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Future Tense

I own a record player and a modest collection of vinyl LPs. I also own an iPhone, iPad, and laptop with thousands of songs and hundreds of hours of video. There is something about the sound of a needle placed on a record and the resulting pops and cracks that cannot be duplicated, but there is something to be said for the convenience and progress of the devices that make media more easily accessible. And when it comes to those devices — and how people use them to produce and distribute media — we’re only at the tip of the technological iceberg.

In the not too distant future…

A writer once theorized that predicting the distant future was easy (flying cars, lasers, living on Mars, etc.) but predicting changes in the near future is much more daunting. Still, it is helpful to attempt both. The original “Star Trek” series was set several hundred years into the future, but it would be hard to deny their handheld communicators and PADDs inspired the cell phone and the iPad. On a grander scale, the folks at the LHC are running experiments that could one day lead to faster-than-light travel (a.k.a. warp speed) and one enterprising engineer has designed and is seeking funding to build a working replica of a galaxy class starship. Not science fiction — science fact.

When it comes to media, predicting the future (or future trends) is easier in the long term versus the short term. One assumes the world will be wirelessly connected, all media will be available on demand, and something akin to what is now labeled cloud storage will almost certainly exist. Furthermore, there is a form of acoustics that does not use traditional soundwaves, but launches sounds directly to one location. Harnessing this technology and creating an infrastructure in which it can prosper, the logical progression would be the elimination of physical devices needed to playback sound. No more speakers or headphones; you could simply request a song and it would be beamed directly at your ears, and not even the person sitting next to you would hear it.

In recent years, screen resolution has improved beyond what the human eye can actually perceive. Screen width has been reduced to that of a credit card in some cases. I’d speculate the next step in viewing will be projecting images into thin air with total clarity and uncompromising resolution. Again, no physical device would be needed.

But all of these predictions aren’t likely to occur anytime soon. In my estimation, the best way to predict closer future trends is to take a hard look at the present and the past. The death of film as a recording medium represents a monumental shift in the entertainment industry. By all rights it should have happened years ago, but some within the industry were fond of the “feel” of images on celluloid and were reluctant to part with it. Just as vinyl purists like me refuse to do away with the medium, directors clung to film as the holy grail of visual experience. Forward advancement literally had to wait until those nostalgic for film either died or retired. Based on this, we can extrapolate that changes in industry technology are going to occur slowly.

The future is here today, tomorrow at the latest

Currently, a lot of money is being thrown into podcasting and livestreaming. Some innovative content is emerging from those sources, and people are listening. However, the need to host media, and the subsequent cost of maintaining servers to meet public demand, is still hindering true independent artists from competing with the big boys.

The best model for new artists to follow right now would be that of comedian Louis C.K. who produced and distributed his own standup special, selling a digital download on his website for $5, which meant nobody received a percentage of his profits. He was able to undercut competitors, bypassing large distributors like Amazon and the iTunes Store, and the money actually went to the creator of the content instead of some middleman (or middlemen). This model does require an initial investment, but since the success of Louis C.K., a whole subsection of the industry is being created to make it easier for others to follow suit.

No look into the future of the media is complete without a look at interactive media. In the 1980s, “choose your own adventure” novels were a fad, allowing readers to decide the outcome of a story. Early text-based computer games essentially did the same thing on a grander scale (I was partial to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game by Infocom). But experience teaches us that the overwhelming desire to be passively entertained remains prevalent in society. For all the talk of virtual reality and totally immersive experiences, most prefer to sit back and watch/listen as opposed to being an active participant. Video games will continue to advance, with more realistic images and sounds, but Angry Birds demonstrated that a basic (even silly) concept can outsell the most advanced, highbrow ideas. The 8-bit world of Minecraft proves this, as well.

