Monday, December 17, 2007

To Market To Market

Can it happen? I think so. People everywhere are talking about Radiohead's internet album release, and though it's only the latest manifestation of artists innovating away from corporate business practices, it's getting quite a buzz. Not everyone can profit the same way Radiohead did and not everyone has a financial cushion to fall back on if their idea doesn't work. Many artists have been touring as a main source of income as most of the time it's the artist who pays for the tour, the record company only pays for promotion. Comedians work the same way and often their albums are released on smaller, private labels.

Television is different. As my boy Marshall so eloquently said about light bulbs, "the medium is the message". He was talking about the way that information is disseminated and then absorbed by an audience. If the audience fundamentally changes based on the type of media they are exposed to, that in itself is a form of communication.

So, everyone has a TV. And if we don't, there is something very very wrong with us. We wonder about people who live without television. We contemplate our shared experiences, (that sharing due to television) and we recall our recent history, particularly in North America. What wasn't documented before television seems distant and somehow unreal. One of my favourite things to watch on television is people discussing the internet.

With the huge infrastructure created in the dotcom blitz of the nineties, there are now ample platforms out there for information sharing. And internet information, though similar in content to television, is participatory. This changes the audience in fundamental ways. Now the audience can interact with the content with varying degrees of effort, and most importantly, the audience is not based in a static demographic. This is hell on wheels for a marketing executive who's lived Neilson ratings their entire professional career and who suddenly has to allow for someone watching a viral video from any internet cafe on the planet, and who can alter the video, make it their own, and re-upload from anywhere else.

This takes much power away from market engineers who use cross-reference data to decide what to advertise to whom based on age, race, income, gender, location, location, location. And treating the entire internet audience like one big theatre is a huge expense. They have to make sure their content shows up first on search engines, but they want security over their product. They want many hits on their sites, but they don't want the word-of-mouth which in cyberspace is P2P. It's a hassle, and for many, it's a stretch for an old, leathery, half-curdled mind.

I sympathize. Really.

So now there are artists out there who are self-determining, creating their work, promoting themselves through self-funded tours and releasing their projects to a very specialized audience who specifically wants their product. There are now web-designers and creators who are writing their own code, peer reviewing for free and uploading their own sites and applications to other sites. In a climate like this, marketing dollars tend to go down the drain. One, because the word-of-mouth and viral properties of web information are faster and more efficient than advertising messages, and two, marketing practices do not successfully apply to the new technology. So instead of innovating, they try to turn internet content into television.

But some of the content we want so badly comes from highly expensive, professionally produced creators who come from the television platform. True, so how do these small production companies go fair trade? Start trading. The Daily Show is one of the most downloaded and uploaded shows available on the web. I have a feed on my facebook profile from Comedy Central that actually gives me segments of the show in small pieces. Adult Swim took the idea further by releasing shows in 15 minute formats. Not great in terms of payoff when you've spent hundreds on a 52" behemoth for your 8'x9' living room with stonehenge-like speakers, but perfect for the internet platform. The Simpsons proved that animated shows can produce long-term profit, and with advanced animation technology, it is now possible to make short clips with fewer animators.

There are possibilities here for small groups who wish to create and produce their own content for direct upload and companies who sell products will pay for the privilege of advertising with a popular show. Youtube now has a revenue-sharing program for directors who upload popular content for free, and many websites have advertising paid for by companies who want their site linked to popular content.

NBC's the Office created webisodes in which small clips of one main story were produced on existing sets and released in pieces on the NBC website which play immediately after an ad. This is exactly the platform that can work for anyone able to make entertaining content. Most sit-coms can now openly joke about their own show's product placement in the true spirit of post-modernism, and the smaller the group, the more likely the correct market group will be reached.

Toyota has no reason to show me advertising. I'm a student, I live in a city with cheap mass transit, I don't have parking near my building and I try to be as green as I can. They are throwing good money after bad by putting car commercials next to shows I might watch and placing their products in content I might enjoy. I'm not their target market, and neither are lots of people who like similar things I do. In terms of product quality, is there any amount of advertising that will convince me to get a Blackberry? No. I had one for work and my complaints about it were consistent and loud. The company that makes them has done nothing to improve their product and no amount of messages I will get from them will convince me. I will however, tell everyone I know (as I did in a carrying voice for many months until my boss relented and gave me back my cellphone) and that message will disseminate faster than the paid advertising.

Small production companies such as those who created Tetes a Claques have an opportunity to get advertising dollars from companies who want to sell to the right audience. The size of the infrastructure of the production allows for profit-sharing and stakeholder participation. In large corporations, shareholders direct policy based on their own self-interest. Small companies can do exactly the same thing, but instead of the shareholders holding monthly board meetings, the shareholders actively participate in making their product. Producers and writers can have control over the quality and content of their work and production staff would answer to the show creators instead of distant names on paycheques.

Each show would still meet the standards of the WGA and the SAG and whomever wishes to advertise with them would simply negotiate as usual. The content can be directly uploaded and marketed accordingly not to do with television principles, or the show can be locally produced and broadcast on local stations. If the shows finally wish to sell to cable or network programs they can, but as entities capable of negotiating for a proper market share rather than as individuals selling intellectual property.

Fair Trade television. Taking the Market back from "Marketing".

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