Curators and Why We Need Them (Codex Vagus: essay 11)

The personal computer revolution gave birth to fairytale success stories like Microsoft and Apple Computers. Twenty years later, the Internet produced massive successes like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. And then there were the numerous smaller successes like millionaire YouTubers, drop-shippers, and Shopify entrepreneurs. Personal computers and the internet opened new opportunities to numerous people and access to hidden talents everywhere. This trend is sure to continue. But there are, and will be, roadblocks along the way. People who can identify the roadblocks, and successfully find ways to overcome them – or better yet, take advantage of them – will find success in the new economy.

Codex Vagus is the title I gave to essays unrelated to creative writing on this blog.

Codex Vagus: essay 11

Everyone hates gatekeepers that decide which artists receive mainstream exposure. In 1962, a little known rock band from Liverpool was trying to find a record company to publish their music. Almost none of the record companies in London was interested in a band from Liverpool. When Decca records finally gave them an audition, the judges were scathing in their rejection saying the band had no future in the music business. Disheartened but undaunted, the manager turned to EMI, a record company that only published classical music at the time, which agreed to publish the band’s records. The rest of the story is that the band was called The Beatles.

Countless artists, no doubt, have missed opportunities for success because of blind, obtuse, or uninspired gatekeepers. This was why the democratization of music and other arts brought on by the internet was initially welcomed. Thanks to the internet, anyone could now publish books, stream music, and show movies without those pesky gatekeepers obstructing their path.

But then, a funny thing happened. Now that access to the market became more democratic, profit from the arts became more concentrated on the few famous artists than ever before. The villain du jour is the streaming industry. And it is true that predatory exploitation of artists is a thing. But predators have been wringing artists since the birth of popular music. Focusing on the evil exploiters – although somewhat necessary – misses the fundamental problem.

Two things inevitably happen when you omit the gatekeepers in art distribution. One is the general decline in the average quality of the offerings. Amazon has a book publishing service called Kindle Direct Publishing. You can now publish your book without finding an agent to represent you or writing a query letter to publishers. In fact, your work many contain grammatical errors, poor grammar, or bad story development and you can still get your work published without so much as hiring an editor. That is great for the democratization of publishing, but terrible for the overall quality of books. Which leads to the second phenomenon. The readers will have to sift through mountains of poorly written books to find the few nuggets of gold buried within. The second problem is currently being addressed by two methods: algorithms and marketing. The algorithm is that black box software contraption that will push certain books directly to consumers and hence promote it. Marketing is done in many ways, but these days, the most prevalent way to do it is via social media. As a result, authors can no longer be just writers of stories, they must also be algorithm crackers and social media personalities.

Amazon also has a similar program for distributing independent films online. The situation is similar there also. In fact, some of the early contributions were such low quality that Amazon had to change submission rules and delete content. The first-come-first-served approach did help Amazon gain the biggest library of feature length movies of any streaming service, but they were not logging viewing hours, partly because a large portion of those movies were substandard, and partly because even the better productions among them lacked the buzz to garner viewership. As with self-published books, it is up to the viewer to sift through the junk and find the worthwhile content. The only help available is an automated algorithm and the social media presence of the content creators.

Music is suffering through the same problem. Now that entry to the music industry has been democratized, anyone can put their work in front of the public. The problem is how to direct the money to your art.

But buyers of entertainment are not the most diligent of customers. People who buy cars may research their cars extensively, but music and movies, not so much. Back when every piece of published music had to go through many layers of gatekeepers who made sure only the most worthy few would have their sound engraved in vinyl, the gatekeepers also acted as curators. So did radio stations and record shops. It not only helped the biggest selling hits, but also those that catered to smaller audiences. Algorithms are a fine innovation but they do not work quite in the same way as curators. My Netflix subscription knows my tastes so well that it constantly recommends me movies that I have already seen. There are no surprises and few revelations.

The problem with movie and music streaming services is that it has no means of sharing revenue with people who voluntarily market the contents. If someone could come up with an affiliate marketing system where people who promote an e-book, a piece of music, or a movie could share in the profits of content they linked to, they could invent a whole new industry of internet content promotion.

Say someone with a YouTube channel would review an independent movie and provide a link. A part of the revenue gained through the link would be given to the channel owner as a piece of affiliate marketing. Consumers could then seek out independent movies by following the reviewers whose taste matches theirs.

With so much independent content on the internet, this is an idea whose time has come. I’m sure there is an enterprising programmer out there who is capable of making a viable business out of this. It could be the next Shopify.

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