Good Enough To Pay For

Entertainment has always been available for free. The street corner musician. The traveling actors troupe. The [*shudder*] the mime. The “digital revolution” doesn’t represent a change so much as a return to the way things used to be.

You know, where your only entertainment options were what was directly in front of you and you had little to no control over how good it was.

There are many file sharing sites today where musicians—struggling or no—can post their works where the understanding is people can download them for free, and have an option to pay what they wish if they think it worthy.  This used to be called “passing the hat,” where a performer’s hat was literally passed through the crowd and people could contribute what they wished. Or not. You were interested enough to stay through to the end, and this is probably how they’re going to pay for their next meal, so you throw in a couple coins. Perhaps out of guilt. You see, they’re standing right there.

Fortunately you’re spared that guilt hiding behind your keyboard.

But what if they’re not any good? What if they’re more annoying than anything else? What if they’re just a couple of guys who can acceptably carry a tune (and it’s always the same tune, isn’t it?) as stroll through the subway car with their hands out? It’s certainly better than the ones who simply walk through with their hands out with nothing besides guilt to offer in return.

What if you want to hear something enjoyable? What if there’s no cello player at your train stop? No saxophonist near your car park? No one playing guitar outside your office? Of course you’d be willing to pay for it, but again, only for the good ones. How much effort are you willing to put in searching for it? How much crap are you willing to sift through to find something you like? So you need a middle man—someone to match your need to be entertained with an entertainer. A good one. You need a curator. And they expect to be compensated.

You pay the guy who owns the space for performers to perform because he’s done the work of getting performers that people will pay to see. The record company determines which musicians people will pay to listen to. The record store decides which albums go the shelves. The radio station picks which songs people will sit through advertising to hear. It’s worth their while to curate—to find the good stuff—because you’ll take your money elsewhere if you don’t get what you like.

And so we have the commercialization of Art. It’s now a Thing You Can Sell™.

Unfortunately there’s power in being the one who collects the box office receipts. Hence the stereotype of the cheap theater owner paying a pittance to performers; the ruthless record producer entrapping musicians with crippling contracts; the sleazy studio executive ripping off writers. Even the sanctimonious publisher, self-appointed arbiter of quality.

Walk into a book store (the ones that are left) and look at the staggering number of books. Then just try to imagine the even more staggering number of submitted manuscripts for every one that eventually gets published. There’s a running gag in Hollywood that you can walk up to virtually any random stranger and ask, “how’s your screenplay coming?” and they’ll tell you. Even the best-written screenplay needs teams of people to produce into a film. Now, thanks to the internet and the democratization power of technology, anyone can “publish.”

You want something to read? Oh, there is no shortage of things to read, no matter what your tastes are. But how much of it is any good? And how much crap do you want to wade through to find it?

Oh, I’m sure there are just as many people who enjoy Twilight fan fiction as there are who enjoy checking out whatever bands happen to be playing locally. OK, maybe not that many. But I know people who prefer independent film to major studio releases; people who’d much rather sit and listen to who ever is playing at a local jazz club than the homogeneous drone of pop radio; people who’d rather crack open Charles Dickens again than read about Swedish girls getting tattoos and playing with things., a retailer, has decided to get into the publishing game. Personally I find that laughable. They had better do a damned good job of curating talent if they want to be taken seriously. You can find good books on Amazon, but going to Amazon doesn’t mean you’ll find a good book. Anyone can publish anything on Amazon. I can publish a book on Amazon. I can publish this on Amazon. But Amazon isn’t betting they’ll make any money selling my inane ramblings. No, if I want to be published on Amazon I have to pay them.

But what happens when it’s no longer a Thing You Can Sell™? Look at porn. OK, let me rephrase that—let’s use the Adult Entertainment industry as an example. How do you continue to charge for your wares when you’re competing with every third co-ed with a web cam, coupled with everything you’ve ever produced—everything you’ve paid to produce, paying models, camera and lighting people, lawyers, et al.—repeated endlessly across Tumblr, for free? When you figure it out, tell someone who works in porn. You’ll make millions.

Playboy, the long time gold standard of the Naked Chick™ industry, has decimated its staff over the past few years. Hemorrhaging cash, they exist for the sake of nostalgia. Like the music industry found out, it’s a lot harder to charge for something that’s available for free almost everywhere.

Turns out, it’s the producers, the manufacturers, that end up hurting—the theater owners, record companies, publishers—and it’s those producers from whom people feel most comfortable and rationalize it’s OK stealing. The creators? Well, it’s not like too many of them were terribly well off any way. You’ve at least heard of them, which is better than the obscurity they were plucked from.

