Fallacy Debunking: Successful New Business Model Examples Are The 'Exception'

from the debunker's-forum dept

I've been meaning to start to put together a series of posts that debunk the common "criticisms" we get that are all too often based on logical fallacies. I end up spending way too much time in the comments responding to people posting those same logical fallacies over and over again, and it would be nice to be able to point to posts that "answer" the complaints quickly. I'm still not sure if I'll ever really get around to it, but sometimes someone else does such a nice job of it, that I might as well highlight it with a post here.

In this case, it's the commonly claimed fallacy that all these new business models don't really matter because of two things: (1) so much money is still going to the "big players," and (2) there are only a "few" examples of these models working, so they're outliers.

One example of this kind of thinking was seen in the comments to our recent post about the developer of the game Minecraft making $100,000 per day, without any distribution or retail deals or really any outside help. Yet, one of our commenters said this was nothing, because Halo made $200 million on its first day. Of course, that's a pure apples to oranges comparison. Halo is from Microsoft, and involves a giant team, a huge budget, massive advertising and distribution deals. I would guess that if you compared the two in terms of profitability per developer, Minecraft would win by a wide, wide margin.

Anyway, it's a meaningless comparison. Setting an artificial level as determining what counts as a "success" makes no sense. What we're interested in when we're looking at new business models and new strategies is how these compare to how a similar person would have done without those models. Without the internet and the ability to distribute Minecraft the way Markus Persson is doing so, he wouldn't be making anywhere near $100,000 per day. More likely is that he'd be working for a much larger gaming company, one piece in a cog, and bringing in something closer to $100,000 for the year, and not working on projects nearly as interesting.

Another example of this occurred earlier this year, when a Billboard reporter, Anthony Bruno, attacked the concept of "CwF+RtB" by arguing that I've only "cherry picked" the success stories, and many who have tried it failed to become successful. But, that makes no sense. No one guaranteed that using a smart business model automatically makes your band a huge success. What we said is that if you do it right, it's likely you'd be more successful than otherwise -- but that still might involve only a minor improvement if under the old system you wouldn't be successful at all. And if the CwF+RtB concept doesn't matter because some artists who have used it haven't become big stars, then wouldn't that mean that the "traditional" model of big record label/sell CDs has always been a dreadful failure since so few artists become successful that way? After all, pointing to the success of Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or the Beatles under the old model, is certainly pointing to the cherry-picked "exceptions."

Andrew Dubber points us to a fantastic blog post by Rich Huxley, of the band Hope & Social, who ran into this sort of "criticism" after writing a blog post (similar to many we've written) reminding everyone that the big record labels are not the "music industry." In the comments, a guy named Tim London challenged that by claiming that since the big record labels still take in a ton of money (in aggregate), and many of these new business models appear to be artists making much smaller amounts, the record labels still are the industry. One sentence from his comment should give you the general summary:
I know you're wrong because the music industry as represented by the majors is still coining it and the music industry as rep'd by you is getting by, struggling, working part time or making music as a hobby.
There's that apples and oranges comparison again. Thankfully, Huxley decided to write an entire (brilliant) blog post debunking the idea that the total amount of money some record labels make is indicative of the overall value of a particular model. First, he goes through some basics to show how many musicians there are out there, and points out that money made isn't always an indicator of quality ("That Van Gogh was a penniless artists does not diminish the greatness of his work.")

But then comes the real point, explained eloquently. The critics like this highlight the huge earners in the existing industry, but ignore that the overwhelming majority of the folks who try to go the old route end up making $0. They mock the person embracing new business models for "only" making a decent living, ignoring the fact that so many who went the way they prefer were drummed out of the industry making no living at all. Here's the way Huxley explains it:
Less than 10% of signed artists recoup. Take Maximo Park for example. They have by their own admission never made a penny from record sales and make their money from DJ sets in the main. An example I have first hand knowledge of, Embrace, have sold millions of albums, they were a genuinely massive band; they performed from Glastonbury main-stage to Top Of The Pops and everywhere in-between. When they split from Virgin, they owed their label three quarters of a million pounds. I guess my point is that if we promote the Trad Music Biz's model as "The model" then the message we'd be sending is:
  • less than one percent of musical artists are part of the music business
  • only a tenth of those will recoup and make money from their record sales, and that's good
  • an artist should be saddled with debt, the rate at which they pay that back is equivalent to a credit card with a 900% interest rate
Basically, the problem is that those who cherry pick just the biggest artists ignore all the ones who made nothing at all from a record label deal, thanks to the fun of RIAA accounting. In other words, those artists are the true "exceptions." They're the ones who got the winning lottery ticket, but you can't ignore all those who got nothing. If you were to put all of the musicians who went the "traditional" route into a set, and all of the musicians going the "new" route into a set, and took the median, I'd guarantee that it would be higher in the new set. And that's the point. Embracing the new ways makes it much more likely that you'll make some money. It improves your chance of being able to make money making music. And that seems like a good thing, right?

As a part of that, of course, is that all of the costs have gone down with the new ways of doing things. The reason why people needed the old gatekeepers to fund stuff in the past was because there were no cheaper options. The only way to actually get this stuff done was to go through them. But these days, everything is cheaper. As Huxley notes with his band:
Hope and Social believe in and benefit from Pay What You Want. We go on about this here, but also... As musicians, we all have the ability to take advantage of the same channels that H&S have:
  • dramatically reduced costs of recording
  • a zero cost of distribution (should we choose to make mp3s available on the internet then there's no cost to us. This is miles away from the Trad model where the cost of recording and manufacture made it nigh on impossible to record and release independently)
  • reduced cost of promotion (CD's don't need to be sent to reviewers, press etc at the cost of a quid per CD, and half again on postage)
  • and by building relationships with people, they become our PRs, our evangelists (to coin another religious term, man I've got to stop doing that)

Also, there is a value in making your music available for free. If someone downloads an album of ours and shares it with a friend, copies the CD, plays it at a party, then that's how we share and have our music heard by more people. This results in:

  • higher gig attendances
  • better paid shows
  • more sales of our music
  • more sales on other merchandise and art that we, and our fans make.
Finally, I'll make one final debunking point that Huxley didn't cover: London seems to have confused absolute revenue with the change in revenue (delta). If you look at those embracing new models, it may be smaller (now), but it's growing quite quickly. If you look at the big record labels, they're declining in size. Which trend is a better bet? It's really a version of the Innovator's Dilemma where the new growth trend is ignored because it's not "as big" as the legacy business. Ignoring the deltas is dangerous.

And there we go. If you're claiming these new model success stories are the "exception," then it's only fair to admit that those who succeed under the traditional models you claim are so good were actually much bigger "exceptions." Can we now consider this argument debunked, and just link back to this post any time people bring up an argument like this?

Filed Under: business models, exceptions, fallacies


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2010 @ 1:45am

    ERROR 32: IDIOTS ABOUND

    It appears that a number of contributors are trying to swat flies that they can't see.

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