Creative Musings Column
by Stephen Zimmer
How Formats Affect the Perception of Value for Art, Writing, Film and Music
I always find browsing bins of vinyl highly enjoyable. Pulling out a title that catches my interest, I handle it with care, especially if taking out the record to see the condition, if it is a used copy, When home, I store and handle my vinyl with the same kind of care, using sturdy bins and including occasional cleanings.
I have acquired solid equipment to play it on, such as my Audio-Technica turntable that I change the needle on for every few hundred hours of playing. When playing the vinyl, it is something that I focus on, as vinyl is nothing like skipping through tracks on Spotify or an iPod.
Each side of a record is played in its entirety, the way the artist who created it envisioned presenting it. Vinyl encourages you to put the music at the center of your listening focus, as it is not just some idle background music streaming through a wireless speaker.
Everything surrounding the medium of vinyl encourages an appreciation of its value, and by extension the value of the artist who recorded the music. There is an air of quality all about it, not convenience or quantity.
The average person with a modicum of decency would never think of walking into a record store and just picking something off the shelf and walking out of the store. Nor would that same person expect a record store to give away copies all the time or sell them for less than a dollar. Most people would find a record store that did that to be running a poor business model that would quickly lead to shutting its doors.
Yet we live in a climate where digital media are almost expected to be given away, available for free, or even worse, just downloaded illegally. Streaming services are not far removed, as the artists get almost nothing for streams while the services themselves rake in the subscription money.
It is a very trying climate for musicians, filmmakers, artists, and writers when it requires years of honing a craft and countless hours to produce a work that is marketable.
Tangible media, like vinyl, or physical books, helped reinforce the perception of the work’s value. Digital media, while convenient and accessible, has over time negatively affected the perception of value for works of art and entertainment.
Notice that in the music industry, the value is now found in the tangible worlds of concerts and merchandising for making revenue. In the movie world it is found in the tangible world of theaters, where the same movie that is streamed at home on NetFlix is displayed in a nice venue for a higher ticket cost that audiences are more than willing to pay (along with exorbitant concession prices).
The larger entities of the music and movie worlds can survive with the structure of concerts and theaters, but the independent artist does not have such outlets to avail themselves of. Instead, the independent artist is almost expected to give their work away, price it at a level that makes it nearly impossible to make a living on, and all the while be expected to ponder all the “exposure” they are getting.
What does the exposure really lead to when the existing model keeps getting more onerous for artists trying to scratch out a career? Services like Kindle Unlimited, while great for consumers, are absolutely lousy in the long run for the creators. If you doubt this, talk to some of those who were selling their eBooks very successfully not so long ago, who have watched their gross sales revenue cut down to a third or less of what they made before, in the current eBook climate.
Following that lure of exposure, it is undeniable that the very artists who became harmed by the current model made 99 cents and freebies the norm, then swarmed into things like Kindle Unlimited, and brought the market expectations to what they are today. Artists still have not realized the power that they hold if they acted en masse in their better interests.
What it comes down to is that, in a manner of speaking, the “medium is the message”, as the Marshall McLuhan quote goes. Digital media is cheap and convenient, yet it is also disposable at a click and has absolutely no collectible value. Over time, some of these aspects have undoubtedly affected how consumers in the public perceive the value of music, movies, and books that they would have bought in a record store, DVD store, or bookstore not all that long ago. Consider the difference with which a person views a painting on canvas in a gallery versus that very same image displayed on a tablet screen.
Simply put, tangible media has a more positive affect on the perception of value, whereas digital media has a negative affect on it. Yet it is undeniable that digital media is here to stay, as it is very consumer-friendly and easy to work with.
The challenge facing all artists in the digital age is how to bring back a healthier perception of the value of their hard work and effort. Business models are always changing, and there are few places where this a new path is more needed than in the world of art and entertainment.
New models must emerge that create a proper balance between the value of the work and the consumer. When they are developed the artists better have the willpower and discipline to embrace those models and not be lured by the siren song of “exposure”.