Travel broadens you, they say. Well, exploring other cultures doesn’t always require a passport. I spent the weekend at Playlist Live. It’s an annual conference bringing together people from the digital media industry. Generally, they fall into three groups.
The first is folks working in this relatively new content and distribution industry. These are reps, owners of online marketplaces that connect brands with creators, talent management firms, a few branding agencies, even a startup “network” or two. They mean business and know their stuff. The business language is pretty easy to master if you have any media background (CPM is still a thing).
The next group is the Creators. Also called “influencers”—a name they eschew, they come in all sizes from micro (less than 10,000 subscribers) to the celebrity caste with millions of subscribers and hundreds of thousands of views. They are “rock stars” (not literally although some are about music) and internet celebrity wanna be’s and they’re young—the mean age of the people on the panels discussions I attended was probably 25, maybe younger. Mainly, these folks are razor sharp, great, passionate communicators and they know their audiences. They protect their authenticity because it’s creatively satisfying but also because they are probably some of the greatest brand managers in the world. They want to get paid but they won’t sacrifice their brand to do it. They hold a lot of cards, just like stars always have.
The final group is their devoted audience. Thousands of them came to this Playlist, unquestionably skewed to girls between 10 and 16 (based on my scientific observation of the swarms as they moved from stage to stage, meetup to meetup.) This is perennial, every generation has it. They cheered and swooned for Sinatra, The Beatles and Michael Jackson and today’s pop stars are no different. But this is deeper. For these fans, their creators are more than entertainment. The content includes coaching and a welcoming online community for LGBTQ kids. It’s finding that network of nerds and having a home village where your devotion to a fandom is totally mainstream. It’s comedy, music and art in micro-niches, it’s beauty and fashion, social dialogue and fitness. Ignoring the power of this audience would be among the dumbest moves a brand could make in 2018.
What’s it all mean? Its exciting as hell! In the early 90s I sat with a sage friend named Jud French. We had a series of dialogues in which we modeled a digital media future (this was pre-HD and even 16 X 9 VS 4 X 3 was a hot topic). One of the key tent-pole assumptions was that there would be a diaspora of content away from the network/cable “Sears” model into boutique niches that viewers would access not in by time-and-channel, but by appointment when they wanted it.
We were right about that but didn’t push it far enough when we were creating the DTV recommendations for Walt Disney World where I lead a taskforce on the topic. I recall my very first “streaming” conference. It was so small, they had it in the hallways of a pretty beat hotel in Manhattan. The only name at the dance was Akamai and that just meant a bigger card-table in the hallway.
I shoulda paid even more attention then but I walked away saying “Huh. Television is about to get punched right in the nose. Folks are gonna get content on their COMPUTERS.”
That they do. And more likely today, their phones. Having lived through the Network-to-Cable migration and now the cord cutting and online move, here is what I think I’ve learned. The Greeks had it right. Thespis (who would probably fit right in with the “creators” here), had the idea to speak DIRECTLY to the audience through his persona mask. I’m thinking the director had meltdown that night. That’s today folks. These young, fresh storytellers have finally done what we always wanted to do, they’ve dis-intermediated the distribution system. None of them has to pitch a network executive fueled by fear and greed trying to stay safe in a cushy job. They don’t have to pour their best thinking and passion into a concept only to be told they need a “better show runner” or to have it stolen outright (there are at least two cable series that bear mysterious resemblances to stuff we have pitched-probably you too!) The post-Thespian revolution continued with the printing press, radio, movies, talkies, television and now all of the digital form factors, led by risk takers and entrepreneurs.
The big Takeaway for me includes the fascinating fact that, even as each new distribution form emerged, it didn’t kill off the legacy forms. Live theater is hotter than ever, radio is still going strong, it is by most lights the second Golden Age for Hollywood and the indie film scene, the broadcast networks are making money and so are the cable guys, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are cranking out not only fantastic TV but new forms too. This is no different. This is the next wonderful “Yes and…” in the endless improv of human storytelling.
It does get down to story, and perhaps this new form factor is an even more pure form. Internet influencers are people with a story to tell and they will put it out there because they know that somewhere, they have an audience and they have a very low barrier to entry—an almost completely democratized access to the world. There are no rules. These platforms give people who are creative and open minded an immediate way to access an audience. You might want to know about this world and you might not but I’m telling you, Thespis is smiling, and so is every other revolutionary with the courage to put a story out where the people can get it the way they want it. I am too.