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“We’re Just Flipping Through Index Cards”

Myke Hurley’s recent podcast interview of John Roderick is excellent.

At 39 minutes, Myke asked how music promotion works today. I’ve quoted part of John’s response, with some slight editing and paraphrasing to read more easily:

[40:30]
[Ten years ago,] you were dependent on this whole cultural architecture of magazine writers, newspaper writers, college radio, commercial radio, public radio… and if your record got into the stream, and the right person liked it and talked about it, then pretty soon you’ve created a storm of interest that started with one or two people who decided that this record was something that really mattered.

If you couldn’t get those people to take an interest in your record — because of course everybody in the world knows who those few people are, and they’re inundating them with albums — if you couldn’t get that person to take the time, or if they just didn’t like it, then you’d be struggling, grasping at every opportunity to get someone further down the food chain to take an interest in this album. …

[43:07]
Well, five years ago, all of a sudden the conventional wisdom started to change. “Oh, no, we don’t have to do any of that anymore! You just put it on the internet, everybody listens to it, and ‘the crowd’ decides! And you don’t have to do any of that bullshit anymore. You can just tweet about your record, and everybody’s going to listen to it and love it!”

And for a brief moment, when the internet was still comprised mostly of all the right people, it was just the cool kids that were on there. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah could put out a record on Myspace, and the cool kids would all get it.

But, of course, that window was short-lived. Now, we’re back to a world where everybody’s on the internet, and nobody cares. Nobody’s following your tweet link to your record anymore! Except your fans, people who already like you.

My Twitter feed is now 85% links to people’s Kickstarters and YouTube videos. And I only follow people I know! Imagine following your favorite bands — it would be never-ending. Everybody’s trying to promote themselves the same way.

The problem is now, if you hire a publicist, what are they doing? They’re just tweeting about it, too, because the magazines are gone, the record stores are gone… it’s anybody’s guess how to promote a record now. …

[45:28] I hate to sound curmudgenly, but … what is inevitable is that the mean quality of everything is declining. In the early ’70s, it was very expensive to make a record, and you had to be really good at it to even get into the studio to give it a shot. The record companies were very selective, and the music that made it all the way out to the marketplace was astonishingly good. Think about the music that came out between 1962 and 1972: what an astonishing quality of music, in every genre. Ten different genres of music were invented and perfected.

Now, we live in a world where there are probably more records coming out this week than what came out in all of 1967. All of that quantity probably hasn’t produced a single record that was as good as the worst record from 1967. Everything is easier to make, so more people are making it, the standard is so much lower for what you need, and it’s a confusing din.

As a culture, we are satisfied with worse, because there’s so much more of everything.

When a Marvin Gaye record came out 40 years ago, presumably, you went and spent your record-buying allowance on it, and you brought it home and listened to it exclusively for 2 weeks. It was an investment. This was it! You’re going to listen to this, or you’ve got an AM radio and a newspaper.

Now, we’re just clicking through songs. “How does this one sound? Oh, that’s good. How does this one sound? Pretty good. This one’s good.”

We’re just flipping through index cards.

This is equally true in all media today, including software.

This is why a hundred other sites are trying to be Daring Fireball, why everybody’s starting a podcast, and why nobody’s buying your app in the App Store.

The democratization of media production and distribution over the last few decades has worked incredibly well. Overall, it’s a net win for society. But the downside is that everything’s now extremely crowded.

There’s a lot of money and attention out there to go around, but there’s also a lot more competition for everything.

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