The Medium Is the Message or: how Internet killed the video star (and a lot of others)

“They took the credit for your second symphony
 Rewritten by machine on new technology
 And now I understand the problems you can see
 I met your children
 What did you tell them?
– “Video Killed the Radio Star“, The Buggles

Sometimes we take for granted just how much technology has transformed our world. Perhaps it is because day-to-day we don’t really see these changes manifest themselves in dramatic ways. It’s a steady drip, drip, drip – a new iPhone here, a crowdfunding platform there – and before we know it the rules of how things get done in our world have fundamentally changed.

However, every once in awhile that steady drip of change wears away the bedrock enough that something breaks off and we get a clearer glimpse into the future. For me last week I had one of those moments, and it was sparked by an email from a comedian.

But let’s back up first. Way back to August 1, 1981 – when I was just barely 2 months old – and the launch of an new television network: MTV. Playfully, and perhaps prophetically, the first video ever aired on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles (there is a great bit of archival footage at this link of the first 8 1/2 minutes of MTV’s inaugural broadcast including The Buggles music video). As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, the medium is the message. And the birth of MTV did in fact herald a turning point in a new relationship between the producers and consumers of music. What for generations before was something that had a primarily auditory connection – be it radio, vinyl, 8-Track, or cassette – it was now equally part of a visual medium as well. And while that had major implications for how the consumers of music experience it, the implications on the producers of music were equally if not more profound. To become a music star, simply being a talented musician was no longer enough. You needed movie star good looks, or at the very least a movie star quality special effects team. The visual was arguably now as important as the audio. Moreover, to make it big you suddenly needed access to a video studio, video producers, and a means of video distribution – which in the 1980s for practical purposes meant getting a record label to broker a deal with a TV channel. In short, the music industry and all of its associated “rules” had changed and, importantly, the art form itself had evolved into something different in the process. Perhaps for better, perhaps for worse – but there was no going back.

Now lets skip forward to 2016. In the intervening 34 1/2 years, technology has made the world a very different place. Today from a device in my pocket that costs a few hundred dollars I can access essentially the collective knowledge of the human race, including virtually every book, song, image, movie, and television show ever produced. From that same device I can take pictures and record video and audio of better quality than anything that was available to consumers when I was growing up, and then send that picture, video, or audio to anyone, anywhere in the world, with a press of a button for essentially free. I can broadcast video and audio live to individual people or large groups, either one-directionally where they simply watch (think YouTube) or multi-directionally where they can interact with me in real-time either through video, audio, or text (think Skype or Periscope). I can receive money from people anywhere in the world, instantly and securely, through online platforms that both they and I can access at home, at work, riding in a car, or hiking in the woods (think PayPal or Amazon). And if those people like what they hear, see, or read, they can send it to everyone they know via a social networking platform with another push of a button from anywhere, at anytime (think Twitter or Facebook). All of this is still with just the smartphone in my pocket. If I want to lay down a few thousand dollars – not insignificant funds but less than say the cost of a decent used car – I can buy a laptop computer with the hardware and software needed to process and edit audio-visual content roughly on par with professional studios. For a few thousand more, I can get the equipment needed to record video and audio content of quality also roughly on par with those same studios, and certainly of high enough quality to satisfy all but the most discerning of potential consumers whom are increasingly going to likely be consuming that content via a small screen in their hands and a small speaker in their ears.

In short, the cost – both in terms of dollars and time/effort – of producing, distributing, and (importantly) getting paid for creative content is rapidly approaching a number that is effectively close enough to zero to be a non-factor. Increasingly the only real barrier to entry is inspiration, talent, hard-work, and vision…you know, the small stuff.

In his 2013 book “The End of Big“, Nicco Mele talked about this very phenomenon when it comes to creative professionals. He described a model made possible by the Internet and the technologies I describe above, where to make a comfortable living through producing creative content (say in the ballpark of $100k per year) instead of needing to go through a large distributor where you get a cut of 10 cents per consumer of your content and thus need to reach 1 million people (or transactions) a year, you can instead produce something that 1000 people love enough that they will give you $100 a year (which is coincidentally almost exactly what a Netflix subscription costs). This is a relatively simple idea that changes the economics behind art and the creative process. It literally was not possible to do at scale until just the past few years when technology crossed some undefined threshold of capability and cost that opened up these new fronteirs. And as with the birth of MTV, whenever an art form leaps to a new medium, it not just changes how we consume the art but it changes the nature of the art itself.

