Reinventing the Newsroom

Howard Stern Meets ‘The Plant’

Posted in Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on August 28, 2009

Jeff Jarvis has an interesting post (amplifying this Daily News feature by David Hinckley) talking about the future of Howard Stern once his Sirius contract expires. Talking with Hinckley, folks in the radio trades bounce around the idea (among others) that Stern could start his own radio station on the Internet, giving him total freedom and the chance to keep a lot of the money he’d otherwise give away to whomever distributes him. It’s a possibility that Jarvis further explores through some back-of-the-envelope calculations: Extrapolating from measurements of his impact on satellite radio, Jarvis suggests that if Stern charged just $1 a month, he could bring in at least $42 million a month, with no need for a distribution network or marketing, minus the costs of staff and bandwidth. So why not?

The opportunities afforded by digital distribution are absolutely real, of course, as a planet full of bloggers and an industry full of very worried newspaper owners can tell you. And there are reasons to think Stern might actually try this — Jarvis notes that he’s a control freak, and the people Hinckley talk to note that he’s become more interested in freedom than whatever relevance he might lose.

But there are reasons to think he won’t, too.

The idea of some artist going digital and doing away with the traditional middlemen and their distribution networks is an enticing one, a development that’s imagined as a singular event that would encourage innumerable other content creators’ efforts to bypass publishers and record labels and radio networks and go it alone, too. But we’ve been waiting for years for a superstar to do this, and by now I’m not sure that singular event will ever occur — or that it will matter when it finally does.

One reason it hasn’t happened begins with the fact that the artists who are big enough to provide that singular event are the ones who need it least — they’re already big names being served pretty well, all things considered, by the traditional ways of doing things. And because of that, such artists have enormous bargaining power: It’s in the interests of the middlemen who would be eliminated to pay them handsomely to stay the course.

Stephen King could go it alone — and in fact he experimented with that back in 2000, releasing his novel “The Plant” in pieces on his own Web site. But King hasn’t gone it alone — he’s exceptionally well-paid by Simon & Schuster. (And “The Plant” remains unfinished.)

After the end of their contract with EMI, Radiohead released “In Rainbows” as a digital download through the band’s own Web site in late 2007. Talking to Time magazine about the move, lead singer Thom Yorke said that “I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘F— you’ to this decaying business model.” That prompted a soon-to-be-famous quote from an A&R guy at a European label: “If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.” But Radiohead didn’t make a clean break with that decaying business model: The CD of “In Rainbows” was released through a number of traditional record labels.

I’m sure Radiohead did very well in those deals, just as I’m sure I’d like to get Stephen King’s advances. Could J.K. Rowling distribute her own e-books and print-on-demand novels? Undoubtedly — just as, say, Bruce Springsteen could go it alone with digital downloads. But some established middleman will pay Rowling or Springsteen enormously well not to do that — just as I’m sure some terrestrial radio station will soon offer to write Stern a very large check.

And there’s another factor here: King, Rowling and Springsteen would probably rather spend their time writing books and music than managing a whole bunch of people and worrying (directly or indirectly) about servers and e-commerce. Granted, artists at that level are already semi-corporations, employing a number of people. But going it alone would make their staffs that much bigger and their management headaches that much larger.

Stern’s desire for control and freedom may make him an exception. But what’s more likely to happen, I think, is that artists further down the food chain will be the ones to go it alone. Back in 2005, I wrote about an experiment by the band Harvey Danger (which had one big hit, 1998′s “Flagpole Sitta”) that was very much like Radiohead’s. Harvey Danger had no label and didn’t particularly want one — they saw themselves as big enough to be able to connect with fans on their own and make a decent living touring and selling CDs. But note that their ambitions were comparatively small — and while they were no Radiohead, they still had the kind of name recognition most bands would kill for.

This isn’t to argue against digital distribution’s ability to level playing fields and offer alternatives. There are plenty of artists that could follow Harvey Danger’s lead — as there will be artists that bootstrap themselves from unknowns to next big things with a go-it-alone, digital-only strategy. (Bands like Fall Out Boy and writers like Christopher Paolini have already done that, in fact.) Eventually, I’m sure, one such artist will reject the big deal offered by a label or a publisher, and keep riding DIY distribution to superstardom. But it won’t be an established superstar. And because of that, we won’t ever have that singular event. Which, ultimately, won’t matter — the world will change anyway.

I’ll be on vacation until Tuesday, Sept. 8, so apologies if posts are sparse.

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