Add value. What are you doing that your customers can’t do with 20 minutes and the internet? What are you doing that a creator can’t do for themselves? If you’re not adding value, why would someone pay you?
Now you’d think that this would be a pretty redundant article, after all, why would you be involved in a process if you weren’t adding value to it? Sadly large parts of the content industry have drifted a long way from this position.
At this stage it’s probably important to take a look at the content industry and the difference between middlemen and gatekeepers because, I think, you have fundamental difference in what they add to the artist-customer relationship. At least, this is the terminology I’m using so I’ll set out the distinction here:
A middleman is someone* who facilitates either the production of the work or the interaction between customers and creators.
A gatekeeper is someone* who restricts access to content until some kind of fee is paid.
Frequently a company can be both of these things. A record label may provide the upfront fees for a producer or session musicians, but then block the release of material via a non-traditional medium.
Frequently a company or organisation is supposed to be the former but ends up being the latter.
With the rapid improvement of consumer electronics and multitude of distribution options now available to anyone it might seem like the opportunities for a middleman to add value have disappeared. I’d argue that this is fundamentally untrue and there is still massive value that can be provided by the major players. A few obvious areas and examples are:
Publishing: In a market that is still dominated by physical objects, distribution is key, and once your product is in the shop it needs to be visible on the shelf. You could try doing that as a self-published artist but good luck...
Music: The difference that a good producer can make to a recording is probably analogous to the value that a good editor adds to an author, and it’s no real surprise that almost every novel you read will have the editor listed for thanks in the opening pages.
Movies: unlike either writing or music, making movies is expensive. There’s no getting round the fact that even a budget production will probably cost you tens of thousands of dollars. And then you’ve got to find somewhere to show your film…
I could go on and talk about publicity and opinion makers and all kinds of other things, but however you look at it there is still a huge part that the established industries can play.
Unfortunately a lot of these companies seem to have decided that every interaction should also be a transaction and the only value that matters is shareholder value.
Hence they have become gatekeepers.
Where a middleman adds value to both the customer and the creator, a gatekeeper does the opposite by trying to drive a fee out of every interaction between the two. This might appear by way of a simple restriction of content (separating the customer from the creator) on you-tube “This video is not available to view in your country” – Sorry what? I’ve googled the official video for the new single and I can’t watch it for another 6 weeks because I don’t live in the US? Or by putting DRM on a video game (reducing the value) so that you can only play it if you’re connected to the web – Sorry what? I bought a single player game that I want to play on my laptop as I do my daily train commute, now I discover I can’t do that? Or a combination of the two, for example, by delaying the release of a series box-set on DVD so that advertising can be maximised via re-runs on a secondary channel – Sorry what? This was released in the US 6 months ago but I still can’t buy the box set and watch it at my convenience because you have a re-run on Sky-Atlantic.**
So to go back to our opening paragraph, one of the biggest challenges to any creator is getting their product seen/heard/read, and there’s so much good stuff out there it’s hard for the customer to find the great stuff. Connecting those two dots is value add.
Looking at the same situation from a different perspective, there’s a lot of good stuff out there that just needs a little bit of polish to really stand out. The aspiring film-maker in Spielberg’s Super 8 keeps going on about production values as a means to make his film standout in the upcoming competition and the principle holds in other fields as well***. Taking something from a “gifted-amateur” feel to a “professional-product” feel is value add.
Essentially it comes down to the title point; if you’re in the supply chain you should be adding value.
* Or a company
** Interestingly in almost all of these cases you'll be able to find an unauthorised copy for free with none of the restrictions. But try telling the respective industries that their behaviour is driving piracy...*** Having recently listened to the first album by The National it sounds like a demo-tape for their later stuff; the talent and skill are there but the production values are in the “gifted-amateur” range compared to their more recent output.