A future without studios?

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the long term result of widespread media piracy, combined with affordable high quality production equipment, is that the Big Media Production Companies are going to die.

You have no reason to be afraid, you’ll still be able to get all the new media you want – and probably more.

We were making music long before SonyBMG rootkitted your mum’s computer because she deigned to play a store-bought music CD in her computer, and we’ll still be making music long after they’ve all gone on to do things more beneficial to society than sue grandparents and school children, and threaten all of their ticket/CD buying customers. (Read that copyright notice next time you play a legally purchased DVD.)

We were even making music long before anyone had ever conceived of such a thing as a multitrack digital recording studio, or reel-to-reel tape recorder. We’ve been making music since we discovered that it’s fun to shake your ass with hot cavegirls, cavorting around an open fire while you wait for your mastodon to cook through.

People are driven to create. Some of us do it in writing (on papyrus, in a novel, or on a blog), painting (in photoshop, or by spitting coloured earth onto the wall of a cave), or making silly little videos distributed through YouTube.

Others put huge wheels & a loud exhaust making a near undrivable car, or they make their hair really spikey and wear shiny shiny tops that match their pants just-so.

And some people make music. (A few of them even make really great music.)

Do you have any idea how much it costs to a record an album these days?

Give me two hours and I’ll have one for you. It’ll be 60 minutes of me singing randomly into a cheap microphone (and leaning away when I breathe), perhaps a little bit of knob twiddling in ReBirth, and maybe some quite bad beatboxing – so it’ll sound like complete crap, as I can neither sing or play an instrument.

But it doesn’t matter that any music I make might sound like crap, what matters is that I can, and for peanuts. Because that means that people with actually, honest-to-god musical talent can too.

Some people, using nothing more than a $50 ukulele, their girlfriends sweet sweet voice, and a laptop can make music that you’d actually like.  (As long as you like the sound of a ukulele.  Which I’m sure you do.  It’s nearly as good as spacebanjo.)

Of course if you really don’t like ukulele, the next Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Shihad, or The Beatles, have been practicing at lunchtimes in their school music room all year. They’re going to rock the top of your head off.  Seriously, they’re so good your parents will simply hate them.

No matter what happens, new music will continue to be created, and you’ll get access to stuff that you’ll love – possibly even easier access than you currently have – so what does it matter what happens to the Big Music Labels?

Well, how will musicians make money?

That’s a billion dollar question, but it will be through a combination of things: One, not all musicians do it for money. Many of the ones who want to do it for money, won’t make any – just like now – but probably without the heavy debt burden they’re encouraged into by oppressive Big Label contracts today. Some will sell MP3s through various online means, work a day job (or if they’re lucky, not need to do that), and play gigs on the weekend, maybe getting it together to tour for a couple of weeks once a year. And the very lucky few will be massive global superstars. Those last ones will almost certainly make the large majority of their money from selling concert tickets. Which is exactly how it is today – the studios take the lion’s share of every album sale. The biggest bands in the world make most of their money from performing live.

So who cares about the Big Music Labels? I’ll tell you who: the Big Music Labels, and the Big Music Labels’ Mums.

There are some lawyers who will have to go back to raping children and burning kittens when the Big Music Industry teat runs dry. So perhaps we should beat them to the punch.  Think of the children and the kittens – and line the Media Lawyers up against a wall, to be ridiculed and mown down with hot lead. (And bill their families for the executioner’s time in 6 minute increments. Plus expenses.)

That’s all, the rest of us can live without them.

So music will be fine. Buy some, copy some. But whenever a band you like visits town buy a ticket. Get a t-shirt as well if they have one you fancy. Because it’s these things that make a real difference to most bands.

Ahh, but that’s music. Music is easy.

Some of the Big Studios do something else – they make TV & movies, and there is simply no question that making slick, well produced moving images is vastly more difficult than recording music.  (NB. I’m talking about the physical act here, without considering for the the creative requirement.)

After all, film is really expensive stuff. You need all of those extras, who need to be fed and paid, and you need a budget to pay for things to blow up (cars, houses, city blocks, zombies) and blood to spray around liberally, and all of that other good stuff that all great movies need to have in buckets.

Yeah, it’s true. Those things do cost money. Lots of money.

So find some smarter way to do it.

Do you know what it costs to buy a top of the range High Definition digital video camera? I’m not talking about one for recording Timmy’s first birthday, but one suited to making theatre quality movies?

