“I Produce, I Consume, therefore I am…” – The Complexity of Media Consumption, Predictability and Risk Assessment

On November 10, 2011

This week’s readings are from Mark Deuze (Media Work) and Keith Negus (Music Genres and Corporate Cultures) on the interconnections between the workplace and our personal lives and how the cycle of production and consumption is converging on so many aspects of our everyday lives. They also discussed the implications of corporate intervention in the media industries.

Many of us take everyday media for granted. The digital revolution has made access to media such as music, games and films easy, and the rise of home computing and the internet has offered us a streamlined connection to it. This has brought big business into play and has created a much tighter corporate structure around the creative industries. How does an industry historically based on creativity, fickle consumer trends and risk taking suddenly become constrained by formulated corporate analysis and predictions?

To discuss this, we have to look first at the way we consumed then and the way we consume now. Before the late 1990s, consumption of media was generally in two forms: a physical medium (a CD, a newspaper, a video tape) or a broadcast (TV, radio, cinema). Our means of distributing media, be it creative or news journalism, were restricted by the technology at hand. With the popularity of the gramophone and home playback devices during the 1920s, a means of media production, sales and consumption was born. This industrial process was encouraged not solely by those involved in the music industry, but also by those involved in consumer electronics. EMI (Electric and Music Industries) was initially rival companies Columbia Gramophone and The Gramophone company. Sony is famous for its electronic products today, but its conception was via the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo company, famous for its work developing transistor radios. Sony (alongside Phillips) were also industries leaders in format creation, creating the CD, MiniDisc, DVD and Blueray.  

For these companies, controlling the production (music, film, games, etc.) as well as the means of its consumption (technology) was a no-brainer. Essentially, the large firms became responsible for the output of much of the commercial media, releasing it on formats requiring the purchasing of hardware goods. Their earnings from the music industry itself were minor in comparison to their other business ventures, but as technology improved, consumption increased and so did the need for production. Personal playback devices became the norm with the introduction of the Sony Walkman; cars began to have stereos built in as standard and eventually the consumption of media began to invade many more aspects of our personal lives. 

With the introduction of the CD in the early 1980s, the physical format shifted from the analogue domain to the digital. The move was significant and eventually lead to increased issues with piracy due to the ease in which they could be duplicated and later ripped and shared using the new household commodity of the home computer and the introduction of the internet. New means of digital distribution began to emerge and online enterprise drove innovation. This gave greater power to the consumer and meant distribution was not only driven by marketing through advertisement and airplay, but by virtual “word of mouth”. Huge digital libraries began to grow, some by legal means such as iTunes, some by illegal, such as Napster. Organising large personal collections became simpler, and they could even be carried around in your pocket with mp3 players such as Apple’s iPod. Like Deuze (p.15) describes, technology began to aid organisation and allowed people to consume all the time (p.30). People were given new ways to gather and consume, as well as share and discuss, outside the traditional controls on the mainstream media. 

Although much power was given to the consumer in regards to choice, the personal computer became the proverbial “Trojan Horse” (Deuze p.37) for other services to invade the home and become new tools in distribution. YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Twitter, Facebook – all these services give us ways to consume as we have discussed, but they now give the public their own ways to distribute and socialise. These businesses tap into a seemingly un-endless stream of creativity, made up of millions of contributors. Giving the public the ability to upload their talent has enabled them to become part of the industrial process of creation rather than just being for consumption. This is effectively free labour for media sites which encourage people to put their creative works online. 

The convergence of technology to amend this cycle of creation and consumption has also lead to new means of networking around particular media. Content has birthed many online communities (Deuze p.76). World of Warcraft is an example of a MMORPG creating not only a devout following but an interacting community that generates ongoing revenue through subscriptions and in-game purchasing. Facebook and Myspace were driven by sharing personal information, media such as music and video and linking to articles and news stories which may be interesting to those in their social circle. This networked socialising has also allowed for greater data analysis of web statistics, also known as web analytics. This data has become a valued commodity and is a main stream of income for companies such as Facebook. The data we share and the media we watch becomes a statistic, which in turn drives decision making for those companies who purchase that information or focus on a demographic of interest. 

This form of statistical analysis comes to suit the more historically recent corporate structure of the industry. Trends can be analysed and so can their consumption. Although sitels like Google Analytics can give out basic information on visitors, sites like Next Big Sound give comparative data to other artists and also work off social media network trends.  Labels can assess risks with data relating to demographic, locations where the artist may be popular (through popular view counts and sharing in that country) and by what medium their fanbase use to listen to the works (streaming, downloads, CD purchasing, etc.). These statistics can also aid in the management of production and consumption as Negus (p.47) discusses. Although the use of tools like Nielsen Soundscan are still important for monitoring distribution and sales figures, analytics are able to define popular trends and therefore aid in market predictability and can be important deciding factor on how much development and budget are available to a rising artist. 

Consumption is at its highest, and media can be created, marketed and distribution at low or no cost by anybody with the correct tools at home. Yet the keys to mainstream media outlets (including new internet marketing tactics such as AdWords and targeted advertising) and grand advertising budgets are still held by those who can afford it. For the artists, becoming popular online through self marketing and distribution is just as difficult as being discovered and signed in the traditional sense – though live music performances and demo tapes. For the labels, statistics like web analytics and Soundscan provide some comfort and aid in their predictability, but can also be seen as a way to avoid risks and potentially miss something or someone that could have made a significant impact through their talent alone, not just the amount of views they have on YouTube. 

I’ll leave with with a little video from Frank Zappa and his thoughts on how the music industry was changing and what his concerns were… (he goes in a weird tangent after 2 mins, but a fun watch). 

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