Back to the email from the comedian. Louis C.K. to be specific (in my opinion perhaps the funniest man alive, and maybe even one of the smartest). Aside from being acclaimed for his comedy, over the past few years Louis C.K. has also become known for the enetrapruneral ways in which he has used technology to bring his art to the masses. He actually came onto my radar in late 2011 when he launched one of his first big experiments of this type. Instead of the usual way of getting a new comedy special out (think HBO), he decided that for his next one he would film and produce it himself and make it available via his website for a flat $5 fee. It’s not cheap to produce a broadcast quality comedy special – he pegged the production costs of “Live at the Beacon Theater” at around $250,000 – but still reasonable enough that ticket sales alone in a 2,500+ seat theatre like Beacon could cover the majority of production costs. But the real innovation was on the distribution side, as it broke new ground to produce a professional A-list comedy special that had a direct-to-consumer business model. It is no accident that it took until 2011 for this to happen as it required (at least) three big technological innovations to reach the mainstream to enable it: high-speed internet access; high quality video playback software/hardware in consumer grade computers; reliable and easy to use online payment systems. He also made a very interesting choice (some may say a gamble) to make the access to the material as simple for the consumer as possible by putting no technological copyright protections into the files. It was a gamble because this decision made it much easier for people to distribute the material to those who haven’t paid for it, but he described his reasons as such:

“To those who might wish to “torrent” this video: look, I don’t really get the whole “torrent” thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way. But I’d just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without “corporate” restrictions.

Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I’m just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can’t stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way.”

Turns out that against all the prevailing conventional wisdom it paid off. Big time. Within 12 days of releasing the comedy special on his website he had brought in over $1 million. Not bad for a little web video.

Fast forward 4 years and 1 month. January 30th I get an email with the title “A brand new thing from Louis C.K.”. It was a simple four line email that read as follows:

Hi there.

Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.

Go here to watch it.

We hope you like it.

Regards,

Louis

What is “Horace and Pete”? Well it turns out that Louis had been working in secret on a new, self-financed project, which through his January 30th email to the presumably tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands?) of people subscribed to his email list he dropped onto the world. It’s not standup comedy. It’s not a movie, and it’s not really a TV show either (at a 67min run time, the first episode falls somewhere between TV show length and feature film length). Probably the best descriptor for the feel of it in terms of both visuals and pacing is like watching a stage play.

It also bears some resemblance to watching live theater in another way: immediacy. It isn’t “live” per say, but it also doesn’t feel like a usual TV show with weeks/months of production or a movie with months/years of production. It was released on Saturday, January 30th and references events that will happen two days in the future (Iowa caucuses) and events that happened two days in the past (Trump skipping the Iowa Republican debate). It’s “live-ish”.

But perhaps the most striking thing about watching Horace and Pete is that Louis C.K. let us experience something that we almost never get to in our modern publicity filled, media saturation environment: the novelty of surprise. As he said in his own words in his follow-up email a few days after its release:

Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeing that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.

So if you’ve made it this far and are still reading 2,000 words into this blog post (congratulations!) you may about now be asking yourself: what exactly is your point here Ryan? Good question. It’s three things I think:

  1. Sometime in the past 5 years or so we’ve crossed a threshold where a lot of the disruptions to how things get done in what I will call “the creative industry” have actually started to manifest in a real way. Real in that we are not just talking about people in their basements making funny cat videos that go viral on YouTube, but rather world-class artists starting engage in projects in the order of magnitude of 6 to 7 figures using novel business models and creative processes (a non-Louis C.K. example: the Veronica Mars movie that was produced by raising over $5.7 million from 91k+ backers on Kickstarter).
  2. All of this is only possible because the advancements of necessary technologies reached a certain level of sophistication and adoption. Sure we’ve been able to watch video on the internet and make online payments since the 1990s (for example, PayPal’s money transfer service launched in 1999). But it took these three trends – internet bandwidth, video processing and display power, and online payment systems – almost two decades to reach maturity.
  3. That same technological maturity has also now reached a point where it is changing the art form itself. The medium IS the message. This isn’t just about watching a TV show in a new, more convenient way (think Netflix). The fact that increasingly people can become an active participant in the creative process – not just passive consumers of the end product – can allow for novel new hybrid forms of artistic expression. We can experience something different, not just experience something differently, because of technological advancement.

To belabour that last point for a moment, this blog post isn’t just about the fact that Louis C.K. has put together a live-ish, TV show-ish type thing that you can buy off his website for $5. It is that this is the tip of the iceberg of new ways of creating, distributing, and financing creative content which is starting to produce whole new types of entertainment. Just a few examples that have come across my radar in recent months which may give some hint to the many paths this could take:

  • Platforms like Patreon which provide the ability for content creators to receive regular subscription income from their fans. For example, the brilliant Wait But Why? blog (which was the inspiration for my Life Calendar project) now receives over $12,000 a month via Patreon. It’s a fascinating example of a non-advertising, non-paywall based business model for a blog.
  • Twitch is a website that primarily is used for video-game fans to watch other video-game fans play video games, and (sometimes) pay them for the pleasure of doing so. On the surface it sounds like an absurd idea: why on earth would you want to watch someone else play a video game, let alone pay to watch someone else play a video game? Yet there are Twitch channels that have 100,000s of followers, with popular channel creators able to make a living based off subscriptions or “tips” that you leave through the website (product sponsorship/placement deals seem to be common too for the most popular ones). These range from standard video game playthroughs (e.g. “PartiallyRoyal” whom has 60k+ followers on his Twitch channel, 400k+ subscribers to his YouTube channel, and whom I am giving this hat-tip to as I ended up spending a lot of time watching his Fallout 4 videos when I was flat on my back in November recovering from my back injury and in need of a distraction from the pain. It worked.) to the esoteric such as Grandma Shirley (a 79-year old grandmother with over 100k+ subscribers on her YouTube channel. Watching her play video games is an adorably unexpected treat.) and the “pianoimproman” with 180k+ Twitch followers of his madcap piano improv stylings.
  • The Smule Sing! Karaoke app takes the experience of karaoke, adds in some auto-tuning technology to make even the worst singer sound at least somewhat half-decent, and then allows people to sing together with other karaoke enthusiasts across the world. Perhaps most interestingly, they have started partnering with popular artists such as Jessie J and Carly Rae Jepsen to allow fans to sing karaoke duets with them (not in real-time per say, but it is still a unique new way to engage with fans in a more personal way).

