(photo: Ben Klaus on iStock)

Inflection Point

What Medium can learn from how MP3.com morphed into iTunes.

I remember the precise moment when everything changed for the music business. A clever Volkswagen ad – ‘Synchronicity’ – ran at the 1999 Super Bowl featuring a soundtrack by an all-too-conveniently named Master Cylinder. The music had a hook a mile wide and like many at the time I scrambled to track it down so I could go to the local record store and buy it. However, the always-hip Volkswagen didn’t release it that way. They put a file up on their website is this weird format called MP3. Back then, I remember thinking that seemed totally lame. It would be crappy, muffled sound like most of the digital audio files at the time. It took approximately forever to download but once I figured out how to play it, that was the moment everything changed.

The music was crystal clear, CD quality sound.

Two technological trends had intersected, triggering a seismic-scale inflection point: file compression technology was getting steadily better at packing higher quality audio into a smaller file size and the internet was getting faster and cheaper. At the outset, getting music this new way was only barely acceptable. Those two trends, however, guaranteed it would be steadily better in the future. I remember thinking at the time — “why would I ever buy a CD again?” — if I could simply browse a list of the songs in which I was interested and then download only those I liked.

Never mind that the music industry was totally unprepared for this and would huff and puff for years about how that was never going to happen the way I imagined. All sorts of other bizarre, illogical things also occurred as a result: such as the notion that the means of getting the music into the hands of the consumer somehow changed the intellectual property landscape. Of course it didn’t. The arguments presented by Napster’s Fanning were totally bogus and always were. He was wrong and Metallica was right. What was lacking however, was a mechanism to collect a fee in this new paradigm and see that it was distributed equitably.

All the while, you could almost hear three parties rubbing their hands together simultaneously: the artist figured they were finally going to get most of the revenue from their music. The consumer thought they were going to get all their music for next-to-nothing or even free. Finally, the record company figured their cost of production, transporation and inventory just went to zero while they remained the sphincter through which all things must eventually pass. In other words, all three parties thought they were about to reap the bonanza of this technological disruption. However, time would eventually bear out there were still three essential stakeholders — artist, distributor, consumer — and all they would end up arguing about was how the lower per unit revenue would flow and how the net benefit would be allocated.

The most interesting detour on this journey was the land of zero-cost production, zero-cost distribution and free music for everyone: MP3.com and its brethren. This was the site where anybody with any ability to record anything could upload their masterpiece for all to download as they see fit. When I came across MP3.com for the first time I was utterly convinced that the future had arrived and this was it. I became totally addicted and blew hours — no, days — going through the utterly random array of songs to try and find the nuggets. Nuggets there were, for sure, and they really were free. I still have one playlist, now happily residing on iCloud, consisting of a couple of dozen electronica tracks which are as good as any commercial offering and as fresh as the day they were made. Looking back on it, though, I spent countless hours sorting through the detritus to pan out the few specs of gold. By any measure, it just didn’t make any sense at all.

When Apple got into the music business, there were two main pillars to their strategy. The hardware — the iPod — was cool, sure, but the much more exciting part was iTunes, the new embodiment of the record company. They would stand between me and the artist and be the gatekeeper I didn’t know I wanted. The gatekeeper who would tell the aspiring musician that they weren’t quite there yet and they needed to work on their craft a little more. The gatekeeper who would spend time and effort making sure there were organizational ideas which would allow me to find what I wanted fairly quickly. The gatekeeper who would suggest alternatives which stepped out from my core preferences. The gatekeeper who provided a service, now viewed in the context of my MP3.com experience, for which I was willing to pay in a manner that made sense — less than a buck a song, no minimum. The value proposition was like crack cocaine.

Medium, in effect, is now at the MP3.com stage. They have thrown open the doors to anybody with even the most modest technical capabilities to create presentable work and make that work available to a significant audience. It’s free for everybody! No skills as an author? Nobody cares! The laws of gravity have officially been repealed!

But they haven’t.

As Groucho Marx was to have said: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept somebody like me as a member.” Here I am, just some guy with an opinion and here you are reading it. Nobody paid for anything. Or, more likely, you’re not reading this. When I finally manage to decode why the best thing I think I have ever written got 30 views here on Medium, and some off-the-cuff comment got thousands, I may actually be able to make a living at this. Until then, I’m stuck playing reader roulette. I grind out the best stuff I can and live in the hope I get tweeted on @Medium without resorting to “the 10 best…”, foul language or sex to juice the view numbers to trip the ranking algorithm. Ask anybody who has tried to take this high road — it’s really tough.

So, Medium, here is your revenue stream. As iTunes stepped into the gaping hole in the music business and started acting as compensated gatekeeper, so you need to step in the giant hole in the journalism business and start acting as compensated gatekeeper. That editorial staff of yours needs to tell people like me that my last piece isn’t actually quite good enough yet and needs a rewrite — maybe two. They need to tell me I’ve crammed 200 words worth of ideas into 1000. Or that my title stinks or my theme derivative. Or tell me that it’s so good that it really does need to get tweeted out on @Medium — the sooner the better for everybody.

Edit me, for goodness sake.

As a result, you will have publications for which an audience will be willing to pay. It won’t be a lot per subscriber, but something. And make sure that a share flows back to the authors who contributed to creating that desire to pay. Once the math is done I will only get a tiny fraction of a cent for every reader of my article. But it will be something. At the very least, it’s more than I’m getting now. While you’re at it, try and straighten out the royalty power curve a little where stars get a little less so everybody else gets a little more. Think of it as a farm team system for journalists and aspiring authors.

In the end, Medium, the basic change required is pretty simple — nothing new to invent. You’re MP3.com and you need to be more like iTunes. You’re YouTube and you need to be more like Netflix. You’re Instagram and you need to be more like iStockPhoto. This is a road well travelled and all you have to do is take it.

©2017 Terence C. Gannon

(I’m just some guy with an opinion. In real life, I write, produce and host The WorkNotWork Show. If you like what you’ve read here, please click the little green heart below. It really helps.)