Saturday, September 21, 2013

On the economy of big enough

Achieving critical mass or 'scale' used to be the key to success, particularly in the media and entertainment industries. If you could get your work out to a large audience, then you had a chance. But if you weren't reaching millions, you generally weren't in the game. Because you couldn't be in the game. That's because the game was a hierarchical system with many levels and lots of intermediaries. To a sizable extent things have changed. Not everything, of course, but enough to keep me busy thinking about different examples and circumstances, and to keep tapping out blog posts on the topic here. 
While the mass market and mass media continue to exist, we also have a demassification of systems -- witnessed in new practices of production, consumption, and distribution. One of the results is new middle ground of 'big enough' -- things that aren't blockbuster or massive hits, but things that are also not so limited in appeal as to be considered unfeasible or anything more than a hobby. If this isn't pushing the metaphor too far, it is now possible to be a small fish in a small pond and make it work...primarily because your small pond can receive widespread distribution, via networks of what economists would could call non-market actors. The people who blog and tweet and post links to articles, videos, and songs on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest etc. are generally doing so not with a commercial incentive, but with an expressive incentive. The result is a de facto army of publicists, working for you, the creator, that you did not have to hire and, chances are, don't even know.
I have had many conversations with people about this shift, i.e. the effect of digital and networks technologies in the context of moving beyond the old industry binaries of 'hit' or 'bomb', toward a third option in which an audience that is big enough to be sustainable can be built and/or found. A post from earlier this year looked at this phenomenon from the point of view of the music industry, one of the classic industries predicated on the notion of winners and losers...and a dropkick for just about everyone else, as indicated in the diagram below.

Hit-based industries operated this way because they generally had to operate this way in an environment of high costs of talent development, high costs of production, high costs of distribution, and high costs of marketing. If your album or CD was occupying physical space on a store shelf it had to be selling X copies per week in order to keep its place on the shelf. If it didn't move from shelf to cash register, it moved from shelf to distributor or to the delete bin. 

While the new landscape in which we find ourselves means that the cost of getting in to the system is as  negligible -- you just need to create your video or song or blog post, using free or cheap software, and upload -- it also means a big, messy talent pool of contributors. Heroes and anti-heroes can co-exist, as we see when we look at the most viewed YouTube channels for the week of September 13th/13. Yes, it's mostly stars of the music world (Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Robin Thicke, et al) but it's also random YouTubers, people that started out outside of the industrial star system, and who have risen to varying levels of prominence, such as  Vitalyzd, self-described on hisYouTube page as a "Russian dude with a camera and some wonderful ideas"and The Young Turks, an online news show that morphed from podcast to YouTube series. 

Self-described "Russian dude with a camera": Current view count on this video is 4.5 million

You might say "...that's nice, but I haven't heard of either of them". Fair enough, and that's my point. Yes, you've heard of Gangnam style and probably the sneezing panda too, but that's because those videos achieved that elusive things referred to as 'virality', and viral is usually something that happens once.  Chances are that panda is not going to sneeze in quite that same way ever again, and Psy will probably not have another billion view song on YouTube. Whereas people you haven't heard of are bringing in 'big enough' audiences on a weekly basis, and finding a career path outside of conventional definitions of stardom. Vitalyzd has over 250 million views on his channel and The Young Turks have over 1 billion views, and both are in the Top 50 most viewed YouTube Channels for the week.

The Antiheroes can now co-exist alongside the heroes; (and I use the term in the context of the popular, the known bona fide stars, not because I find them particularly heroic). Case in point: this guy, who eats and drinks unusual things, such as an entire bottle of wasabi, or a deodorant stick, or the requisite Jager bombs. In real time. Bro or frat humor, to be sure, but it would never would warrant ten mintues at a time on television. (Deodorant eating, Jager-slamming man is closing in on 60 millions views on his YouTube channel).

Man eats deodorant stick on camera...because he can. 1.6 million enjoy.

The distinction between amateur and pro is no longer the crisp one it once was. Pro meant you were known, that you were considered good enough, by enough people, to be making a living doing what you were doing. Amateur meant that you loved doing what you were doing, but for a variety of reasons, it was not to be your livelihood. As an executive from YouTube said at a talk I heard earlier this year: "the audience now gets to define what good is".

And this is what is different about the economy of the Internet. Demassified and dispersed production. A coming together of market forces and non-market forces. Genres which previously did not exist. The possibility of what were once just interesting niches becoming feasible, not only in terms of dollars and cents economics, but also in terms of gaining a place on people's radar. Whereas mainstream systems tended to measure quality in terms of something's ability to reach a mass audience, we now have ways to measure more incremental bursts of activity and to match audiences to these bursts accordingly.

Related Posts: 

The 3rd wave of podcasting and how we got here
Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching The Niches  
The Creative Economy: Is the (3rd) Party Over?
Platform Capitalism, or why your parents don't understand the Internet