Channels of Distribution

Over the past week, I’ve been involved in several conversations about the changes to the way we find and consume media. And it got me thinking. Over the past 5-10 years, there really has been a dramatic shift in the way consumers find and purchase entertainment. Gone are the CD store dinosaurs where I got my first job, except for a couple that refuse to face the music. (Yes, horrible pun intended. 😉 ) Gone are the days of browsing genre aisles of shiny new books in Borders (now just depressing, vacant buildings scattered across America like the remnants of a zombie apocalypse). Even the way we watch TV has changed, our schedules no longer dictated by the networks. But is that a bad thing?

Most articles you read talk about this shift from the perspective of the artists, the people creating the products. But what about the impact it’s had on the consumers, on the way people buy? That’s what caught my interest and made me realize just how much my own buying habits have altered over the past few years. Yours probably have too.

Until the digital era began, entertainment industries, whether music, literature, or film, were all dominated by the same business model– large companies that acted as gatekeepers, filtering the creative content the public received. Record labels told us which artists were worthy, the “Big 6” publishing houses defined what “good” literature was, and large film/TV studios determined which movies and shows made the cut and when we were supposed to watch them. But then suddenly, consumers were given choices. Upstarts like iTunes, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix challenged the traditional, declaring that there shouldn’t be a middle man between artists and consumers. And we liked it.

This shift has taken the vast majority of power away from the gatekeeper companies, resulting in larger royalties for artists, a broader spectrum of content and an overall increase in interaction between artists and their fans. But it’s also created a mess of the shopping landscape. From an artist’s standpoint, yes, having to get through the gatekeepers made things more difficult. It sometimes seemed unfair to be forced to bow to their rules and standards, to compromise artistic vision in the name of profit. But the one thing they did was make it easy on consumers. They placed content where it could be easily found, creating focused avenues that shopper’s knew to go to when they were looking for that type of entertainment.

All that has changed. The majority of entertainment consumption seems to happen over the internet now, thanks to the advent of iPods, eReaders and Tablet Computers. And we all know how vast the internet is. So how do people find things? How do they discover new artists, new authors, or TV shows from around the world? How do they wade through an unfiltered swamp of products without the direction the gatekeepers always provided?

I think there are only a handful of strategies:

  1. Personal Recommendations from friends, family or professional reviewers.
  2. Website Algorithms that recommend based off previous purchases — think Amazon’s recommendations, iTunes Genius, or Pandora Internet Radio type services.
  3. Random browsing.

Things like bestseller lists, or recommendations based on your previous purchases and what other people bought after viewing the same product have become far more important in a shopping environment overwhelmed by billions of titles. But while this approach to filtering content can give the illusion of a more personalized shopping experience, there’s one flaw– the lack of a vetting process.

With self-publishing becoming such an easy option for every type of media, the markets are being flooded with products that are released prematurely, leaving consumers to wade through the bog, looking for the gems among the crap. Which, I think, gives rise to the stereotype that self-published equals bad as customers become more and more frustrated with the lack of quality. The gatekeepers might have controlled what the public received, but they also had a built-in quality assurance system. Regardless of personal taste, people could trust that the products they were getting were something of quality that would be worth their hard-earned money. Now that those gatekeepers are being sidestepped, that expectation of professional-grade work is often disappointed.

So we can’t have it both ways apparently. At least not yet. On the one side, we enjoy the wider diversity of content, supporting indie artists in all genres with enthusiasm. But on the other, we complain about the lack of quality in a majority of products, feeling that we’re wasting our time and money on rubbish. Where’s the happy medium?

I expect that the next few years will continue to see a significant shift in the way consumers approach entertainment as both artists and customers adjust to these new shopping strategies. I think that eventually the customers themselves will become the gatekeepers, and that the quality products will rise to the top because they deserve to, not because they’re backed by a large company. But it does beg the question of what purpose the traditional avenues of distribution, the record labels, publishing houses and film studios, will serve in the future. Will they adjust to the changing times, taking on a different role, or will they eventually go the way of Borders, disappearing into nostalgia? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


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