If You Want to Run an Entertainment Company, Here is Your New Bible

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on September 5, 2016.

I read just about every book that analyzes the entertainment business, both because it’s the business I’m in and I love to learn new perspectives. Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment, by Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang (MIT Press), is the best book on the subject, bar none. Every entertainment executive who hopes to have a job in coming years should read it and follow its prescriptions.

I met Michael Smith, who’s a professor of information systems and marketing at Carnegie-Mellon University, at Sundance in January, where he gave a riveting presentation on digital piracy at the Sundance Institute. We struck up a conversation and, full disclosure, have become friends.

One of the things I most admire about Smith and Telang’s work is that they do not come from the entertainment business at all, and therefore have no axe to grind, no jobs to protect, and no legacy business models to justify. All they care about is data, and they collect lots of it.

Their data leads to conclusions that may not seem shocking to people who follow digital content enterprises, but will certainly upset traditional entertainment companies.

Some say that it’s inevitable for longstanding film, music, television, and publishing companies to survive as they have for many decades. Smith and Telang counter this viewpoint because, they contend, the fundamentals of the business have changed permanently. Where once it was enough to make and own great content — the province of movie studios, record labels, and publishing houses — now that is no longer sufficient. Today it is possible to own the audience, and massive amounts of audience data represent a near-insurmountable competitive advantage. The big question is whether large companies will take this information to heart and change their business models before it’s too late and data-driven companies, like Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, leverage their understanding of the audience to topple a century-old hegemony.

As Smith and Telang summarize their thesis:

“In recent years a perfect storm of technological change has hit the entertainment industries. It involves the convergence of user-generated content, long-tail markets, and digital piracy, and it has diminished the profitability of these industries’ traditional business model.

“At first glance, none of these changes seems to pose much of a threat. User-generated content, after all, is amateur fare: videos of cats riding Roombas and kids playing Minecraft. Long-tail markets, for their part, are full of products that can’t compete: old, failed films and television shows, say, that don’t stand a chance against new blockbusters such as Avatar or The Sopranos. And digital piracy, while certainly harmful to sales, impacts all of the studios equally and therefore shouldn’t upset the competitive balance.

“But in fact this perfect storm has changed everything. Content is no longer hard to produce or easy to control because of the technological revolutions in hardware and software that we’re now witnessing. Distribution is also much easier now: long-tail markets make it possible to allow everything to be put up for sale, a big shift from the limited capacity in movie theaters and limited space on television broadcast channels. And thanks to digital piracy, it’s much harder to maintain the profit from the staggered release windows that are fundamental to all of the entertainment industry’s existing business models.”

For the benefit of existing entertainment companies, Smith and Telang provide a series of well-thought-through recommendations in their closing chapters. As someone who has been in the entertainment business for 30 years, it feels clear to me that Smith and Telang’s data are excellent and their conclusions are inevitable. Will movie studios, broadcast networks, music labels, and publishing companies view this book as the new rule of the road or the raving of Cassandra? Time will tell — and for legacy companies, time is running out.

Image: The cast of ‘Arrested Development,’ a series Netflix picked up after it was cancelled on Fox’s broadcast network. Why did Netflix do that? They had the data. Image courtesy 20th Century Fox TV.

Huh?!? Audiences Deserve Better Sound Design

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on June 3, 2015. 

In Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening at The Wallis, you can understand the actors who sign the songs better than the actors singing. That’s because the sound design is haphazard, and the audio mix, on the night I attended, was uneven, not responsive to the ebb and flow of voice in relation to the live musical instruments.

How sad. The audience misses out on Steven Sater’s heartbreaking, involute lyrics, like these that open the show, which, if you could hear them, would make you cry from the first A minor chord:

Mama, who bore me,
Mama, who gave me
No way to handle things,
Who made me so sad.
Mama, the weeping,
Mama, the angels
No sleep in heaven
Or Bethlehem

Or these:

Haven’t you heard of the word of your body?
O, I’m gonna be wounded.
O, I’m gonna be your wound.
O, I’m gonna bruise you.
O, you’re gonna be my bruise.

I know the lyrics because you could hear them clearly when Spring Awakening had its original Broadway run at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and I saw the show more than once. That’s also a reason I know that good, clear sound is possible. However, we rarely get it in theatre and music venues.

Sylvie Drake, Cultural Weekly‘s theatre critic, told me, “I long ago gave up understanding what they’re saying at all shows, especially the ones with music. It never seems to work. I now make it a point to request a script for (a) ALL new plays and (b) something like this one, not new, but newly interpreted. Some theaters make it a practice to automatically provide one, which tells you something in and of itself.”

It’s not just a theatre problem, and certainly not a problem with The Wallis itself, which is a wonderful space with good sight-lines and acoustics. It is a matter of attention to the live audio mix and the way microphones are used to capture, or not capture, the performance. I’ve watched, and appreciated, music artists like Andrew Cole refuse to start his set at the House of Blues until the sound mix was right. Good for you, Andrew, and thank you. The audience deserves great sound.

One recent evening I went to HOME, a venue in Beverly Hills that hosts a Thursday jazz night. (HOME is a twee acronym for House of Music and Entertainment. Sadly, it is neither.)

I might have been able to forgive HOME’s inhospitable, cavernous design and harsh lighting, if the sound had been good, but it wasn’t. (Actually, I could not forgive the harsh lighting. Who wants bright table-spots at a jazz club?) When the singer began, you literally could not understand a single word. Why? Here, the sound is disadvantaged from the get-go because the mixing panel has been foolishly placed to the far left of the stage and out of the way, so the mixer cannot hear the sound in the house. Compounding this insensitive sound design choice, the proprietors don’t seem to care.

I went up to the evening’s host after the first song and let him know we could not hear the singer. “Yeah, it’s a problem,” he said, and walked away. Tellingly, he didn’t go over to the mixing board and try to make any corrections; he just let the night play out, content to watch people order over-priced food and drink.

Trumpet player on stage at jazz concert

Thursday night Jazz at HOME in Beverly Hills

As someone who has spent years of his life in theatres and performance venues, believe me when I say it does not have to be this way. Excellent, clear, well-balanced sound is entirely possible. In fact, with newer technologies, it is easier than ever before. It simply takes venues that value sound quality as much as all other aspects of the audience experience, and producers who put the resources of time and attention toward achieving it.

Top image: Daniel N. Durant (Moritz) and Krysta Rodriguez (Ilse) in Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening. Photo by Kevin Parry.