The New Value of Obscurity

Culture and commerce have always had an ambiguous relationship. Not quite as nerve-wracking as the Church and the Stage, but almost as difficult. Creating a great piece of music or a magnificent painting or a grand theatrical presentation has always been supported by patronage that messed with the “integrity” of the “work”; whether it was the patronage of the Church that produced the great music and art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods or the patronage of royalty that created the great theatrical works such as the plays of Shakespeare. There was a degree of political influence and propaganda clearly visible in the output of the artist. As history has evolved and the contemporary context of the work has fallen away, these great works of art have endured – whether they be the Brandenberg Concertos or Shakespeare’s History plays or the roof of the Sistine chapel. It now requires us to research and recover the historical context in order to discover the distortions that patronage brought to bear on the “integrity” of the work. But of course, in the period of patronage the value of the work was in what it said about its patron. It was not a commercial good to be traded or sold, the work of art was a mirror on the world of the patron as the patron would like it to be seen. The success or failure of work was most likely reflected in whether it found favour in its patron’s eyes and whether it sufficiently magnified their desired messages to the populace who beheld it. The relationship between the artist and the fan that we have today was really completely irrelevant, the real relationship that mattered was between artist and patron. Once that faded away over time, different values crept into the work – particularly if it had a physical form in the world.

Historically, we have looked back and seen a kind of integrity in the work due to the scarcity of its availability. The value of artworks increased and persisted as physical objects. But although Shakespeare’s plays in his day were only performed by his own troupe of actors (the scripts were varied by them according to circumstance and never published in Shakespeare’s lifetime.) it was Ben Jonson who was the first playwright to seek to still his work and protect the integrity of his intellectual property by publishing it. In so doing, he established the basis for a business that has remained remarkably unchanged for a couple of hundred years until the digital era.

In the age of mechanical reproduction and purely “commercial” or “consumer driven” work, the nature of influence, distortion and tension has changed. Artists were not commissioned for their ability to reflect well on RCA or CBS, they were there to make recordings to sell in the highest numbers. We can argue endlessly about the vagaries of popular versus artistic success. And, of course the stories of the crass A&R man’s failure to recognise greatness is legion – no one knows for sure how many people passed on the Beatles before they were signed. But while on the one hand, any work could be made commonly available through mechanical reproduction, on the other hand only some works are successful enough to return value to the effort.

Strangely, people in major culture businesses (like major record labels or Hollywood studios) often fell into the trap of believing that something was of great value simply by dint of the fact that they had produced it.

So, in more recent years a new tension has arisen within the very business model of mass cultural production that reveals a titanic struggle at the heart of the entertainment industry between the pure commercial, legalistic desire to exploit and protect the value in a piece of intellectual property come what may – regardless of its cultural status – and the more evangelical, marketing-led desire to promote a work like crazy in the sure knowledge that only then will it achieve the real popular acclaim that will yield a return on the investment. So value, even in massively mechanically reproduced culture is not a given until some kind of cultural blessing has been generated for it. The role and function of MTV, particularly once it was established as a global force in the early to mid nineties, is quite well known in highlighting that inbuilt contradiction. For many in the music industry, MTV was a commercial disaster that befell the labels; an entirely parasitic business making money from advertisers out of the music industry’s desire to promote its music and therefore to give it to them freely. MTV was after all only taking advantage of the music industry’s myopic view of music videos as purely promotional – and the labels still largely believed that a video was a small investment to make compared to the enormous profits the album sales generated. Or perhaps, put differently, they were making so much money from the old rope – that they were not motivated to think about any new models. And it was only when MTV started to look more powerful and profitable than radio – because they were national in the US and expanding globally, that anyone began to get concerned.

The blanket deals that the majors eventually got to sign with MTV in order to guarantee some share of the advertising revenue were the source of great controversy. Hailed as a significant victory when the deals were first signed, as the digital era overtook them – these deals with their all-inclusive grant of rights became more and more difficult for the majors to figure out. By the late nineties when the shape and impact of the internet was beginning to come into some still hazy perspective, the majors suddenly got terribly anxious that even as they’d felt like they’d started to regain some of their ground with MTV, they’d lost it again because their blanket deals included digital rights. Of course, no one in 1995 had any idea which digital rights they had signed over or indeed how to parse them into separate rights – let alone which ones they might want to retain and which to license or how to.

Further down the road the old contradiction of property vs promotion returned in a new guise in the digital era as the DRM / Unprotected argument raged. Once again, at first, it was simply a question of a fear of not accidentally giving away rights to clips or streaming rights in the process of deals being made in the interests of the old model with, for example, broadcasters or retailers. The corporate strategists tried terribly hard to prevent the promotions boys and the channel managers from doing any deals with their partners, and the broadcasters and the retailers for their part were understandably pushing to say give us some clips or streams if you want us to expose or promote your hot new acts. The near term pressure to sustain the old model always out-swayed the longer term strategic goals whose objectives remained unclear and whose revenues could not even be detected.

The same showdown has continually re-appeared around whether there is any value to be had in a paid download compared with the enormous benefit of free publicity. It became acute as research demonstrated over and again that the “evil” downloaders from the original Napster or the still current Limewire were among the highest spending kinds of consumer. So essentially the argument is again over whether to control and “protect” the IP or whether to give it away for free for promotional purposes. And of course, suing your customers is still a part of the controllers’ position and argument. Online, of course, the technology has been sufficiently disruptive to mean that payment today is entirely optional – and the kinds of argument we see raging around the problem are still rooted in that same contradictions and tensions that lie at the heart of the business. What can you do when this stuff called art or music has no innate value compared with the premium of cultural capital we acquire for it?

The question is standing out today even more prominently than ever – can we make people pay for music at all in its recorded form – or must we recognise that the longstanding value of mass reproduction has now only become a promotional tool and that the real value has reverted to the scarcity model of the live performance?

Curiously, there are some emerging arguments and thoughts that may reveal some new possibilities and suggestions that the obviousness of disruptiveness technology and its steely logic of unstoppability may not be quite so straightforward – because people are weird. The trust model is clearly one place where surfacing payment as optional and then leaving the consumer to respond is effective – particularly for an established act like Radiohead. This may work for a big name act but how might it work for a new young band?

I’m hoping for a value in obscurity model to break through. I think we may be approaching a period when staying obscure is the best thing you can do to attract value if not scale. Trying to get as many friends as possible on MySpace has now become a deadening and dead-end activity. Too many bots out there can fake the experience and undermine the cultural credibility. No all of us wants to be in the know, but actually we’re quite picky about who we want to share stuff with. The velvet rope of exclusivity and the club tactic of turning people away at the door may just start to hint at a different way of making people spend money on music online. And it is deeply linked with a relationship that needs to be built online and that already exists between cogniscenti. Not the fake friendships of Facebook let alone MySpace, this requires the narrowest but longest of long tails to work and depends on knowledgeable insiders. The more obscure the music the more value I think we might place on being let in on the inside track about it. Maybe the track itself is not what I pay for, but gaining access to a guide- an “obscuritician” is what I’d value – not some chi-chi concierge service – but a lunatic fan, a nut-case about whatever, an eclectician who could wire me up weirdly but brilliantly from the breadth of the fragmented diaspora of music – half DJ – half-curator.

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3 responses to “The New Value of Obscurity

  1. Interesting read, keep up the high quality posts.

  2. Many thanks Jeremy, this is a brilliant post.

  3. Cool page.., man

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