Long Tail Fight: Robert Levine "Calls-Out" Seth Godin

On Dec. 29th 2011, in a spasm of contemptuous tweets (e.g., "Seth Godin is a fool"), "Free Ride" author Robert Levine hyped a former colleague's blogpost (and Mr. Levine's own book?) by launching a full-scale attack on Seth Godin, an influential business blogger.

Statements like "Seth Godin proves you don't need to be good-looking to succeed in the entertainment business" may get Mr. Levine the attention he apparently craves. But it's hard to see how this kind of attack strengthens Mr. Levine's challenge to Seth Godin's advice.

Calling a business consultant a coward ("He won't stand up for his views") may get Mr. Levine a flurry of page views, but what about the merits of Mr. Levine's and Mr. Godin's arguments?

Does the success of one English pop-singer in 2011 - Adele's 21 - really expose Seth Godin as a fraud?

Or are the fundamental observations that Seth Godin has made about the future of marketing - and in particular Mr. Godin's observations about the Long Tail and its affect on the music and book publishing industries - still valid?

Indie filmmakers have a deep vested interest in the outcome of this dispute.

Should we filmmakers rely on the Internet - hiring marketing and distribution specialists as needed - or do we need to pursue the old model of an "all rights" deal from a big distributor?

On the one hand - indie filmmakers are being told that the Internet is failing them and that DIY is a hoax. There are professional reactionaries, like Mr. Levine and his former colleague at Billboard Glenn Peoples, with a vested interest in the old ways of selling entertainment. Because they have predicted that the New World of online commerce will fail (Mr. Levine has argued that the Internet is "simply too chaotic to provide the infrastructure for a 21st-century economy") a success at any big media company becomes more than an opportunity to celebrate the old ways - it is seized on as a chance to savage the new.

On the other hand - indie filmmakers have been hearing from early adopters like Seth Godin, that the Internet is their future. Seth Godin, Cory Doctorow and others (who make good money as consultants - more than most indie filmmakers will ever see) have staked their livelihoods on educating others to the concepts and tools available for sharing content in the networked 21st Century.

So which is it? Old World or New? Can both co-exist? What about the merits of Mr. Levine's arguments? What exactly has Seth Godin been promising indie filmmakers? Will the Internet become a new way of monetizing content? Or is Mr. Levine right? And what exactly does Mr. Levine hope to gain from attacking Seth Godin?

Starting with the last question first, Mr. Levine apparently feels he deserves some of what Seth Godin is being paid as a consultant: "Seth Godin makes a ton of money as hired entertainment. If I point out how dumb he is, maybe I can get some of it!"

As to the other questions raised by Mr. Levine's attack...

It's too soon to call a winner in the Old World v. New World battle, but - having read Robert Levine's awful book Free Ride - I do have a preference as between Mr. Levine and Mr. Godin.

Faithful readers know that I'm a big fan of Seth Godin's - precisely because he avoids the hyperbolic mischaracterizations that riddle Robert Levine's writing. You have to wonder if Mr. Levine or his former colleague at Billboard Glenn Peoples - who wrote the Dec. 28th, 2011 attack on Seth Godin, the apparent stimulus for Mr. Levine's Dec. 29th, 2011 tweet-spree - have ever read what Mr. Godin has written about the economics of pop music.

Mr. Peoples's year-end blogpost uses Adele's success in 2011 as a cudgel - a blunt tool for beating back Seth Godin and the Long Tail. Like Mr. Levine, Glenn Peoples goes too far, misstating the facts and making some absurdly unjustified logical leaps.

It should be clear to anyone that Adele's triumph does not mean that everything that Seth Godin has said about marketing is wrong.


1) Adele's 21 might just be an exceptional case - an outlier in a larger trend away from album sales and physical copies.

2) Furthermore, (and most importantly for refuting Mr. Levine's year-end attack on Seth Godin) anyone who actually reads Seth Godin knows that Mr. Godin has been remarkably nuanced and circumspect about the Long Tail. For example, on Nov. 10th, 2011, Mr. Godin published a neat little allegorical piece - that cautioned small business-people about expecting too much from the New World of online marketing: "The long tail is for organizations that own warehouses."

In short, Mr. Levine and Mr. Peoples misstate Mr. Godin's position and then refute that straw argument - without ever addressing what Mr. Godin has really said or what is really at stake.

Mr. Levine may sell a few more copies of his (truly awful) book by picking fights with his betters. But (as usual) Mr. Levine's latest attack on the Internet and the people trying to build out a new business infrastructure online fails to accurately report what people are actually saying and doing. Mr. Levine's latest tantrum exposes what I've suspected all along - he is deeply emotionally invested in an ideology and he bends the facts and logic to suit his (childish?) emotional needs.

Without the Internet, I have to wonder if Robert Levine would even matter? The Internet contains a lot of stuff that doesn't stand up to the minimum standards of critical analysis. But, in the new online economy, writers like Robert Levine can clearly get a lot of attention. They might even get paid.

UPDATE: Aug. 25th, 2015 Several paragraphs into the original version of this post, Robert Levine was mistakenly referred to as "Richard" Levine. A correction has been made.


Anonymous said...

As an indie filmmaker I can say that the Internet does provide us with a great new distribution vehicle that DIY filmmakers could take advantage of IF online piracy is brought under control.

As it stands no matter how creative and/or innovative one's business model is there's no ignoring the negative impact content theft has on one's best efforts.

Filmmakers can make their work available to worldwide audiences at very low/reasonable price points. The problem is they are often forced to compete with "free" versions of their own work posted on and monetized by cyberlockers. The end result is, unfortunately a diluted market for the legit version.

As it stand cyberlocker pirates can steal content and make money off it. They earn income by generating web traffic=ad revenues while the creator of the actual work makes zero.

Also remember that the indie filmmaker has expended resources to create said film and has to recoup those costs before even realizing any profit. The cyberlocker thieves have no such concern.

It's easy to preach "new business models" but it's quite another to deal with real world ecomics of supply and demand. Until the online black market (and the content theft that drives it) indie filmmakers across the globe will be at a distinct disadvantage when it's comes to earning reasonable returns for their work.

It's time for action to reign in this lawlessness online. If we fail to find a solution to this flourishing theft 4 profit ecosystem we stand to lose a great deal.

Of course tech giants like Google who earn much revenue via this illicit marketplace will continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

Rob Levine said...

I agree with the comment above. I am *by no means* against new business models, as you would know if you actually bothered to read my book. I am also not against the idea of giving away content for free, since that works for some businesses. What I am against is the idea that content somehow must be free, especially without the creators permission.

Also: My gripe with Godin has much less to do with Adele than with his general shallowness. Quite simply, I don't think he really understands the music business. Most of my other comments are partly in jest: I'd like to see Godin defend his ideas, but it means very little to me either way.

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