Friday New Tools Feature: Evolve, or Die

The digital age has brought us countless wonders of innovation, and dramatically changed the way we live our lives. Most of my friends can't imagine how people lived before cell phones and Google, and we barely remember life before iTunes. But this rapid and dramatic shift in the media and communications landscape has not been easy for everyone; whole industries are being forced to evolve or perish.

Probably the worst industry in this regard has been the music industry. Their reaction to change has been extremely reactionary and ugly, from the RIAA's ridiculous fines (most recently, a verdict resulting in a multi-million-dollar fine for two dozen songs downloaded from Kazaa, or $80,000 per song), to their new attempt to collect royalties for 30-second sample clips on iTunes (Gizmodo's expletive-laced reaction to this announcement was likely mirrored by most consumers). Unfortunately, fining file sharers is not a sustainable long-term business model. And that's not just a problem for the music industry; it's a problem for those of us who like music, because artists still need to be discovered, promoted, and yes, even paid. What Radiohead did with the release of In Rainbows, where it allowed fans to pay what they wanted for the album, was a brilliant idea, but not a workable solution for many lesser-known bands without Radiohead's status.

Another sector which has been hit hard is journalism. Different publications have taken different routes to maintain their viability; the New York Times, while keeping its site free, is experimenting in paid webinars and other unconventional strategies, while the Wall Street Journal is expanding its pay-wall strategy to include iPhone and BlackBerry apps. Different publications may not be able to adapt in the same ways and expect the same outcomes - what works for TIME may not be the same thing that works for "The Nation." But as Frank Rich pointed out, even with the rise of citizen journalism and blogs, in the end we will still get what we pay for. If we want to have a real democracy, we need much more good journalism, not less. I don't think that the press is doing an incredible job as a whole right now, and throwing money at that problem wouldn't necessarily fix it, but we will have even bigger problems if we allow professional journalism to die.

Finally, we have telecommunications and cable companies. Perhaps because they are so intimately tied in with the digital revolution, these industries are actually doing a pretty good job of evolving as everything coalesces towards one giant communications and entertainment network. Verizon's CEO just announced that instead of worrying about the increasing number of people canceling their land-line phone subscriptions, they will be focusing more on video telecommunications through their FiOS network:

Mr. Seidenberg said that his “thinking has matured” and that trying to predict when the company would stop losing voice landlines “is like the dog chasing the bus.”

Likewise, the cable industry has begun to focus on IPTV, and on making the viewing experience more personalized, interactive, and portable. And that's a good thing. Those accustomed to watching everything for free on the internet may take a little while to come around, but it looks like that model may also be unsustainable; even Hulu is now going to add subscription content and pay-per-view.

Of course, things can change very quickly, and the landscape will likely look quite different in five years, as more and more of these functions migrate to mobile. And those that are unable to adapt will fail: as NOFX said a number of years ago about the record industry, "dinosaurs will die." But if we as consumers value things like music and journalism, we also have to be willing to accept that these things do cost some money to produce, and if we want something better to step in and fill the vacuum, we need to be ready to support good ideas and models by putting our money where our mouths are.