If those companies want to survive they have to shift gears from producing talent to curating it. I don’t mind paying a cover charge if I know the band’s going to be good.

It’s not a ripple, it’s a wake

[what follows is a reposting from the FOLIO: MedioPRO
social networking site:]

That was the tag line in my response to someone’s question here. The question was about whether or not the current (euphemistically named) “economic downturn” was affecting our industry.

My first response was, “you don’t work in this business, do you?”

In the news today was notice that McCann Erickson was laying off 3% of the company, and Playboy was essentially closing its NY production offices (“’a small number’ of licensing, editorial and other publishing positions” would relocate to Chicago – the positions, mind you, not necessarily the people who currently hold them).

That was just this morning. That was just New York City.

My magazine folded and I was laid off a week before my wedding. It was, at the time, one of the better things to happen to me.* It was less than three and a half years ago.

*(Getting laid off, I mean, not the wedding. Not that getting married wasn’t great – it was – it was better. Please don’t show this to my wife.)

I would have been closing an issue right up until the big day. They were doing me a favor. In addition to offering me (as I remember) 3 months’ severance, they gave me the option of the job I currently hold. There were a slew of freelance opportunities to be had. My choices were steady income for a little while, and the opportunity to make money on top of that, or back at work on Monday. No one faulted me for choosing the former.

It afforded me the opportunity to work at a few other, big name titles, to meet and get to know more people in the business, to see how everyone else does things. What did it teach me? 1) that I really do know what I’m doing (though I remain terribly insecure); 2) there are many people I still need to learn a lot from; and 3) this business is really small – everyone knows everyone else.

Of the people I know that do what I do, many of them are happy to be getting a regular paycheck – the ones that are getting one. People I used to freelance for are now freelancing themselves, some less than they’d like. A temp agency I once dealt with years ago at my last job (I hired one person for a few weeks who wasn’t terribly talented) is now calling me monthly, in the vain hope that someone may have fallen under a bus (perish the thought!) and I might have an open position. The job posting boards that were all Production, Production and Production, long enough after I accepted my current job to make me wonder if I’d made the right choice, now only list the occasional Photo Researcher. (I had a kid on the way, and a regular check and health insurance seemed a good idea.)

Our printer laid off more than 500 people while I was at one of their plants two weeks ago. There were whole football field-sized rooms of presses not running. It is no longer a matter of performance, but of cost cutting. That’s why many people like me are scared. No one wants to be rendered redundant.

Not just redundant, but irrelevant.

While freelancing, I turned my nose up at jobs that needed an “expert” with Quark 4 on Mac OS 9 – both of which I am, but who wants more experience with those skills on a résumé? Now I’m in a similar position, but on the other side of the fence. See, we just got the Adobe CS2 suite last year. Yes, CS2. And yes, CS4 is entering into the work stream now. Every tip, trick and how-to site I frequent is now rife with gushing reports on the new CS4 features, though they’re still full of their mainstay CS3 solutions. Solutions, many of which, I can’t use, because I don’t use that version every waking minute. Once the go-to guy, the guru, the expert, now I’m the one with the disadvantaged skill set.

(I’m not even going to mention all of the software I’m getting to make my job easier that doesn’t work on my OS X 10.3 system. Nope, not going to mention it at all.)

While my particular title is doing well, the company just laid off 100 people just before the holidays. As much as I’ve convinced everyone there’s tremendous benefits to upgrading that go beyond bolstering my skill set, they’ve stated they have no current plans to do so.

Of course, all of this assumes we’re printing anything on paper in the next 10 years. They’re already talking about the “Death of the Newspaper” like they were talking about Obama being president back in October.

I’m not adverse to change. I went to school for film, got a degree in English, got a job in video post production, which turned into web production, which turned into rebuilding servers, which, naturally, lead to a job doing page layout. The universe has always pointed the way for me in the past to get me to where I am now (not too shabby, so far) so I guess I’m looking for the sign post that’s going to tell me what new skills to pick up and which to drop. It’s not that I don’t want to move, just that all my stuff is here, and I know I can’t take all of it with me (especially as I’ll likely be moving to a cheaper place).

So, tell me, what’s the next big thing? Better minds than mine are still climbing all over themselves trying to figure that out.

I’ve thought about teaching. You know, if you can’t beat ’em, train ’em. I really do enjoy sharing what I know (sometimes even with people who don’t care to know it). One thing there’s still no shortage of is schools churning out scores of youngsters ready to apply for my job – people with no kids or mortgages who can move on to the next industry the way I used to move on to the next bar.

My dad used to have a bumper sticker that read, “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.” Maybe it’s time I start playing dirty.

Published in: on January 23, 2009 at 3:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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