Our generation gets to witness, and shape, an evolution in art and entertainment. That’s something…well…pretty cool. I won’t pretend to know where this all ends up, nor will I pretend that this will necessarily all be sunshine and rainbows. As just one example of a potential storm cloud on the horizon, these same technological advancements that lower the barriers to entry of distributing content also can further contribute to fragmentation of media consumption. What is the impact on society when we have fewer and fewer truly shared experiences, and indeed increasingly only are exposed to ideas that already conform with our existing world-view and biases? The short answer is that it probably isn’t good.

However, as a relentless optimist I will end this with saying that on balance I am reasonably hopefully that the new opportunities for expression and sharing being opened up will be a net positive. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot in recent months as one of the side projects I am pursuing in earnest right now will take advantage of some of these trends to hopefully create something fairly unique to capture and preserve some of my ancestor’s cultural and spiritual heritage and practices (more details to come in a few weeks).

Moral of the story: Go forth and create. There has never been a better (or easier) time in human history to tell your story.

3 thoughts on “The Medium Is the Message or: how Internet killed the video star (and a lot of others)

  1. Great post, Ryan. A pleasure to read.

    I remember when Radiohead came out with their “in rainbows” album in 2007. It was similar to what you describe for the comedian’s work. Just that Radiohead asked you to pay what you want for a DRM-free download. I think I paid £4 or £5, many people around me had a hard time understanding why I paid at all given the option not to.

    Anyway, I remember most creative industries analysts thought it was a bad idea, that people would pay nothing, torrent it, etc. Since it was audio-only the technology barriers for free-riding were lower too, probably similar to video today, maybe just a bit higher. Also, it was said that you could only afford to do such a thing as an established artist, ie. this move would not benefit upcoming artists.

    Many tech industry analysts, on the other hand, thought of it as the dawning of a new day in music making and distribution. I was researching digital content at that time and certainly felt the dominance of technology optimism whenever I read a new opinion piece from a tech analyst.

    As so often reality fell somewhere in between. It seems most people did pay nothing, so commercial success was low. And neither did artists the world over start giving away music for free the next day. It did not revolutionise music breakthroughs either.

    Yet it was a precursor to what we have today: flat-rate music subscriptions à la Spotify & Deezer, closer feedback loops between artists and consumers already in the conception phase thanks to crowdfunding, more engaging relationships through social and especially visual media. It just started earlier for music than for filmed content due to tech & prices as you say in the post.

    What I am less sure about is “the end of big” and the end of shared media culture. I haven’t read that book but I think I follow the idea. And I certainly see the fragmentation of media consumption you talk about. But then again, you immersed in Fallout 4, a multi-million blockbuster game. Shows like House of Cards are watched and talked about by millions. And I heard yesterday’s Super Bowl was watched by 100mn people in the US alone – to the sound of industry majors Beyoncé, Coldplay & Lady Gaga.

    I don’t think we will see the end of big anytime soon in the creative industries. But yes, surely we will see ever more possibilities to produce and consume high-quality small production. And on this I definitely look forward to hearing & seeing from your project on ancestral knowledge!

    Arthur
    @arturelis

    • Thanks Arthur for the thoughtful comments! Great example on the Radiohead album, I had forgotten about that one.

      On the “end of big” argument, I take your point and had been thinking about exactly what you point out re: there still being blockbuster-type content (the new Star Wars movies being another good example). Two thoughts on this:

      1) Because “Big” is in decline, doesn’t mean that its products will be worse. In fact the opposite could be argued. There is a brilliant bit of dialogue from an early 1990s movie called “Other People’s Money” which is from a very different context but I always think is very relevant to digital issues: “You know, at one time there must’ve been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw.” :-) It’s worth watching the whole clip if you have a minute: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62kxPyNZF3Q

      2) Even for those big entertainment moments which are still consumed by the masses, I get the sense that even then people are experiencing and reacting to it in a more fragmented way because often they are experiencing it through the lens of a “second screen” (i.e. social media commentary on the live event). Let’s take the Super Bowl as an example. I watched it and thought the half-time show was solidly entertaining. I have since found out that seemingly significant numbers of people: a) viscerally hate Coldplay and thought they did an awful job; b) thought that Beyonce’s performance had an anti-police message; c) thought the choice of colours in the stadium had a pro-LGBT agenda to it. Maybe certain people would have had these same reactions without the amplification of their social-media echo chambers, but personally I doubt it.

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