Otakunomics • 14 May 2008 • The SnowBlog
Sorry for the blog-dearth of late. I've been frolicking about in the States (and then chain-snoozing since I got back) and Em has been off prize-hunting at the BA conference - which is just embarrassing if you've ever seen it: Em takes her big carpet bag with her to Brighton and starts pestering people to give her prizes. "Can I have that prize?" "Well, this one is for literary agents. Are you a literary agent?" "Might be. What about that shiny one? Can I have that one?" "Well, this one is for innovation. Have you innovated much recently?" "Probly. So can I have it?" And this goes on until someone weakens and says "Oh, OK" and another prize goes into the carpet bag.
Anyway, now that I'm back and reasonably compos mentis I just wanted to tell you about a purchase I made while abroad which fits very well with one of Maestro Godin's views on Valued Customers. I bought a Collectors' Edition of the movie Serenity. This is not shocking news in itself, except that I already own an excellent DVD of that movie. I bought this one because it has Bonus Material. The cast and director got together three years after the movie was made to record a second commentary. Is that - plus a few other odds and ends - really worth $21, given that I already own a copy of the film itself? And the answer to that is obviously 'No'. Except if it's one of your favourite movies and you're a bit obsessive about the cast and crew and how the movie got made. So the market for Collector's Editions and the like might sound like a very small group of people. And the fact that this is a sci-fi movie drives home that point. We all know that sci-fi fans are 'special'. We've certainly learned to associate a heightened level of intensity with fans of sci-fi films and TV. But the fact is that most of us are what the Japanese call 'otaku' about something. We buy digitally re-mastered Beatles recordings that we already own on vinyl and regular CD. Or we have two copies of our favourite books, one for reading and another perfect first-edition copy saved for the day when the works of our favourite author replace uncut diamonds or bearer bonds as tokens of pure, concentrated value.
This comes back to what S. Godin was saying about future revenue streams for industries which inspire this sort of loyalty. In fact, it's most relevant to industries where not only are there hardcore fans, there is also an ongoing process of disintermediation and piracy which threatens to disrupt the traditional flows of income.
It is now possible to acquire almost any piece of music without paying for it, and to do so at least as quickly and conveniently as downloading it legitimately - or worse still, visiting a store. Compare the process of snagging an illegal copy of an album off the internet with a trip to WHSmiths, including waiting for the bus both ways, possibly in the rain, and it's a wonder that the music industry persists at all.
Movies aren't far behind. British Telecom's dawdling and hamfisted plan (c.f. 21CN) to eventually move the UK's internet connections over to what was considered state of the art in the year 2000 will delay the advent of full-scale movie piracy in Britain. But elsewhere, and for anyone with a cable internet connection, downloading a movie at DVD quality gets easier the whole time.
And personally I believe that the advent of a really gorgeous, practical and cheap e-reader (probably combining functions such as phone, iPod, sat-nav and PDA) will tip the book industry in that direction too. Many people only realised they needed a new phone when they saw the iPhone, or a new iPod when they saw the iTouch. I've said it before, but if Apple ever pour a bag of magic marketing and design dust over an e-reader, electronic books will suddenly start looking as tasty as brains to a zombie. And even though all the commercially available e-readers will be much more restrictive in what they'll permit you to do with your books than the paper version, twenty minutes after they're released the hackers of the world will have cracked open every piece of security, copy protection, DRM and encryption, and books will flood out onto the net in even greater numbers than they already do. After which commercial e-readers with no DRM installed (or hacked-open versions of restrictive readers) will be used to read that content. It will only be a trickle to start with, but that trickle will only ever increase.
As Mr C. Doctorow says, it will never be more difficult to make copies of things than it is right now: meaning that piracy and piratical distribution of anything and everything will only get easier.
But you know all this. Or rather, you know that I believe all of these things. The point I wanted to make goes back to the Collectors' Edition of Serenity. What happens when the convenience of piracy butts up against the scruples of the true fan. Yes, you'd illegally download music, but would you listen to your favourite band in the world without paying them a cent for the privilege? And what about your favourite movie or book?
At the moment, most media companies use a big stick to protect their revenues. They threaten and sue. Wouldn't it be interesting to see if the power of love worked better? Will the special connection we feel for our favourite bands and authors outweigh our temptation to deny the faceless corporations their next dip into our wallets? Mr Godin has talked about business models built upon a small customer-base who love you rather than a large customer-base who tolerate you. Might the slightly irrational bond we feel regarding favourite diversions do more to ensure that authors and musicians have a roof over their heads than any brigade of lawyers? I suspect it would. The problem is that the protective effects of that fan-love don't extend to the middlemen: which in the case of books is us.