It is getting pretty hairy thinking about what it actually takes to be a musician or a songwriter in terms of this show Platinum Hit which I’m writing about for TWoP, which aired its finale on Friday, which makes me incredibly nervous because watching the sausage get made always makes me nervous when the sausage tends to look so much the same at the end. You watch these beautiful, smart individuals make their songs and you see the baby unicorn standing up, knees shaking, and you’re like, One day you will be sausage.
One day everything will sound like a Beyonce song or a Taylor Swift song, and we’ll love it but we’ll feel like we’re missing something, and that day was a few days ago. And since nobody is watching that show and thus nobody is reading the recaps, I thought I would bring a little bit of that over here, because the interesting part is what comes next: That there is a longer con at play, having to do with the fact that the term “Information Economy” is a contradiction in terms anyway.
Music, TV, movies and print are all dying because we’re in the middle of a movement away from physical objects, the scarcity and rarity of objects that you buy to own, and into the infinite abundance of information, because information wants to be free. If I give you a loaf of bread, I don’t have one now and you do. But if I tell you a story, then we both have the story and nobody’s lost anything. And once we went digital, that applies to all information.
So now you’ve got a temporary three-way split in the economy: The people who buy the object, the people who download the idea, and the people who steal it. (TV is a little different because that was always ad-supported, movies are a little different because we’ve fetishized them as physical objects, and books even moreso, but it’s all the same thing, content, in this model.) And just like CBS kills in the ratings despite having no internet presence, just like country and R&B are the bestselling genres, you have a situation where the only things that matter are the things people are willing to pay for, and at this point that’s only a scarcity of access. You’re only measuring the people who can’t figure out how to steal. (And of course the people who choose not to, because they appreciate art.)
But that’s fine, if you’re one of these industries, because these are the only people who are paying your rent. So the end result is that the industry itself gets smaller and smaller, funneling resources at every level toward the only things that will sell. Comic book movies, reboots of comic book movies, reboots of nostalgia-boner kid things are the only things that sell, so they become the only things that are offered for sale, so they continue to be the only things that sell.
But information is only getting slippier and more free, and our ways of getting them proliferate at an exponential rate, meaning that any information industry is at or past the point of peak oil: At some point, there has to be a replacement for DRM or bringing billion-dollar lawsuits against children who use Napster. When you’re only operating your dying industry in terms of the highest-selling units, you’re driving even more traffic off the grid entirely, because if you don’t particularly like songs that sound like Bruno Mars or Ryan Tedder wrote them, you’re going to turn off the radio because that’s all there is. In the short view, that’s the definition of success.
And it’s not a matter of cyclical, ups-and-downs, “recession economies create grunge revolutions” or any of those cultural lenses we’re used to using: This is an evolution of the entire concept of information delivery, of what art and commodification even mean, and dancing on the edge of that shit is scary as hell. Entertainment and information are the quintessential American exports, and it’s all predicated on a concept of scarcity that is already dead. There is no resurgence, there is no reconditioning, there is no way of coming back from that, because ones and zeroes have replaced physical objects.
In the short term, you’ve got to gather those rosebuds, which is what this show is about. It’s a historical record of the last days of disco. But in the long term, it’s next to useless to even look at it in terms of the industries themselves, because they are not the point. After this part of the process, the next stage is micropayments — which we’re already there, studying the top iTunes downloads, which is the middle tier of people still willing to pay at all — and social networking to build artists’ brands. But those are stopgap measures too, because after peak oil nobody knows what the hell you’re going to do.
In order to keep from being the next Flint Michigan, LA needs to talk to the boys up north about how to monetize ones and zeroes in a way that doesn’t feel like an Orwell novel, but that won’t happen because they’re still making the money. There’s no reason for them to be scared about any of this, as long as there’s a Scotty or a Sonyae willing to sell their unicorn to squeeze out another year in the black.
Because that’s not the only kind of scarcity that’s dying. On the artist side, you’re also talking about scarcity of access to production equipment, access to broadcast, access to marketing, access to eyeballs and earholes. And now that writing a song or performing a song or making a beautiful video and then getting it talked about is as simple as uploading it to YouTube, it’s all just noise. The business model that pays off other industry people to get access to those eyeballs is dying just as fast, because there is no way to apply normal business models to the abundance of attention that is possible for a talented artist with a computer.
Our conversation is so lost in this idea of loops and trends — linking the sale of iTunes singles back to the 78s of yore, linking singer-songwriters of today back to the Brill Building — that it’s hard, maybe impossible, to see an off-ramp. You assume that because everything looks the same that it is the same, and you look to history to explain it and lead the way into the future. But this isn’t a cyclical development, it’s a radical departure — not to say “singularity” — that challenges every single one of those assumptions, because you’re still putting a price on something that is already free.
The arrow is pointing toward a meritocracy, in which rising above the noise is as simple as making a quality product and working for the traffic and interest that validate it. Monetize that — witness YouTube partnerships, Kickstarter projects, etc. — and you’ll beat the monster and get paid for your art. And right now that looks incredibly depressing, like a farmer’s market or barter system, like Etsy for musicians, like weird self-published romance novels, like sad low-budge derivative web sitcoms.
That’s how every art starts, because more people want to say something than really have something to say, but at this moment it can look like the apocalypse happened and we didn’t even notice.
Which is precisely what happened. But you can’t expect the dinosaur to rebuild itself or reconfigure or fall apart into a brand new beautiful day: You build your new machine in the cage of its bones.