Bear with me, this is about more than just music; but you’ll have to suffer through my extended analogy first.
Once upon a time, musicians had exclusively local followings. They were relatively mobile, so they toured the countryside in their usual routes, spreading news from place to place and singing songs that were aimed at a very particular audience. They’d pick up tunes and lyrics and adapt them via the folk process, changing them for their local tastes, playing a decades-long game of telephone that changed the words around until sometimes they made no sense. Was the guy’s name Tom Dooley or Tom Dula? Did it matter?
Then came the gradual application of sheet music. Hitting one genre at a time starting with the most refined, it pinned down these folk tunes and created celebrities, it enabled a flowering of complexity in music whilst also permitting greater transmissibility. You could replicate a performance, if you had the skills, even if you had never heard the tune before.
Performance was already a fairly democratic endeavor. All over the world, music was a communitarian activity. Every town had a few folks who were able to participate, and the process of music-making was intrinsic to socialization. Now, it changed subtly, because the music performed was the latest stuff from the richest centers of culture; it was sophisticated, complex music, and the skills required to play it started being out of reach for many of the folks who had no problems thumping a tub or twanging a strumstick. It was the music that emanated from urban centers, where it was the musicians with patrons who got the fame.
A few things were lost along the way — by tempering the scales, some of the sounds of older music went away a bit. But on the whole, the systematization could easily be seen as a good thing, particularly as musicians, who tend to have respect for their predecessors, collected and wrote down the older music, and repurposed it in their newer pieces.
In its heyday, this new world, this new business of music publishing, displaced to a large degree the older folk process, the older way of making music. There was now real money to be had in music, whereas before music was a moneymaker only for the very privileged few.
And then came recording, and radio. Suddenly, we watched the birth of a new industry. Now we had the pre-eminence of the performer and not the piece. A given singular interpretation of a piece of music gradually became the dominant mode of interacting with it, as over time radio moved away from doing live broadcasts to consisting almost entirely of pre-recorded music. This made distribution of the music the huge gating factor on who became famous, and the very concept of fame finished its centuries-long shift from a local definition to a far more global one.
In the unforgiving light of history, we can see that this brief century-long bubble of fame was an aberration. It was the limited space on radio airwaves, the limited space on record store shelves, the limited space for stacks of sheet music, that selected for our musical heroes. Many fine musicians never made the 0.001% cut, and were left unheard, living much like their forebears did, doing tours in old minibuses or station wagons, from D.C. to Baltimore to Charlottesville, Atlanta, and then back, maybe if they were lucky landing in New York City for a gig, or even playing Passim’s in Boston.
This was called grassroots music, independent music. It was also called a horrible way to try to make a living. An indie record moving 10,000 copies is a freakin’ miracle. The savage math of Pareto’s Law gets in the way, and one is forced to observe that while the ability to play elegant riffs on the guitar is rare in the population as a whole, it’s common enough that someone in the top 1% of guitar players in a given city may well never feed herself off of her skill.
But today, ah, we have the Long Tail, the miracle of digital distribution. The bubble of top-tier celebrity is fading. Culture is nichifying, diversifying, and the watercooler moments are becoming more evanescent. The top moments of cultural consensus reach a smaller percentage of the population than they used to. We’ve got more choices. We’ve got cheaper and cheaper access to content (although it may well not be legal).
We all know the result, which is panic on the part of the industries that sell fixed forms of content. The BBC brings news that a publishing rights-holder for music publishing is looking to take down tablature sites for guitar, which is about as self-defeating a move as I can think of for an industry: preventing the young from acquiring a hobby just keeps you from having adults to work professionally in the field later. It’s happened before, of course: the On-Line Guitar Archive has gotten threatened with takedown dozens of times in the past.
What’s particularly ironic about this case is that the tablatures on the Internet are actually reverse-engineered. They are part of the folk process. They are inaccurate. They harken back to the days before the whole industry existed, and are virtual forms of playing a once-heard tune by ear and sharing it around a campfire.
But the real thing that freaks out the music publishers, no doubt, is that they are lowering the value of sheet music, just as easily available MP3s lower the value of recorded music.
And that, finally, brings us to what I really want to talk about: the future of content.
The first thing to appreciate is the way in which costs for all this have shifted over time. Two inescapable facts immediately surface:
- The cost to consumers for a minute of content has been dropping steadily over time.
- The cost to create and package a minute of content has been rising steadily over time.
Check out this blast from the past:
In l906 one paid a guinea (GBP1.05, more than a week’s wages for many) for a single-sided, 3-minute, 78rpm record of Melba singing ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’. Forty years later in 1946, The Planets, on six 78s (playing time around 50 minutes) cost about GBP3; Beethoven’s Ninth, on eight records, cost GBP4. The first LPs in l950, playing for 50 minutes or so, cost about GBP2 – almost a quarter of my own weekly pay packet for selling those very LPs! That was in the days when it cost 2.1/2d (lp) to post a letter, a bus ride along London’s Oxford Street cost 4d (under 2p), and a pint of beer was 8d (about 3p). Had their prices increased pro rata, records would today cost between GBP50 and GBP100 each! So the present GBP12.99/GBP14.99 over-the-counter price of a CD – less than an average day’s wage now – is the equivalent of only a few shillings not so long ago, and certainly within the memory of many record buyers.