Well, the RED ONE camera platform costs less than US$20k, you’ll also need lights and lenses and various other miscellanea, so maybe you’ll be lucky to get out of the shop for about double that.

But this is just some stupid damn video camera, the serious guys all use film, right?

Yeah, well Peter Jackson has already used a RED ONE to produce a short film. Steven Soderbergh’s using them for his next film (Wanted, starring Morgan Freemand & Angelina Jolie). 28 Days Later used vastly inferior digital camers SIX YEARS ago, and it did just fine in theatres. (And according to the filmmakers, couldn’t have been made with conventional film cameras, as the setup time was too long to fit into their tight shooting schedule.)

This camera shoots at about 4x the definition of 1080P – which is the very best quality video you can get for your home. And you can order one through the web today. (This isn’t vapour, there are already some in Auckland.)

US$40K sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? Well, it’s less than some of my friends spend on cars. And: what will the same quality cost in another couple of generations? What is now car money, might very well be scooter money in 5 years – and built into your phone in 10 years.

(NB. RED have already announced that they’ll be releasing details about a new high definition digital camera in April this year.  Small and more afforadble, but specifics aren’t yet available.)

You can already get low end high def cameras for less than scooter money, in fact some high def cameras can be had for around NZ$500 already. Today in a camera shop in Auckland.

These certainly aren’t suitable for producing full length theatre quality movies, not even close. But they’re a start, and they can be used to produce very high quality video for web distribution, or, with the right smarts behind the lens, have a pretty good go at producing a good TV documentary.

Who’s to say that web video won’t be the dominant way people – including your granny – get their daily news in just a few short years? I mean, I already do, and most of the readers of this site probably do as well.  And we’re not that far ahead of the curve, it just requires a critical mass, get the eyeballs online, get the advertisers online, and you get the relatively small budget required to produce a damn good daily video.

Just look at what Revision3 are doing, they have a number of different shows, from about 30 minutes to a couple of hours of new video, shot in high def (but distributed in various formats of differing resolutions, depending on how much you want to download) every weekday.  Made with high production values, and very entertaining if you’re in their demographic.  And it’s all free.  (Advertising pays, with products relevant to a given show.)

It’s already true that the majority of special effects for TV &  movies are added by computer, from Gollum in Lord of the Rings to much less obvious work, muzzle flashes in action movies/shows, small explosions in the background, simple green screen work for all kinds of digital compositing, and so on, these computing technologies are already a firm part of movie & TV production.

And do you know what happens with computing technology? It gets more powerful – and more affordable – every day.

The same thing that happened to music before, has been happening to TV and movies as well.  Many people share this media online, so what happens when money starts to drift away from the Big Media Industry? Who will make the US$150M movies then?

Well, to be honest there will still be room for clever production houses – the ones making great movies, using smart new technologies. Going out to the movies can be a nice experience – and what ticket sales and boxed sets (which will continue to be purchased by keen collectors no matter whether a free or cheap version is available online) don’t pay for will be covered by product placement. (Which is the last reliable way for the big brands to get their product a share of your mind. TV shows shared online have all of the conventional advertisement breaks cut out, and movies have lead in advertising or trailers.)

But most movies won’t cost US$150M, they probably won’t even cost one, because they’ll be made by small teams of clever, creative, enthusiasts. Using high resolution digital equipment, cut together and composited on (relatively) inexpensive & powerful computers, using clever modern software.

And of course some really bad movies will be made, just like they are now, but they don’t have to be one set talkfests.  It’s easier and easier to achieve the asplodey wonder of big budget block busters in commodity computers, you just need to be smart & creative, just like one person using basic hand tools can build fine furniture that will last for generations, and another can get a flatpack home from Ikea and still fuck up his new shelves.

Here’s a simple example of what can be done if have only a modest budget, but have talent, and can apply your smarts creatively:

Making movies will never be easy, technology won’t make idiots smart, or dullards creative, but it just might be affordable. Enough so that it’ll be within the reach of the enthusiastic few that feel a need to make movies, or who have a great idea for a TV show.

So, do we need Big Studios? Is there some other way to produce the media we consume?  Or do we need their seemingly bottomless hostility to the media hungry public? Do we need their legal threats? Do we need them infecting our politicians (and thereby our laws) with an oppressive culture of ownership?

I think the answer is no, there is a smarter, more efficient, and more open way.  But I’m keen to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment.