were converging on one device--the Apple Macintosh.

In college, my professor gave me studio time in exchange for helping her teach a class on MIDI and computer music. In the early '90s, home recording studios were somewhat affordable, but the technology running them was still complicated and riddled with problems. It was difficult to produce CD-quality audio unless you grew with the technology and understood what you were doing. But it was getting there.

Flash forward to 2006. An application called GarageBand typically comes along with the purchase of a new Apple Mac. A deceptively simple application, GarageBand doesn't come with a manual to explain how to use it. For many, the application is intuitive and easy to use. And the guy who wrote the unofficial manual for the application describes GarageBand as "unfair" in terms of what it is able to do, as compared to what the equipment professional recording engineers can do. Home users can easily create professional-sounding recordings, and folks like me who spent tens of thousands on their way to this point in technological development are kicking themselves.

I don't mean to give Apple all the credit for ushering in revolutions in content production. I'm oversimplifying for the sake of illustration here. What's important is that not only did we go through the desktop publishing era in the area of printed materials, but we're also going through the desktop publishing era in audio recording and production. Similarly, the folks who would like to create their own films are finding consumer devices can replace what used to be tens of thousands of dollars worth of investment in professional-quality editing machines and such.

In other words, there's a reason for this new influx of independent content produced by folks like your next door neighbor. We're in the age of digital distribution, but we're also in the age of digital content creation--and not just involving the printed word. You can make a documentary with nothing more than a handheld camera and your home PC. You can compose and record a symphony with your Mac and a USB keyboard.

Of course, this gives the average citizen the same kind of power that used to be held by large corporations and industry power brokers. Back when I was in high school, my bandmates and I used to hope that someone from a record label would notice us and advance us some money for time in the recording studio. An aspiring filmmaker at the time would be hoping that a film company would see fit to finance the overwhelming cost of bringing the artist's vision to life.

What others in this industry call "consumer-generated content" is simply the product of digital production and digital distribution converging on the Internet-connected desktop. And, by the way, we need to stop calling it "consumer-generated content," because that phrase makes it sound as if those who produce this content are nothing more than consumers of products. It's insulting. The people who are writing the next big hit in their basement, or waiting to tell a new story with a self-produced documentary, no longer need corporate dollars or assistance to do so. We'd be wise to be respectful of that.

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