Saturday, 29 March 2008

What Coldplay can teach the media star

The music industry is a little further on in the digital revolution than the press.

In the music industry, the major labels' struggles to stay profitable, and relevant, are more desperate than those in the newspaper industry.

Some of their major stars are deciding that they don't need the publishing and promotion services of the label.

Many labels are deciding they can't support acts that don't bring home the bacon.

Many acts are deciding that the MySpace/YouTube route to a public is the one for them.

Consumers, who used to shell out for physical products, are much less willing to do so. Increasingly, they buy (or otherwise acquire) a track or two electronically.

Even performers who have been selling millions of CDs - and some who continue to do so - are questioning whether music can be sold at all.

We don't know how all this is going to shake down yet, but we do know that things are becoming more granular.

Individual tracks by individual artists come to individual listeners' attention through the web. Those listeners browse around, pick up recommendations from others, get passed clips that online friends think they might like, and develop their own, often idiosyncratic webs of consumption.

Has all of this any relevance at all to the humble - or not so humble - hack?

I ask because I found myself recently talking to a room of writers who - in newspaper terms - are the equivalent of the big acts on EMI or any of the others now-shaky monoliths of the music industry.

Although it didn't seem to have occurred to most of them, their relationships with their publishers could be undergoing a sea change.

Let's start from the consumer end. Consumers of news, opinion, analysis, comment and debate are also beginning to take a much more granular approach to that consumption.

Where once most readers had a daily newspaper that provided their main source of news and comment now - online - they can pick and choose from the full range of available publications as widely and as often as they like.

Most publications have a handful of big names - their Coldplays and Madonnas - whose names sell many copies of that newspaper or magazine.

Ask any loyal reader why they buy a publication and they'll usually tell you that, apart from liking the general politics, tone, image etc of it, they love to read X or Y or Z.

Now they can have X,Y and Z without buying the physical product, and also browse around all the other letters of the star-writer alphabet, irrespective of where they are published - and for free.

My room full of Coldplays and Madonnas - I can't tell you their names because we were under the Chatham House rule - were unconvinced. They could not envisage a time when they would not need their publisher to pay them, distribute them and give them a platform.

But then an editor present mentioned a big star who wasn't there and who is creating their own website, independent of their trad media publisher.

This person is easily better known than the paper he writes for. The assembled print celebs were quick to point out that there was one rule for megastars, another for mere stars like them.

So maybe only the really big stars can break loose from their labels?

What it comes down to is money. The writers want paying. The newspapers have the deep pockets. I've blogged before on the subject of a payment system that might possibly square this particular circle, so I won't go over that again now.

Instead I'll concentrate on the question of a publishing platform, which was the reason all those stars had been brought together.

Alternative ways of finding the stars are being developed all the time. Almost any blog offers such a platform, with its links to people the writer thinks his or her readers would be interested in.

Some platforms - such as Arts and Letters - are very good at linking to a wide range of writers that its audience may not have heard of but who they will find interesting. It also provides a one-stop-shop for those looking for opinion and comment of a particular kind. The audience knows that they can keep tabs on several dozen prominent writers who are published in a score of different trad media outlets, by coming to this one place.

Such aggregating sites perform a valuable service in bypassing the online versions of trad media and gathering writing of a particular kind under one roof.

All the reader needs to do is find the roof that is right for them

And that strikes me as the alternative publishing platform that will work in future for the many stars and less-than-stars who currently can't eat without a media mogul's path to market.

I was struck by a comment on Mindy McAdams's blog about why newspapers still have a future. She was quoting a retiring journalism professor who said: "The hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Citizens can do their own hunting and gathering on the Internet. What they need is somebody to add value to that information by processing it — digesting it, organizing it, making it usable."

That's what the new breed of online, aggregating publishers are beginning to do.

Now, if I was sitting in a big leather chair in a multinational media company, I'd see if I couldn't do it too - only better. It's a bit like Sainsbury's getting into farmers markets.

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