Brian Eno: Why DVDs Are Like Whale Blubber

His favorite place is behind the scenes, but Brian Eno's genius for understanding and using the new disruptive tools to make great art and music has kept him working with leading thinkers and creators in pop culture for almost 40 years. Eno's work with Roxy Music, U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie and Devo is legendary, but his ideas about art and technology can serve as inspiration for New World storytellers too. For example, while being filmed for a BBC Arena documentary in 2009, Eno had this to say about physical media (he was thinking about records, but his words apply to DVDs too): "I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn't last, and now it's running out. I don't particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you'd be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history's moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it."

What is the "something else" that will replace physical DVDs? Where will revenue come from when the dust from the digital revolution settles? How will producers get paid as consumers shift away from buying physical copies into a new paradigm where "access" to content (not physical copies, but a connection to an online version) becomes the norm?

In the New World most consumers will no longer pay for the physical copy - but they will pay for access to the content (for example, a subscription to stream content from the web) and for one-time-only events (for example, screenings with talks with the filmmaker) and for physical merchandise that can be displayed to show affinity with the project (the least inspired ideas include hoodies and t shirts).

The changes that have been roiling the music business for a decade are hitting the motion picture business right now. The music business has been the canary in our coal mine but - with DVD sales plummeting - there is no longer any question that the era of physical copies is now ending for movies too.

As transmedia author, producer and brand developer Sparrow Hall observes, the lessons of the the music business should be learned by all New World artists.

It was Sparrow Hall (writing in the first of a trio of blogposts about disruption in the media world) who first turned me on to Brian Eno's blubber metaphor. Sparrow Hall relies on music to make his points about the future of all media: "Trent Reznor, the musical genius behind the band Nine Inch Nails, ... has made a habit of giving his albums away for free over the Web. If you wonder how Reznor could possibly be turning a profit, you should look on YouTube for one of Nine Inch Nails live performances and wait for the camera to pan out to the crowd. All of those people bought a ticket (let’s say $45 a pop), and they’re also buying a t-shirt, and a poster, and whatever other special items Reznor might have in store for them at the merch table. So why worry about how many people will buy an album for $9.99 on iTunes when just as many will buy a hoodie for $50 under a tent by the gate. Reznor understood the rule that successful drug dealers have lived by since the dawn of the narcotics trade: the first taste is always free."

Brian Eno has an exhibition at London's Science Museum (running until December 2011) examining the role of technology in music. Sparrow Hall will be speaking on Transmedia and Creative Rights Management at the 2011 StoryWorld Conference in San Francisco Oct 31 – Nov 2.

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