Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The RIAA and the Weeds of Crime

This is part one of two-part post. As the music industry frantically tries to reverse a paradigm shift -- even if it means stripping the gears -- I'd like to offer up another example of what happens when a business embraces rather than fights the evolution of its market.

The dairy industry's fight against margarine parallels the actions of the RIAA, and I think gives us a good indication of their probable success. Magazine publishers have also faced the challanges of new media. Let's look at what happens when you focus on content instead of product, and lessons the RIAA should learn.

Lesson 1: Repurpose the content
Street and Smith was the largest magazine publisher in the US from the end of World War I until they wer bought by Conde Nast in 1959. During the 1930's, pulp fiction magazines were a major source of entertainment for the American public. When the new media radio came on the scene, Street and Smith was an eary adapter, creating an anthology mystery series based on stories published in their magazines. The fictional character they created to host the series was the Shadow, who each week entoned, "The weeds of crime bear bitter fruit. The Shadow knows."

Lesson 2: Give your customers what they want
Although the radio series wasn't that successful, the Shadow generated so much response that Street and Smith launched a magazine devoted to his adventures. It was so successful that the magazine started out monthly, then went to bi-weekly, and then weekly for a brief time, threatening the health and sanity of Walter Gibson, the author the 60,000 word novels about the Shadow that appeared in every issue! Eventually it returned to a bi-weekly schedule.

Lesson 3: Sell the content, not the item
Technically, Street and Smith was only concerned about selling bundles of pulp paper -- just as the record industry has concerned itself with the selling of shiny plastic discs -- and the content was only the way to persuade the customer to by yet another bundle of paper. In reality, Street and Smith understood the value of their content, and it created an additional income stream for them. There were Shadow decoder rings, games, cloaks, and many other licensed tie-in products. The Shadow became a valuable property.

Lesson 4: Adopt to change
The character pulp magazine was a booming business by the late 1930's. In addition to the Shaodw, Street and Smith introduced Doc Savage. There was also the Spider, Operator 5, G-8 and his Battle Aces, and many many more. Comic books entered the scene, and began stealing readers from these pulps. Comics had pictures, and it was a more appealling medium for the adolescent reader, the core hero pulp reader.

Rather than lobbying Congress to pass laws against comics, Street and Smith offered their own line of comics featuring their star heros, including the Shadow. Often the comic books featured adaptations of published adventures -- content Street and Smith had already paid for.

Lesson 5: The value of the content can outlast its original purpose
After World War II the market for pulp fiction magazines all but completely dried up. Adults were reading a new kind of book -- paperbacks -- and kids were reading comics. The Shadow magazine, along with the other hero pulps were quietly cancelled in the late 1940's. Street and Smith was always a diverse publisher, and their income now rested on their general interest and non-fiction magazines -- which is where the market is today.

Eventually Street and Smith was sold to Conde Nast, but the value of the Shadow was never forgotten. A series of original story paperbacks were published in the mid-1960's in an attempt to update the character. In the early 1970s Bantam Book republished a number of the original Shadow novels from the magazine. DC Comics did two runs plus a limited series based on the character, once in the 1970's and again the 1980's. A Shadow movie starring Alex Baldwin was released (although not to any great success). And now Nostalgia Ventures is reprinting the original Shadow novels again.

If Street and Smith had stayed wedded to the concept that they sold magazines, and everyone who wanted was interested in the Shadow had to buy their own copy of the magazine, then a vast fortune would have been lost. Part of what makes the Shadow so valuable is that the character has appeared in virtually every form of media to come along, and as a result has become something of a cultural icon.

The final lesson for the RIAA? Stop chasing pennies, so you can catching dollars. Exchange the concept of making every person pay for every copy of every song they hear in every form of media with a system that gives people what they want at a fair price.

The weeds of greed also bear bitter fruit. The Shadow knows!

- Ralph

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