An Optimist’s View of the Democratization of Expertise and Distribution
Marco Arment writes a lot that I love to read. But I read this post and I found myself in profound disagreement with the article he quoted in “We’re just flipping through index cards”… the overall theme of which seems to be that the democratization of distribution has made the world worse-off in many respects. It is pretty doom-and-gloom. But I have an optimistic take on this, and I think any reasonable person will agree.
Marco quotes John Roderick’s podcast interview as follows:
When a Marvin Gaye record came out 40 years ago, presumably, you went and spent your record-buying allowance on it, and you brought it home and listened to it exclusively for 2 weeks. It was an investment. This was it! You’re going to listen to this, or you’ve got an AM radio and a newspaper.
Now, we’re just clicking through songs. “How does this one sound? Oh, that’s good. How does this one sound? Pretty good. This one’s good.”
We’re just flipping through index cards.
The implication is that we’re not making an investment, anymore, when we buy (or acquire) music. That’s probably fair. And Marco basically picks up with this part and piles on. But he quotes the whole section, and above this nice part at the end that everyone would agree with, is a bunch of stuff I couldn’t disagree with more:
Now, we live in a world where there are probably more records coming out this week than what came out in all of 1967. All of that quantity probably hasn’t produced a single record that was as good as the worst record from 1967. Everything is easier to make, so more people are making it, the standard is so much lower for what you need, and it’s a confusing din.
This is just wrong. What has happened, is the “democratization” of access to other people’s music, and the democratization of people’s ability to share their music, has changed the dynamic. If I record music, I can share it. I don’t need a record company. If I want to experience music, I can find it online, on YouTube, and on iTunes, I don’t need to go to the record store or one of 5 radio stations.
And the result: We get exposed to really good music, all the time. And what people pre-Internet are just not prepared for is the fact that unique expertise and skill, isn’t nearly as unique as we thought it was. In fact, there are lots of skillful musicians. I recall walking through a Target store a year ago, when someone walking the other way, with her cart, and her daughter, was singing a popular song from the radio. I thought for a moment it was coming over the speakers in the Audio section – but it wasn’t. Her voice was better than the recorded song on the radio and she was just some woman walking through Target, with the voice of an angel. And I remember it vividly because it was so casual, so effortless and pedestrian in terms of where we were, a place you do not expect to hear such a quality vocal.
So we’re just not conditioned to expect this. I experienced a form of this shock when I moved from Missouri to Florida. I was a tennis player. It will come as no surprise that there are a great many more great tennis players in Florida than there are in Missouri. Not just more total, because it is a bigger state, but more great players on a percentage basis of players, because of the community and culture and frequency of playing in Florida. So I was one of the best players in my age in my home town in Missouri, and I could barely make my high school team in Florida. I raised my game massively to make that team, and the competition made me better. Being surrounded by great players and more of them didn’t cheapen the tennis experience, it enhanced it. I feel the same way about music when I go out in Austin. The level of play and skill here is fantastic. And it is better than the recorded versions I can hear from 1967.
Now. The other side of this is that sure, there’s the shock of expertise and skill being less unique than we thought. The other issue is that we don’t have shared cultural significance as we would have before. Had I stayed in my home town in Missouri, perhaps people would have told stories about my tennis matches against rival schools, if I was the #1 player on my team. In Florida, no one told stories about my epic matches. My epic matches were lost in a sea of epic matches by better players against better opponents. In music, we don’t have the same cultural shared experience of the Led Zeppelin album, or Marvin Gaye record. And that’s one of the things that people feel is missing. Because we don’t have to make that investment. And when we do, we can’t rely on the idea that others have made that same investment we have.
Don’t despair, just go find a local band, buy their music, and attend their shows. You might be surprised. Create those shared experiences with your friends.
Putting this back in an app context… Are the apps today worse than the software applications being produced in the 1980’s? I think objectively they are clearly superior in nearly every respect. If you used software in the 80’s – from word processing to email – the world has gotten much better – despite or because of the democratization of distribution and the democratization of expertise (in this case, the expertise of writing and distributing software).
When I look around me, more experts and more music and more distribution doesn’t look like a bad thing. And the shared experiences are just happening differently – distributed quickly through Facebook and Twitter posts.