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What's Happening to Media?

Tien Tzuo
CEO, Zuora

Something interesting is happening in media. 

This week, for example, Spotify announced that it will launch paid podcast subscriptions on its platform. Instead of relying solely on advertising revenue, podcast creators on Spotify will now be able to monetize their work directly.

“We have found that, through our research, it seems to work especially well for creators who have really engaged and dedicated audiences — regardless of the audience size,” said Spotify’s Michael Mignano. “We’ve also found that podcast listeners do tend to be open to financially supporting the shows they love.”

That last statement will come as a surprise to exactly no one, but I’m glad that Spotify has finally seen the light. Better late than never. 

But what’s really going on here? 

Well, clearly Spotify wants to be the marketplace of choice for musicians and podcast creators, the same way that Substack wants to attract writers, Vimeo wants to attract filmmakers, Behance wants to attract designers, and Patreon wants to attract all of the above. And increasingly, this means not only providing creators with a platform and an audience, but also a way to monetize their work directly through subscriptions and direct sales.

In the book I call this present moment the “golden age of media,” and I still firmly believe that. Artists still need to be paid more (here I’m looking at you again, Spotify), but there is so much more music to explore, so many new movies and shows to watch, so many new voices to discover. All my friends grumble about all the shows and podcasts they need to catch up on, but that’s a nice problem to have.

This is a big change. The media didn’t use to work this way. When I was growing up, the work of producing and distributing popular art was primarily confined to a handful of studios and publishers.  Selection was limited. In terms of business models, the whole system operated like a portfolio — the hits were intended to pay for the misses, but creators were only allowed so many misses. If your movie wasn’t a blockbuster or your song wasn’t a hit, you got dropped. 

Today everyone is their own studio. In this new creator economy, power has become decentralized. Of course there will always be gatekeepers, but if you work hard and connect with enough people to build a stable platform of recurring revenue, then you don’t have a sword hanging over your head. You don’t have to chase after the lowest common denominator. You can create anything you want.

Today everyone is their own studio. Power has become decentralized.

This shift is also happening in perhaps the most successful media vertical of all: video games. Unity, for example, is a developer platforms that is used to create over half of the world’s video games, as well as dozens of feature films every year. When they shifted to subscriptions a few years ago, they didn’t just do it for financial reasons — they did it for creative ones as well. 

“In today’s world, we can’t leave customers behind for a year because we are in the process of releasing a major version,” said Unity Co-Founder Joachim Ante in a blog post. “With our switch to subscription, we can make Unity incrementally better, every week. When a feature is complete, we will ship it. If it is not ready we will wait for the next point release. Our switch to subscription is absolutely necessary in order for us to provide a robust and stable platform.”

A robust and stable financial platform — ask any freelance creative what that means to them, and they’ll probably tell you that it means a lot.  If you want to work in the commercial arts today, your imagination should be wild and free, but your finances should be nice and boring.

Welcome to the new golden age of media. 

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