Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A New Light

In 1939, the German astronomer, Johann von Maedler, put together 2 Greek words – “fotizo”, meaning light, and “grafo” meaning writing to create a word popularized by his British counterpart – the British astronomer Dr. Herschell – a word we all know today as photograph. In fact most of us are quite familiar with whipping out a mobile phone to snap a picture of a friend or an incident. Photography didn’t exist before the 1830s, which was strange by itself because both the impact of light on chemicals like halides, and the pinhole-type cameras (or Camera Obscura) were known for a long while by then. Sometimes it takes a bit of inspiration to cross fertilize two sets of skills, technologies and discipline and create an entirely new idea.

Shortly thereafter, also in Europe, a strange thing began to happen to Art. People like Manet and Monet created a new style of art which we know today as impressionism, but back then was ridiculously low in detail. Not only that, it seemed to spark more and more diversions from most forms of realist painting styles. Along came the fauves (Matisse), Expressionists (Kandinsky), Surrealists (Dali), Cubists (Picasso) and the Pop Artists (Warhol).

Now as you know, Modern art elicits strong responses, questioning the very notion of Art, questioning if Tracy Emin’s unmade bed is actually worth calling art any more than the hole in the wall in my friend Joe Schorge’s hallway.

However, the point I’m making here is that there is first, a fundamental connection between the invention of photography and the emergence of Modern art. And second that this is an oft repeated pattern in many aspects of life around us.

With the advent of photography, Art ceased to become a means of accurate representation. Go to any castle or museum – from the Versailles Palace to the Tower of London and you will see the larger than life portraits of every ruler worth his NaCl since time immemorial. By the end of the century, however you would expect to find photographic portraits rather than painstaking oils. Quite apart from the fact that the sitting times were greatly reduced, there was simply too much going for photography, for this even to need explaining. The question for Artists at this point of time whether articulated or not (or even consciously felt or not), would have been “what happens to us now?”

The fact that Modern art has a life of its own and has taken us into many new avenues of social and emotional exploration is a happy outcome of this, but it is my belief that it wasn’t a natural progression, nor was it coincidence. It was in fact, the emergence of photography which pushed artists to find new meanings and expressions for their talent.

The reason this is all relevant today, is just like Photography and Art, there has, over the past few years been dramatic interplays between new and old mediums of expression. It is now a commonly accepted axiom that TV took away the who, when, where and what from print, leaving newspapers to largely provide the analytical “why” for readers. What is less touted and yet absolutely true, that the Internet did exactly this to TV – it took away the “what, when, who & where” - essentially “news” and “information” mantle from TV and left TV largely with entertainment and perhaps the “how”. Actually for any event that could not be predicted – from the attack on the Twin Towers to the tsunami, the Internet has greatly outstripped Television for news delivery. TV still remains a more dramatic medium and so any planned or forecast-able event (like Michael Jackson’s trial) will still draw people to TV. But clearly this has forced TV to change itself over the past years to occupy a news space it now shares with both print and the Net. In fact newspapers have gone through yet another repositioning with the Net. The “tabloid” format – for reading in the commute is a clear & creative response for capturing commuters – another word for audiences without access to TV or the Internet.

And here, therefore is my second key observation, as new changes, new technologies come down the pipe, especially the disruptive ones, they will always reposition the old formats, technologies and mediums.

This leaves organizations with some important strategic choices. First, they need to ask themselves to what extent are we tied to a technology or a delivery mechanism. And second to understand the emerging shape of their industry in the wake of a new and disruptive technology to be able to capture value in the evolving landscape. A good example of this can be found in the music industry. Faced by the wave after wave of music downloads, the ease of duplication, the blurry legal boundaries they can (as they are choosing to do) fight the tide. This is a difficult and and in the long term largely ineffective approach – very akin to trying to hold water in your hands. Or they can consider their role in the emerging space and seek to capture value using new technologies. Consider this thought – if you were suddenly allowed access to all the music that’s ever been recorded – how would you decide what to hear? You couldn’t sample it all in one lifetime and anyway, wouldn’t you love a good recommendation engine? Somebody to tell you what’s good and what’s just all right? Isn’t that what labels actually do and are good at doing? But rather than seek to create mass markets out of a few “stars”, may be there’s a different model based more on profiles. Anyway, the idea is not to theorize on Music Label strategy, but rather to build a case for the recognition of the fact that the old models won’t work in the face of disruptive technologies – and an active and creative search for value creation in the changed landscape is the order of the day.

BBC is one organization that has successfully reinvented itself – from a radio company, to a television behemoth, to an Internet giant, albeit with less constraining factors and risks to contend with.

The bad news is that the new value distribution may simply not be as lucrative for the incumbent market leaders in any scenario. But trying to fight against the dying of light isn’t really the best response. A really useful book to read in this context is Adrian Slywotzky’s “Value Migration” (HBS Press). And it’s not just music labels who are in caught in the cross-hair of technology change. It’s also the traditional TV channels facing entirely new worlds with IPTV, VOD and time-shifting, it’s telephone companies facing a threat from VOIP, and CD Player manufacturers (think Discman) from Digital music players (think iPOD).

The old positions, the old value capture mechanisms (CD sales, for labels and mass audiences for prime-time television) may be on the wane. It’s up to these businesses to look for the new value mechanisms, just like Art did, a century and a half ago. There are of course, many realist-artists working today – most of them work in obscurity or as illustrators. The question for many of today’s media businesses, is, are you headed for obscurity, or could you be the next Claude Monet of your industry?


Post a Comment

<< Home