26 March 2015

Contenxt ⇌ Contexnt

"Past performance does not necessarily predict future results."

—United States Securities Exchange Commission

So why does the entertainment industry in general — and the publishing industries and their distributors in particular — act as if it not only necessarily does predict future results, but that it is the only way to predict future results? I suppose I could be cynical <SARCASM> (what? me cynical?) </SARCASM> and blame it on greed and deception, and in one sense I wouldn't be far off. I suppose I could also blame it on a revolt against securities law by other management memes... but then, recalling the purpose of the SEC's mandatory-disclosure model of securities regulation, we'd just be back to greed and deception.

No, the best explanation is a particular kind of magic — one closely related to counting angels on the head (or point) of a pin. Which, with its origin in Western medieval theology, is in the end all too apt...

Believe it or not, what actually set me off on this particular path was the recent announcement that Heinz and Kraft Foods intend to merge. More than anything else, this proposed merger represents a desperate attempt by existing entrenched capital to avoid the consequences of changing market characteristics by getting bigger, and therefore being able to take more advantage of economies of scale (usually by unfairly squeezing compensation offered to suppliers and its own workforce, thereby justifying increased executive compensation). As should be obvious from reading this blawg going back a number of years, I'm no fan of conglomeration or consolidation for the sake of purported advantages in efficiency, and not just on an ideological basis. There's a very specific reason for that skepticism: I have seen even less evidence that markets — especially markets in or related to the arts — will be constant (or even predictable) than I have for chorus lines of angels in my sewing kit.

Exhibit A: Sixty years ago, what music there was in popular awareness was largely instrumental, jazz/big-band (don't get me started on that corruption, we'll be here for hours) with possibly appended vocals, static-location, and passive. Thirty years ago, what music there was in popular awareness had shattered into a mixture of vocal and instrumental works in multiple purported "genres" (which, in reality, do not have the coherence demanded of a genre; they are better termed "performance and marketing styles" than anything else, and even that conceals more than it reveals), moderately mobile but on dedicated devices, and with an increasing sense of user participation (not limited to dancing!). Now... it's impossible to tell, except that the dedicated playback device is a steadily (and rapidly) decreasing means for people to "consume" music.

Exhibit B: Sixty years ago, there was still effective censorship of literary works in many markets, requiring a trip to an out-of-state bookstore for many residents to get a copy of Ullyses. Admittedly, this was no longer directly governmental censorship... but writers like Joyce and Roth and even Orwell were not kept where impressionable kids could find them without a diligent search. Thirty years ago, the raging idiocy of subject-matter censorship had moved down in age groups, primarily focusing on teen-and-younger-market works — not by encouraging parental involvement in what kids were reading, but by trying to restrict what was available for kids to read in the first place. Now... manga on every internet-connected device, not excluding tentacle porn.

Exhibit C: Sixty years ago, a diligent fiction writer publishing four pieces a year in the top periodical markets would be middle class. Thirty years ago, that same writer would be around the poverty line. Now... I'm not sure that there are as many as four top periodical markets for fiction, regardless of genre or style or even language.

I think I've made my point here: Just as past performance does not necessarily predict future results in finance, past context (content) in the arts does not necessarily predict future content (context) in the arts. It's long past time for industrial actors to stop pretending that:

  • The branding applied after the work of art is made complete has anything whatsoever to do with its success, commercially or artistically (this is a hint to, among others, publishers who try to proclaim that there is such a thing among a discernable segment of its end-users as affiliation with anything except the author... with one huge exception in romance fiction that got that way through a combination of unfair trade/commercial practices and focusing on specific aspects of the content)
  • The past bombing of an author's work under a given authorial name accurately predicts future sales of that author's works if the future works are of comparable (or better) quality and are given the same marketplace opportunity
  • There is such a thing as "the same marketplace opportunity" for distributed copies of works in the arts in the first place, let alone one with any predictability
  • That — just as in medieval protomercantilism and in medieval theocracies — the lion's share of the compensation rightly belongs to the intermediaries
  • That ketchup belongs in the same package (or accounting statement) as macaroni and cheese

OK, that last one may be a bit, umm, outside the box...