And what do we get for our GBP14.99? Generally a lot more music, because CDs give up to 80 minutes of playing time – nearly half as much again as the average LP. This extra music affects the cost of a record at the origination stage. In the LP era it usually took two days to make a record. To record it, that is. Nowadays it’s three, or even more, [they’re talking classical music here, folks] because of the extra music (which takes proportionally longer to rehearse and play) allied to such factors as the Musicians’ Union regulation which limits the amount of music usable on a finished record to 20 minutes per 3-hour session. Because of the extra music, and the extra time taken to record it, a record company now has to pay considerably more for musicians, hire of venues and instruments, engineers, producers, editing and so.
Let’s take your barebones studio recording. The room to record in, perhaps with an engineer, probably cost $100 an hour. To get a really good take, plus any additional layered instrumentation, probably took more than an hour. It’s not unusual for one of those indie CDs to cost around $5,000 to $10,000 to make. To do a run of a mere 300 copies, well, that will set you back over $1000. That’s for the CD’s with just the little one panel blow-in for the cover.
But wait! That’s obsolete already. Because while these days there’s folks willing to buy that CD, I had a fun experience at a conference recently. Here’s a paraphrase:
Older panel moderator: So, young panel of random teens from the Silicon Valley area, do you watch TV?
Teens: No. We live on MySpace instead.
Mod: Oh? No TV?
Teens: Well, we do love Desperate Housewives and Lost and Dave Chappelle and Adult Swim, but we BitTorrent all of those. We just don’t watch it on a TV.
Mod: Hmm. Well, what about music? What do you think of iTunes?
Teens: iTunes rocks. It’s a great database to look up songs in so you know what albums to BitTorrent.
Mod: er, yeah. Is that how you get your music?
Teens: We also just copy each other’s entire music collections. I dupe my best friends’ iPod.
Audience guy from Apple: That’s not possible.
Teens: Sure it is, you just grab this piece of software off of Downloads.com, and…
Audience guy from C|Net: Ack!
[scuffle between Apple and C|Net guys]
Teens: Anyway, music is basically disposable anyway, I can always just re-download it.
Mod: What about buying online. Where would you go online to buy, say, a CD player?
Teens: A… CD player… [blank looks] What is that for?
Now, I don’t know about you, but the thought of losing even my old vinyl records makes me cringe. There’s the hard-to-find ones that haven’t been reissued, that I pored through used record shops in Annapolis to find. There’s the radio station promo-only stuff. The copy of Sgt. Pepper with the cut-outs still in it.
But to these kids, music is disposable. It’s beyond commodity, it’s down to “utility,” taken for granted like electricity and running water.
Now, music is just the forerunner in this. We’re seeing similar effects everywhere. In the process of taking down the shelf-tyrannical, headist, editorially mind-controlling tastemaking industries, we’re also pushing the cultural value of a given piece of content down.
Which brings us, finally, to games.
Game budgets are rising at a ridiculous pace. This is driven, in large part, by content. It’s not the game mechanics that make it expensive to make a triple-A title these days; it’s the content. Have a look at Mark Cerny’s Method through this lens, and you’ll see that what makes the method work is that as much game design as possible is packed into pre-production, and everything thereafter is content, content, content.
But the voracious tide of digitization that has swallowed music, is chomping on TV, and is snapping at the heels of movies is going to hit games with a vengeance in a few years. In the other industries, the response has been to look to the Long Tail for an answer: nichify, attract audiences that are highly targeted for your product, rely on digital distribution and user filters… It’s been observed that the three things that make the Long Tail possible are
- Digital distribution providing an “infinite shelf”
- Robust user filters to carry you down the tail to the products you like
- The democratization of content creation
Ah, on that last one lies the rub.
I’m highly skeptical that the future is going to bring us the democratization of what it takes to make a triple-A videogame. Even the procedural methods espoused by Will Wright for Spore are proving difficult to get working. The Long Tail of videogames isn’t in what we think of as the AAA game today. The sorts of interactive entertainment blockbusters I discussed in “The Pixar Lesson” are going to be as challenging as making a blockbuster Hollywood movie: only worse, because there’s already far fewer of them in a year than there are blockbuster Hollywood movies, and on top of that, the industry has no idea how to make a triple-A game cheaply, unlike Hollywood, which makes high-quality movies for low costs all the time.
This future of a surfeit of content is also a future where content is driven down in price, and that begs the question of how people make a living making content. The path of musicians is to get back on the road, get revenue directly from their tours, and bypass the moribund recording and publishing industries. The day of the troubadour is back.
The path of TV? Of movies? Of games? I have no idea. But it seems clear to me that rising content development costs are incompatible with nichification.
This is part of why we see veteran gamemakers moving to casual indie games on the Web, of course. The path for the arts in general, in which I include all forms of creation of entertainment, is gradually leading us back to the historical norm: the garret. Value will lie in performance, not in fixed recordings, just as the path for the indie musician lies in personal contact, grassroots audience-building, small concerts that hopefully lead to big concerts, and endless touring.
We’ve got two things to look forward to if this particular future comes true: lots of new innovative games coming from the gaming equivalent of John Keats or Michael Hedges; and lots of folks who have to make games on the side while they hold down a day job. And they’ll probably all have to blog like mad because what will sell will not be just the game, it’ll be the experience of the interaction with that content provider.
If there’s one thing that the Web makes possible, it’s enough content to make the typical content creator superfluous. Oh, plenty of people will be willing to play, read, or hear their content. The question isn’t whether they can find an audience — on the Internet, everyone can find an audience. No, the question is whether all forms of fixed content will effectively be donations to the common weal.