Image: Paul Joseph, Flickr

One of the things we help our clients do is reframe their perspective on their business. As we tell clients, we can never have the depth of their institutional knowledge, but by coming in with an (educated) outsider’s perspective, we can help them uncover their hidden assumptions and biases, and move past these biases to more productive innovation.

I was thinking about this as I was listening to a story on NPR about the recording industry. Music was the first entertainment/media sector to be seriously gutted by the Internet and digital media. Other entertainment sectors—books, movies, tv—all view the music industry as a cautionary digital tale and are working hard to avoid making the same mistakes. But faced with the sweeping changes brought by Internet disintermediation, some in the business still can’t shake their old frames. In a story about how the Internet makes it easier for artists to record music and sell directly to customers, comes this quote from Neil Jacobson, an executive with record label Interscope:

If you want to be a great brand ideally you’re relevant to the masses. And getting to the masses now is harder than it’s ever been, there’s just so many places you have to get.

In the middle of an article on the future of the recording industry, and how the Internet is creating new and myriad opportunities for artists to market and sell their music directly to consumer, Jacobson is arguing that artists need record companies to reach all the new opportunities the Internet has created. Clearly Jacobson can’t get beyond his assumption that artists need labels, and has turned the freedoms offered by the Internet on their head, making them a need for labels, not a means to ditch them.

Another piece on NPR’s Planet Money blog help put paid to Jacobson’s notion that artists need labels. It features the story of Jonathon Coulton, who moved to New York 20 years ago to become a musician, but settled into a career in software programming instead. Now, because of the Internet, he is selling his songs and gaining a critical reputation and popular following. And while he is not earning U2 money, the $500,000 he has earned has been a pleasant surprise.

Our job as futurists is to help our clients see the future, unburdened by the outdated frameworks of the past. Whether or not artists still need labels is debatable (and other people in the initial story make stronger arguments for labels), but the music industry—and every industry—doesn’t need thinking that tries to bend the future to the past.

3 Responses to “The Danger of the Closed Mind”

  1. Adam says:

    I’ve followed the publishing industry much more closely than the music industry, but the publishing industry does have its equivalent of the record label–the publishing houses.

    I used to believe that the internet was going to make publishers and record labels utterly irrelevant, but I’ve slowly come to a different point of view.

    Take the example of Amanda Hocking. Early this year it seemed like every blog interested in new media and publishing was talking about her, and how successful she had been selling her titles directly through the Kindle store. The story was told from the “indie writers on the web vs. traditional publishing houses” angle again and again. I mean, here we had a writer making six and sometimes seven figures off of books without going through any intermediary (other than the retailer, Amazon).

    Hocking for her part never liked the story being told that way–and discouraged people from hating on the publishing houses.

    Then, that very month, she signed a book deal with a publishing house. Turns out, even in a world where she could make millions by selling her books directly, publishing houses still had something of value to offer her.

    The number one thing that they gave her is more time to write. As a self-published writer, most of her time was spent on non-writing activities–before taking the publishing deal, she wrote:

    This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me.

    So even if she makes less money per book with her publisher, they will take care of the editing and the marketing, which will give her time to write more books than she would have–so she may end up ahead financially. Even if she doesn’t, just getting more leisure time is probably worth the deal.

    So I do think there will probably be a role for things like publishing houses and record labels in the future, they just won’t serve the same function that they have traditionally, because we don’t need them to make physical objects anymore. Creative industries will be kind of like baseball–there’ll be a ton of people who aren’t making a dime, then a kind of “minor league” of professional independent artists who are making enough to make a living; of the latter, the more successful will end up getting picked up by intermediaries and going “major league”.

  2. Christopher Kent says:

    Adam–

    Good points all, and it dovetails with something I was going to follow up on today re: my last two posts, DIY vs Vanity Press. Specifically, why is it okay and encouraged in the music industry to self-publish (and joining a label or publisher seen as ‘selling out’) while in the publishing industry, vanity publishing is looked at as suspect? The publishing houses have done a good job of instilling in consumers and critics the idea that they are arbiters of quality. Whereas in music, it seems that reaching an audience on one’s own is a chief mark of quality.

    Anyway, my intent in this post was not to definitively weigh in one way or the other on the relative merits of whether their needs to be music labels, but rather highlight, in the face of evidence showing otherwise, that old, close-minded thinking can be tenacious, and detrimental.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Adam says:

    It certainly can be, and there’s no doubt that a lot of the old intermediaries have proven particularly bad at adjusting to the times.

    I look forward to the followup post!

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