Slave to the Packaging

Rush – one of the world’s greatest bands – has been snubbed yet again by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not even a nomination, some 11 years after becoming eligible. At this point, not getting in becomes a bigger badge of honor. Who cares about a bunch of dinosaurs, anyway? What could you learn from them?

I mean, when they started, 8-track was still in vogue, and so was vinyl!

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Artificial Boundaries

For a moment, think about how the music industry has changed through that period. Bands like Rush used to tour constantly. While on the road, they’d write the songs for the next album, often in the tour bus (or rental cars!) They’d jump off tour, spend three weeks in the studio cutting the album, then get back on the road. Every six months, a new album would arrive, a pace that would be considered insane today.

Of course, you can’t just count albums. The musical output was a function of the medium. An album, an LP at 33 RPM, could only carry 20 minutes of music per side. That’s a restriction on the marketing and packaging that had an impact on the creative. Many bands might put five songs on each side… some like Rush might put four on one side, and a 20-minute concept piece on the other. But there was still the artificial constraint of 2-times-20. (You could to a double-album, but it’s now just 4-times-20…)

The music business changed quite a bit, and the pace slowed. The money started coming in more on the royalties from the sales, and touring diminished. You didn’t get albums nearly as frequently, because they weren’t LPs anymore. They were Compact Discs, carrying up to 74 minutes of music.

The odd thing is that same digital revolution led to yet another disruption, and Rush has gone retro to survive. The band (like most) is now relying on touring for the primary income, because you can’t turn a live experience into ones and zeros (at least not yet.) Rush released two tracks straight to the public, started a tour, and won’t finish the “album” until the end. Then they’ll go back out on another tour. Band members have stated that the idea of an “album” might have no significance anymore, and they are willing to adapt.

Stuck on Medium

If you think about it, there are examples of Adaptation and Mutation in media all around us. The new shows debuting now as part of the fall television season are a holdover from the days when American car manufacturers wanted new shows to attract eyeballs to the ads touting their new models. Back then, the advertiser was often a named sponsor, and the timing was crucial.

Today, as the car industry has less of a sway on the TV world, we’re seeing more networks and outlets starting seasons of new programming pretty much anytime they want. Spring series on a tryout, or summer series running on a cable network, trying to compete when reruns bore the pants off everyone else on the broadcast networks.

And now Netflix and Hulu are threatening to take programming to a place where traditional advertising can’t follow — where the idea of a “season” is meaningless. An auteur can now tell a complete story, full vision, without regard to fitting it into an episodic format. No more constraints that break the pacing into 22 and 44 minute chunks.

Streaming video, via Netflix and Hulu — and pay-per-chunk models like iTunes — will do to TV what CDs and Napster did to albums. It will slay the packaging that created artificial constraint.

The News is Loose

Which brings us to the issue that matters more than entertainment.

The reason news outlets (print and broadcast) are hemorrhaging is they haven’t figured out how to refocus on the core of their value. They made serious investments of infrastructure to be able to deliver certain types of packaging — and have failed to take the steps to retool. For the most part, they are only now starting to investigate what new options exist for packaging.

You can even see the same dynamic at play with the News Release, whose death has been announced (via news release) hundreds of times already. There’s nothing stale about letting people know about events that matter, or providing context to people who can extend your message. But a piece of paper that meets strict standards and conventions, right down to the “We-must-have-a-subhead-line-and-it-MUST-be-in-italic” formatting is preposterous. It’s not that a traditional news release is doomed to fail… it’s just a symptom that the person who sent it probably didn’t think hard enough about what she wanted to accomplish, or that he didn’t get beyond the artificial constraints.

Which of your shackles will you start questioning today?

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Comments

  1. I think that throughout pop culture history, there have always been those “mavericks” (absolutely NO political or cinematic reference made here) who defy the convention of the time or place–these are the bright lights that show how what is standard is merely just what is average. To be considered something more, convention needs to be nothing more than a springboard or reference point.

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