The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Monday media update

Laetbpgabriel11 For me, the writers strike cast a spotlight on an overriding issue that loomed far larger than the equation for new media revenues or any DVD profit-sharing formula. It was the idea that the time has come for artists to become entrepreneurs. While I'm a big believer in unions, in today's corporatized entertainment world, where media companies have deeper pockets and wider diversification than ever before, writers and filmmakers (and, yes, actors too) will ultimately benefit more from their entrepreneurial energy than from any old-fashioned guild negotiations.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the music industry, which has quietly undergone a massive transformation as the power has shifted almost entirely from record companies to artists (and their managers). The careers of most pop musicians are now fueled by income from touring, merchandising and advertising opportunities, not record sales.

No one has been more in the vanguard of this entrepreneurial spirit than Peter Gabriel, who was the subject of a fascinating story in the Sunday New York Times. The piece was in the business section, not the arts section, because Gabriel has made his mark in recent years figuring out new ways to construct new economic models for artists and musicians. They are also models that work just as well for writers and filmmakers. Why? 

At 58, Gabriel is a graybeard by pop music standards, but he's been incredibly far-sighted in his ability to anticipate huge changes brought about by new technology. In 1999, when record companies were still trying to protect their lucrative CD business by preventing fans from downloading music on the Internet, a British investor couldn't persuade any record labels to license their music catalogs to his new Internet venture, called OD2. When he contacted Gabriel, the artist not only offered up his catalog of songs but promptly invested in the company itself, which later sold for $40 million.

Gabriel has always done what writers and filmmakers should do as well--instead of taking the easy upfront money, he bet on himself. As early as 1982, Gabriel had it written into his record contract that he would pay for his own videos--and keep ownership for himself. He's now an investor and creative force involved with several intriguing new web ventures, notably TheFilter, which offers personally tailored recommendations for music and movie fans. Gail Colson, his former manager, says Gabriel seemed to be able to see the future of music and the role of new technology a decade before anyone else:

"We filmed a concert in high definition when there was hardly anywhere to show it in all its glory. He experimented with 3-D and foresaw the time when the public would be able to take music and mix it the way they wanted to hear it."

This model, of retaining ownership of your work and developing it in a low-budget, experimental fashion on the Internet, is a model that is increasingly adaptable for TV and film, especially since production costs on the Web are a fraction of what they are in old-line Hollywood. Web TV and film is still in its infancy, but as a host of new webisodes and sites like "Funny or Die" have shown, the experimentation will soon go from the marginal edges to the mainstream. Gabriel is one of those artists who has blazed a trail that other artists should follow.

This is the Gabriel video that started it all:

Peter Gabriel photo from

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Although at first glance the internet seems to offer enormous opportunities for entrepreneurial artists, it's my belief that these opportunities are largely an illusion. Even as technology makes it easier than ever to distribute content through the web, the real constraint on finding an audience is marketing. While celebrities like Peter Gabriel and Will Farrell can bank on their fame to build an audience, most WGA members are not famous enough to lure viewers with their celebrity.

Many people seem to believe that viewers will simply "find" quality content if posted on the web, but that's not the way it works. The web is largely a vast echo chamber, amplifying that which is famous and familiar. The biggest exception right now seems to be short comedy videos. To find a feature film that broke out thanks to the web, you have to go back ten years to "The Blair Witch Project" (well before YouTube and Facebook).

Studios reject all but the most marketable fare, spend ever increasing amounts on marketing, and still are dissapointed by box office returns. It's not a coincidence that, in an era of unprecedented media choice, the signature film has become the franchise. If studios struggle to market their films, how much chance do largely unknown artists have?

I believe that the real revolution in content must come in marketing, not in ownership. The trick is to find a way to enable audiences to choose films on the basis of quality rather than brand name familiarity. The closest thing we have to this is Netflix, which turned "Hotel Rwanda" into an all-time top rental.

Here's a post which neatly explains the phenomena I was groping with above. Google CEO Eric Schmidt explains how the internet actually reinforces superstars (ie superheroes, Pixar, and Judd Apatow) rather than enabling new voices:


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