The big companies are reluctant to switch to an entirely on-demand method of distribution. It is costing them money fighting the inevitable, but their delay offers a benefit to new artists. While major labels and studios fight the changes taking place, they are unwittingly allowing other, less conventional ideas to be worked out without having to compete directly with the big companies. The iTunes Store proved effective at creating a destination for people to retrieve high quality media easily, legally, and (compared to media bought in a big box store) inexpensively. However, all attempts to undo Apple’s virtual monopoly of the concept have fallen flat, or face legal if not moral problems. Expect to see a new distribution model emerge in the next few years. It will start on the fringe of the industry, but quickly build. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say it will first be tied to broadcast and cable news and sports outlets, which have faced the huge issue of how to remain relevant and provide timely content.

Movie theaters aren’t going anywhere, but they are evolving as well. There will always be a percentage of the population who prefers to see theatrical releases on a big screen with a crowd of strangers laughing, cheering, or crying together. The shared experience is powerful to people, and it remains a cheap date for teenagers. But we can expect the gap between theatrical release and home video sales to lessen in the short term, and to be eliminated entirely in the long term. Social media spoilers and piracy are threatening the industry as never before; the studios will have to accept the change and theaters will have to adapt as well.

Whither the Book of Face?

On the subject of social media’s continued rapid evolution, the next few years will see a shift away from loyalty to particular websites like Facebook to an app that combines all of your social networks into one central hub. This is already being done on a smaller scale (Meebo was working towards this goal, but Google acquired it and the concept was mothballed… for now), but look for the idea to expand.

Think of it in terms of how the DVR has changed a viewer’s experience. A few years ago, to watch or record a show, you had to know what channel/network it was on, as well as what day/time it started. But with a DVR you simply enter the title and the system does the rest. The concept of network loyalty is mostly dead because most don’t even know what network their favorite shows are on, despite the bug/logo in the corner. Follow that concept through to social media, and it won’t matter if your friends are on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc, because whatever they post will be visible to you. Shared text, photos, videos, and sounds all under a single umbrella, and you control the flow and even the look of it all.

The day the music died… then came back to life… then died again

The music industry has already begun the process of growing into a new century — for better or worse remains to be seen. Studios and labels have closed and consolidated. Radio as a viable business model is on its last legs; corporate ownership has wiped away the community connection audiences once had with radio stations. Absent that essential ingredient, radio cannot compete with mobile devices that contain playlists targeted specifically to the individual user. Streaming web services face legal challenges as they have a different (or nonexistent) method of paying license holders for the music they share with others.

What is happening in the music industry as a whole is a slow transition away from the manager/artist dynamic into an expert/apprentice dynamic. Seasoned artists are shepherding young talent into the industry, taking a percentage of the new performer’s profits in exchange for showing him/her the ropes. Consider how Usher was able to craft Justin Bieber into more than a YouTube sensation. Consider the way Lil’ Wayne has allowed other hip hop artists to ride on his coattails. It is not a new idea; Madonna signed Alanis Morissette to her record label years ago and worked with her to shape a brand that appealed to a specific demographic. The Beatles signed James Taylor to their UK label and helped make him a success in England as well as back in the states. But the industry will see a significant shift in power. Those with money will be dethroned and replaced by those with talent and ability, who will — in turn — nurture new talent. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The cost of doing business

The business we call show will undergo massive changes in the near future, as the concept of a middleman becomes a thing of the past. In the short term, it will lead to more unemployed people within the industry, but the unemployed people will not be content creators. Instead, they will be the guys in suits in offices who collect royalties for work conceived and executed by others. A studio executive who isn’t actively involved in the projects being created will be put out to pasture. An agent who isn’t hands-on in the marketing and promotion of his/her client will be ousted. These are welcome changes. It reduces the levels of industry bureaucracy and ought to facilitate an environment where those responsible for creating art see a bigger share of the profits from that art.

As for monetization, without as many empty suits to pay for, the cost of doing business is going to go way down. The purchasing power of a dollar in the industry is going to go farther than ever before, and advertising will have to adapt — to become more creative and personal. Podcast listeners have undoubtedly heard their favorite hosts promote a product the way an old-time radio host used to promote Ovaltine during The Lone Ranger. That sort of hard-sell by a person audiences trust is one obvious method, but more subtle, viral concepts are blossoming as well. Niantic is something emerging from Google, but at present they are merely piquing interest, eluding to it as some sort of underground project.

