Something in the media distribution system seems to be breaking down faster and faster lately lately. There’s no shortage of media in the world for us to watch, listen to, or interact with. But the ability to control that media in a way that makes it profitable seems to have been outstripped by the consumer’s ability to gather and share it directly.
In fact, the greater a fan you are of a particular thing the more likely you are to be able to leap over the proscribed boundaries and find the more obscure bits and pieces of your passion. Looking for the next new byte of media also has an added benefit, in that when you search for that material it puts you directly into contact with other like minded fans. People who will welcome and celebrate another explorer.
So it’s a bit disconcerting to see a company going down the tubes when it’s more than likely that file sharing had a lot to do with their downfall. Geneon isn’t a business that most people have heard of, but they’ve been a big player in the American anime industry for almost a decade, and their inability to pay the bills is a frightening reminder that money needs to change hands if you want a business to stay in business.
And the current economics of anime can’t be good if you’re a publisher. When a show appears in Japan it is rapidly translated (fansubbed) and posted to the internet within a day of it’s appearance in Japan, by a fan community that’s ravenous for fresh content. The fact that most of anime is comprised of serial episodes that go on for dozens or even hundreds of episodes, is even more incentive to get every one of them into your eyeballs as quickly as possible.
The practical effect is that by the time a show has been licensed, dubbed, subtitled, packaged, and delivered to stores by an American licensor, the community has long moved on. They’re either 100 episodes ahead, or they’ve moved on to a different show entirely.
There’s no doubt that having an active and aware fan base does have some kind of positive marketing effect when the media hits. Up until the last few years the Anime industry has been to turn a blind eye, let the fans do their thing, and create a “buzz” around their media. In return the subbers often pull the “official” torrent links when a show is licensed. But you can’t un-release information. And with the increasing nerdification of the nation,the dynamics of the industry are changing in a way that is cutting the traditional publisher out of the equation entirely.
And if you want to see the cutting edge of the coming media trends, there’s few better example of a dialed-in and passionate community than anime fans. They’ve figured out that you don’t even need to know how to use bit-torrent to catch up on the more popular shows. They’re simply chopped up and fed directly onto YouTube.
What does this mean for the media industry at large? Certainly the concept that linear media overlords can spoon feed content to a willing audience is an idea whose time has passed. DRM just becomes a way for the elite to prove how cool they really are, by crawling over each other in their efforts to crack it. And the concept of file-sharing as a criminal lottery doesn’t seem to have stopped the phenomenon of peer to peer file sharing from growing leaps and bounds. After all, the more people who are doing it, the less like it is that you’ll be the one who’s going to get caught.
But it’s still a free market, and there’s still money to be made, if you’re smart. After all any system, even the “free information” society, still has points where money can be extracted, especially when the alternative is no entertainment at all.
The question is, will the traditional media companies be the ones to figure out how to do it? History says probably not. And change, especially when you have a wealthy, complacent, and angry traditional business fighting against it, is never a pretty thing.