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The art of keeping up and failing

It ill bodes anyone who ventures to predict the future – I’ll put my hand up straight away to having totally failed to foresee the way things might go when mobile phones and the internet first appeared in the 1970s/1980s – so you’ll excuse me for taking a deep breath before beginning today’s post.

I’m taking as my text for today a report by Mark Sweney on the news that Channel Four is proposing to move a large proportion of its staff and operations out of London that I spotted today upon the website of – see here – THE GUARDIAN

The fact is that every business model ever devised in any industry has been radically affected by the irreversible ongoing and increasingly rapid advance of science and technology.

[We must make generous allowance here for the sweeping generalisations and ‘bucket chemistry’ approach of many of my theme as I develop them today below].

There was a time when enterprising individuals set up businesses which – if they were fortunate and also worked hard – successively became successful, grew, became established and then finally and happily part of everyday life.

Descendants of the originator then either further developed the business (or didn’t, and perhaps sold out); people joined the enduring ones with the reasonable expectation – later borne out by the actualité – that they would enjoy a reasonable lifestyle and remain with the organisation for their entire working lives; and life progressed down the years with plenty of reassuring certainty.

There were, inevitably, game-changing developments along the way, e.g. the invention of electricity, the combustion engine, moving pictures, motor cars, the telegraph, phones, radio, television, cinema, cement, tarmac roads, heavier-than-air flight, rocket propulsion, space exploration and the atomic bomb, but (generally-speaking) these merely afforded new opportunities for enterprising individuals to begin new businesses.

Meanwhile the fundamentals of business life – inventing a new product, or perhaps producing an existing one more efficiently than before, and the making or the importing them; setting up means of marketing and distribution; of invoicing and receiving payment for them, (hopefully with a significant little profit for the owners of the business, of course); and then perhaps reinvesting some of that into research & development; and opening new markets, whether at home or abroad – continued broadly as before.

That was until more recent technological developments began to change everything.

Take the music industry – there was a long period of time when the great behemoths of the industry, the music publishers and record companies, dominated.

If you were a creative – say a composer, a producer, a sound engineer, and/or of course an artiste – you hoped to get picked up by one or more of them and employed (or ‘signed’), albeit for a relative pittance, partly because that was the norm at the time anyway these organisation giants had to recoup the costs of housing and remunerating the vast army of ‘suits’, executives in every discipline and just hangers-on and gofers that they had acquired along the way – and partly because they then also helped themselves to the ‘nice little earner’ profits that they had always expected and indeed received on top.

Then came the ‘game changers’ – only these were a different type of game-changer. There were agents, lawyers, accountants and other businessmen who began to represent the creatives, who continuously worked to grab an increasing percentage of the ‘upside’ of any huge successes.

And, of course, there scale of those successes were many times what had gone before – groups like the Beatles were generating such huge sums for everyone associated with them that before too long the balance of power in the industry began to shift.

Little independent record labels sprang up. The really-successful groups and artistes (or rather their advisers) started up their own record labels and gradually became more the masters of their own destiny than the subservient slaves, humbly grateful to receive any crumbs that happened to fall from the table of the music industry, that previously they had been.

These days – with the internet as a means of distribution, dedicated YouTube channels and all the other whizzo things that can be done with modern technology – who needs the behemoths of the old days?

Who needs a PR man any longer when some musician can tweet to his 20 million followers and snippets of news about his new impending album release can suddenly and randomly ‘go viral’ or ‘trend’?

Frankly, the same issues apply to all business and industries these days.

Another example. It’s the reason why high streets shops are disappearing and town centres are becoming the refuge of charity shops and fast-food outlets.

Before long – if they are not already – many historic chain store groups will be selling more product online (and distributing their wares via Amazon and similar operations) than they do out of their physical stores. After all, why bother to go to the expense of holding vast swathes of real-estate and/or shopping units – and employing thousands of sales assistants to man every aspect of them – when your competitors (known and unknown to come) are dealing with their customers online and the latter are buying their products by simply clicking on the correct boxes on their computer screens?

And when it comes to home entertainment the prospects are just as stark – and to me, even at my vast age and state of decrepitude – seem very obvious.

One day soon every home will house a vast screen and entertainment centre – probably many of them simply another utility that is automatically included in every new-build house.

The householder will then simply ‘call down’ whatever he or she wants to watch and decide when they want to watch it – and pay (via subscription or ‘pay per view’) accordingly.

Until 1955, when ITV came along, the UK had just one broadcaster (the BBC).

Later in 1967 BBC2 came along, and then Channel Four.

Just four terrestrial channels and anyone who wished to watch something on TV therefore had just for choices.

But who needs these TV behemoths now? The internet, cable TV and satellite TV has the capacity to offer thousands of channels – in fact the means of delivery is almost already an automatic ‘given’. The balance of power has shifted to the programme-makers because, when the means of distribution are automatic and unlimited, what is needed is successful product.

It even doesn’t matter anymore that a globally-successful product is often very expensive to make.

Why? Because even if some massive ball-bustingly successful 26-part glossy drama series cost £80 million to produce … but if its global sales then exceed £300 million – and there’s every chance that it may go on selling healthily for the next twenty years – who cares?

Who needs to be in the cinema (public playing of movies) business anymore – or indeed any of these entertainment people-intensive, administration-intensive (and above all cost-intensive) sectors – anymore?

That’s why my point today is this.

Whenever I follow the latest problems and issues facing the monolith institution that is the BBC (originally founded in 1922 and in terms of paternalistic attitude and self-important outlook – as per its ‘Auntie’ nickname – arguably in some respects little changed since) – or indeed today, this announcement by a rather younger and smaller UK television industry behemoth Channel Four, I always perform a metaphorical shake of the head.

They just don’t get it, do they?

They’re well-established and entrenched institutions of the past that are eternally struggling to try and stay relevant in the current and future. Which is why ultimately they will always fail.

Who needs the BBC or indeed Channel Four at all – save perhaps as some form of state broadcaster spewing out biased supposed news information – when anyone can produce anything if they want and simply ‘get it out there’ by tapping into the currently-available means of entertainment distribution – not to mention those still to be invented that are one day going to shock us all?


About Michael Stuart

After university, Michael spent twelve years working for MELODY MAKER before going freelance. He claims to keep doing it because it is all he knows. More Posts