In the so-called “golden age” of cinema, actors were often reclusive, refusing to give interviews, preferring to let the art speak for itself. News agencies respected this for the most part and maintained a discreet distance. In what ought to be the most obvious statement printed herein, those days are long gone. Any modern artist who erects a barrier between he/she and his/her fans has no fans. The best form of promotion right now is self-promotion. A professionally maintained presence on social media is an invaluable tool in this industry. A Twitter feed or Facebook page that engages fans and makes them feel directly linked to an artist can do more for an artist than a mid-level agent. A viral campaign on the internet can do more for the launch of an album or feature film than a 30 second spot in the Super Bowl. Kevin Smith’s film Red State was promoted almost exclusively on Smith’s Twitter feed, doing away with studio-led marketing campaigns that can sometimes double or triple the cost of the film itself. The entire Muppet brand was successfully relaunched because of an aggressive online strategy across multiple platforms. The future will bring new advertising strategies that rely less on traditional spots on networks and more on creative and customized strategies. The ad-men of Madison Avenue will need to not only think outside the box, but be entirely without form if they are to function in a new media environment.

The certainty of uncertainty

Nothing is certain; progress can be slow or rapid, depending on the whims of artists and consumers. Some changes such as the switch to HD will be forced upon the public. Other changes like hybrid engines become viable only after being deemed socially popular. I’d like to believe some of my long-term predictions will actually occur sooner than I anticipate, but I would also understand if some of my short-term ideas took longer to come to fruition. However, an inescapable certainty is change is coming; in fact, change is already upon us. While knowing where we have been helps to determine where we are headed, there is no room for someone overly nostalgic for the past.

Vinyl is dead. Film is dead. Radio as in industry is near death. Broadcast TV networks are near death. The cloud beckons. On demand beckons. Apprenticeship is poised to replace management. Viral campaigns are poised to replace traditional advertising. And physical devices will one day vanish into the thin air that replaces them. If you aren’t ready for those harsh realities, then you aren’t long for the entertainment industry.

Holy Twit!

The Very Best of Twitter

It is easy to bash Twitter. Oddly enough, it is just as easy to bash Blogspot or another top ranked blogging site, but fewer people do so. Both contain a lot of people expressing themselves poorly or shamelessly promoting something. Most are barely coherent. Most feature poor spelling and a distinct lack of proper English. Blogging has been around longer than tweeting, so why does Blogspot get a pass while Twitter gets the shaft?

I tried to find some hard numbers to crunch about users and posts, but mostly found bloggers who seemed to pull the data out of thin air. The top five hits were also more than two years old, and hardly indicative of the present state of Twitter. In terms of its growth as a promotional tool, it would probably be better to compare Twitter to MySpace, but, again, there are no reliable numbers. In terms of its growth as a personal/social communications tool, it would probably be better to compare it to Facebook status updates, but good luck getting specifics from those guys.

There are a few things that distinguish Twitter from the others — and for the worse. For starters, when you encounter a tweet, what you see is all there is. We abandoned telegrams for telephones, and we abandoned pagers for cell phones. But whereas we have several ways of sharing abundant amounts of information online, millions are opting to revert to truncated messages. It forces people to ignore rules of grammar and punctuation. I’ve even seen posts on Twitter that have no vowels in order to make room for more words. People are intentionally choosing a service that provides less. Technology should not reduce our options, yet that is precisely what Twitter does.

I don’t wish to sound condescending, but I have a hard time imagining a thoughtful, intelligent person who would opt for Twitter over — well — almost any other option. Ideas can be explained more eloquently in a blog. Media can be shared more easily on Facebook or MySpace. I endeavored to find people I admire who use Twitter and follow their feeds for a while to see what they do. I created a generic Twitter profile and got down to finding people worth following. Ultimately, they can be broken down into two groups: self-promoters and jokers.

There were a few people I tried following, such as filmmaker Kevin Smith. A word of warning to those who might be considering following Smith on Twitter: He will inundate your feed. He posts a lot about where he’ll be appearing, but a lot of his posts are idle thoughts or answered fan questions. He is not alone in this. And if I wanted to know where Smith was at any given moment in time, or how he felt when he was kicked off an airplane for being overweight, then Twitter serves that purpose. But I enjoy Smith’s writing, and his writing is typically lengthy, complex, and not the sort of thing one could do on Twitter. The result is that the writing he does on Twitter is sub-par.

