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Media: What's Past is Prologue

Andy Weissman of Union Square Ventures suggests that the future of media can actually be found in its past. Could a return to branding be the answer?

photo credit: Flickr

Information does not want to be free; instead it wants to be distributed friction free. What that means is that information - content - wants to be in as many places as possible, with many options for access, and with an ease of use to access.

Today, we have an abundance of great content flowing through many channels.

Hulu, Twitter, HBO, Youtube, AMC, ebooks, Wattpad, Soundcloud, MediaReDefined, iTunes, Amazon, Tumblr, Spotify, 9gag. Compared to a few years ago, this change has been remarkable.

As a result we are moving to a world where almost everything is available, basically on demand. The problem for users in this environment is no longer "what CAN I watch" (or read or listen to). Instead, the problem for users is now "what SHOULD I watch " (or read or listen to). The problem has moved from can to should.

At the same time, over the past few years we have seen the transformation of how media is produced and distributed. The traditional roles, or competencies, normally assigned to media companies – distribution, promotion, marketing – have been disaggregated. In a world where people are sharing – liking, reblogging, embedding, etc – the distribution and marketing function, while important, may no longer be a central competency for a media producer. (And as Kickstarter has shown, financing may not be either).

In this environment, the role for the "media company" is vastly different than the last few decades. Which is not to suggest that in the networked media economy the role of a "MediaCo" is any less important. To the contrary, I think they are even more important and maybe even more valuable to the ecosystem than ever before. But to do so they need to look to the past for the most relevant models. In other words, look backwards, not forwards.

If we strip out distribution, promotion and marketing as core competencies, the role of the media company might be, quite simply: curated products chosen by a small group of people who just have better taste than everyone else.

In other words, users need to rely on someone or something for taste. Which is hugely valuable. And branded tastemakers make perfect sense. Because taste matters and is hugely valuable. Which is also how it used to work in the past. For example: MGM films, at one point had a brand associated with sophisticated films in Technicolor. Later, it focused on musicals. Elektra Records – led by Jac Holzman  was an artists-oriented rock label, associated with the Doors, Love, The Stooges. Miramax films  I still check out what Miramax releases due to the strength of The Crying Game and Reservoir Dogs, back from 1992. HBO original series  From The Sopranos to The Wire. Sub Pop records – indie rock (I still check their new releases every Tuesday). Da Capo Press  probably the best music book publishers. And so on.

What these few examples have in common is that the core value provided by MGM, Sub Pop, etc.  is their taste. Not their ability to manufacture, or promote, or distribute - but instead their ability to pick great content. Not everytime, for sure, but often enough that they in turn could became brands associated with a certain taste. One that can change over time, but one that is rooted in an ability to make choices.

So maybe then the future of media is actually to be found in its past. Media companies need to stand for a point of view, a genre, a way of thinking about content, a set of content related principles. They need to themselves become brands, again.


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