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APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: The Case for Collecting

16 Nov, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

OK. I admit it. I’m stuck. It’s this “Knowledge Economy” thing. Or you may recognize it as “Information Economy.”

Then there’s the convergence consultant I ran into last Thursday at a tony PricewaterhouseCoopers Entertainment, Media & Communications symposium on “The New Convergence: Visions Searching for Value.” (If you missed the old convergence, fret not. It was a party where nobody came.) The consultant called it the “Communications Economy.” Already positioned in a corner of the room, I pursued that metaphor by cornering him with the question of whether his using “Communications” instead of “Knowledge” was meant to put the accent on distribution (what’s now popularly called “the pipe”) over content.

“That’s a good question,” he clarified. (Notably, this was the second such high-level confab in the past few weeks I attended where speakers proclaimed that “Cash is king, and so is content.” I guess if the queen had content, she’d be king. For now, she’ll have to be content handling the pipe.)What brings all this to mind is the growing proliferation of information flowing into our lifestream by the hour. Digital technology will only makeit worse — or better, depending on your point of view and use for the information. How is one expected to manage the morass?

More than personal archives of newspapers and magazines — for those of us packrats who collect such cultural artifacts — there’s a sentimental attachment many have to their collections of recordings. They comprise a time capsule of a history both personal and public, not just in title selection, but in format.

Reflective of the baby boomer generation, my time capsule — which is strewn about a basement sorely in need of an organizing principle — includes audio disks with RPMs of 78, 45, and 33-1/3, as well as video formats including Beta, VHS and LaserDisc. My digital media, CD and DVD, resides on the upper floors.

As hard as it is for an inveterate, sentimental sap of a collector like me to let go some of this “stuff,” as George Carlin famously called it in one of his classic comic riffs, something’s gotta give.

Meanwhile, back at the PricewaterhouseCoopers Global Summit, during a panel discussion moderated by CNN’s Jeff Greenfield — and populated by a spectrum of personalities ranging from ex-Department of Justice antitrust counsel and current Bertelsmann exec Joel Klein to Martha “I’m the only living brand up here” Stewart — Klein remarked that while content may boast regal bearing and good content always will “find an audience,” owning that precious pipe is a mighty nice way for a company to amortize the cost of that “royalty.”

Cliff Friedman of Bear Stearns’ Constellation Ventures put it another way: “It’s creativity and content that drives it, and technology that delivers it.” Assessing the defining issue of the future for digital rights holders — asset management — he added his company is focused on solutions for intellectual property (IP) protection and network security that include secure streaming and downloading, and content measuring and monitoring. The point, said Freeman, is to “assure when someone creates content or puts content on a channel, they get paid for it.” The prevailing sense of entitlement among those who abide by a digital morality that clears their conscience for owning property without paying for it presumes they wouldn’t mind not getting paid either for whatever goods or services they provide for a living. A distinction, too, must be drawn between those who casually use a file-sharing service absent any agenda, and those who are almost militant in asserting their right to perform a public service by freeing digital content from the enslavement its creators would perpetuate in the name of filthy lucre. There was never so disingenuous an axiom as “Information wants to be free.” Whoever believes information is confiding this secret yearning to them could perform a better public service by donating their brain to science. Next thing you know, these information muggers will be telling us that “Information wants the right to vote.” Fine, but I put my foot down when it starts asking for health care benefits.

But I digress. The point is that during the 20th Century, the only technologically feasible way for artists and distributors to get paid in a secure manner was by putting their works in the physical form of a hard copy. Until the ubiquity of cassette recording came along, the suppliers could tightly control the number of copies in the marketplace and know they were getting compensated for virtually every one acquired by a consumer.That was the 20th Century. Now there is digital delivery and the race is on among content owners to do what Friedman was talking about: make sure they can deliver and monetize their entertainment content to the consumer public through a digital pipe while maintaining the kind of control afforded by good, ol’ fashioned physical distribution.

In tandem with this development is the generational mutation we’re witnessing, where those born since the baby boom went bust in the mid-Sixties aren’t as inextricably attached to physical copies of their cultural heritage. The touchstone for this evolutionary phenomenon is, in a word, Napster.

Like the man said, content rules. The form of storage and retrieval it takes does not rule; it serves the king.As the 21st Century proceeds, collectibility — of music, movies, games — will decreasingly rely on amassing physical packages that take up more space than the average consumer commands.Do today's young music fans care so much about collecting CDs or simply having their favorite individual tracks directly accessible and selectable on their hard drives and MP3 portable players?

As the digital stream of data that defines our lives expands exponentially, it will not be feasible to store that data in a physical space, and digital storage in devices such as home servers will become more appealing — and necessary.

As everything becomes more electronic, the charm and value of collecting prerecorded, commercially packaged copies will, like aging newsprint or turn-of-the-20th Century daguerrotypes, fade into a quaint curiosity held dear by grandparents and marveled at by their descendants.

I rest my CD case.

Comments? Contact Bruce directly at:BApar@advanstar.com

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