Whereas Smith is quick with self-deprecating, self-referential posts on Twitter, William Shatner is quick to promote himself, his causes, himself, his TV appearances, and himself. He just goes overboard. There is a way to market something (or someone) without oversaturating the public. After all these years, Shatner has yet to learn this skill.

In the last few years, some folks have made names for themselves from things they’ve posted on Twitter. “Sh*t My Dad Says” is a series of posts that is being transformed into a TV series starring the aforementioned Shatner. Much like “South Park,” once the shock value has worn off, there isn’t much substance to keep me engaged.

At this point, you have to have scrolled back to the top of this article and noticed that the subtitle “The Very Best of Twitter” does not seem applicable. Sorry about that. This article began with me wanting to highlight some of the better feeds on Twitter, but I didn’t feel I could do that without first pointing out that it is, by and large, a steaming pile of dung. The handful of people who have made the most of it are, for the most part, comics who have found just the right balance between goofy one-liners and promotion. They are good at something bad, so please adjust your praise or adoration accordingly.

Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien are talk show hosts/comedians who seem to share the same feeling about Twitter that I do. Nevertheless, they post consistently funny jokes while promoting their respective shows (in Conan’s case, his live shows). Both also make fun of Twitter in their shows, but seem to have conceded to the assumption that to ignore Twitter is to face social obsolescence.

Fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “RiffTrax,” or “Cinematic Titanic” would enjoy following Mike, Kevin, Bill, J. Elvis, and Frank. Their banter back-and-forth is good for a laugh or two. It is often like looking in on a group of talented but silly friends who are IMing each other.

A month or so ago, Roger Ebert appeared on Oprah to announce that he had found new technology to simulate his old voice. However, he didn’t need to, because he has clearly found his voice on Twitter. Here is perhaps the only example of a situation where Twitter can be beneficial — for those unable to share their brilliance or wit in the usual ways. Not everything Ebert posts are gems, but it is a chance for the man to comment on the world. I cannot help but think of Harlan Ellison’s insightful yet dark short story “I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream” when I think of Roger Ebert. Here’s a guy who made a living by being one of few on the planet who could rant articulately. Suddenly silenced, it is nice to see him find an outlet.

I would be disingenuous if I did not include another reason for the existence of Twitter: It is a safe and legal method of stalking people. This is the part of Twitter that I don’t understand, but am quite content to take advantage of. For the life of me, I don’t know why anyone, famous or otherwise, would want to post where they are or what they’re doing to anyone and everyone with access to the internet. But one cannot help but be at least a little bit curious about people, and if they are willing to provide insight into their lives, who am I to judge? To that end, Shannen Doherty, Meghan McCain, Ella Morton, Sarah Silverman, Marina Orlova, and Melissa Gilbert are all on my Twitter stalker list, not because they are all fetching reads (though some are), but because they are all fetching.

Last but not least, there are a few that I follow strictly as promotional tools. I am a big fan of radio, but I don’t listen to it often, instead relying mostly on podcasts. So I follow some radio stations and personalities in order to learn about upcoming shows or events. From Mitch Benn (singer/songwriter for BBC’s “The Now Show”) to Paula Poundstone (regular panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”), their Twitter feeds help me stay in the loop.

But that is basically it. Out of however many millions of people there are on Twitter, I follow less than 60 on an infrequent basis, and only 6 on a regular basis. I don’t post anything on Twitter because a quick Google search of my name returns nearly 15,000 hits. In other words, I am online enough already.

As is often the case, my “Best of” list will probably not match anyone else’s (even though I’m right and everyone else is wrong). I know there are those who adore Twitter and see it as invaluable to their lives. Honestly, though, if it went away tomorrow, who would miss it?

In the grand tradition of those who Twitter, I should not forget to promote my regular series of the worst of Twitter: Hollywood Tw*ts!