Hulu, Napster, And The Sheriff Of Nottingham

Posted by on Apr 2, 2009 in Leadership | 2 Comments

UPDATE 2/5/10
Apparently, the U.S. Congress has the same question I do: Why Did Hulu Block Boxee? Despite the strangeness of having something in common with Congress, I am still intrigued by the discussion around this issue; in many ways it represents a larger precedent for what could happen as the lines between television and the internet continue to blur. Click here for Mashable’s take on the story.

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The other day, I was talking with my friend Steve about tiny, insignificant things like the increasingly dystopian state of the world when we stumbled on the topic of the music industry. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that this would happen since we’re both musicians and have actually played in bands together over the years. During our conversation, Steve asked me — “If you had a million dollars and were a musician with a lot of talent, how would you guarantee your success?”

I must say, it’s a rather brilliant question. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have a simple answer. Or maybe any answer at all. (In fact, my friend Will is attempting to answer a version of this question with a documentary he’s currently filming; stay tuned about that… it will be fantastic.) I pulled out my soapbox/preachin’ podium and launched into a diatribe about how the music industry has seemingly made the exact WRONG choices at seemingly every turn over the last decade: Napster is born, and the industry instantly feels the cracks in their foundation. They react instinctively, rashly, by beginning to sue their customers, but it’s already too late. As the imitable Seth Godin says, at the moment when the musical message was separated from its physical medium the world changed. Forever. It’s impossible for the earth to spin backwards. The beast has been released. The toothpaste ain’t goin’ back in the tube.

It’s a tricky tenet in business, innovation (which is just a fancier word for change, right?). Because if you don’t have a culture that absolutely celebrates it, it really can’t happen. It’s almost impossible. Innovation requires people pay attention to intangibles and things that don’t exist in this present reality, and these are pretty specific talents that won’t survive if they are not recognized. And of course organizations have to also deal with tangibles. This is a difficult, paradoxical tension.

The thing is, Napster really should have been created by the record labels. There’s no getting around it — they should have seen this coming. SOMEONE should have seen it, recognized it as the logical progression. But like they say… if it ain’t broke…? The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality is dangerous, because the reality is that everything is broken, all the time. Our business systems need to constantly be in a state of progress because that’s what the world is.

And now, Hulu. What are we going to do with you? You started with so much promise. In my conversation with Steve I was just bragging about you, how the film/TV industry looks like it will avoid the fate of their music counterparts. With a company like Hulu, they’re already ahead of the game! But now this? Really? Did we learn nothing from the RIAA?

From where I’m standing, this story is akin to when labels began suing music lovers. Boxee is a brilliant, cutting edge program (currently Mac/Linux only, sorry PCeoples) that aggregates video content from the web. With the addition of an iPhone app a few weeks ago, this little program became one of the first significant potential stakes in the heart of cable companies everywhere — a genuinely feasible TV service provider replacement.

But Hulu doesn’t seem to want to play, which confuses me given their incredibly innovative spirit. Wouldn’t it be true that allowing people to access content would be a REALLY GOOD THING? And the MORE people, the BETTER? Why would you alienate a group of consumers on the cutting edge? Why would you fight the future?

Believe me, I understand about quality control and all that. Perhaps there’s more going on here behind the scenes. Maybe it’s a technology thing. But to me, this decision seems out of character for a company built on pushing the envelope. And that worries me, in a big picture way.

We all have something important we can learn from the music industry, here. An organization doesn’t have anything if it doesn’t have something that people want. Anything. Furthermore, once a company (or industry) turns the corner and becomes the “bad guy,” the collective population will not feel badly about taking from the “rich” (company/executives) to give to the “poor” (themselves). Haven’t we seen this movie playing out on the screens of the “music business” over the last ten years? If companies don’t provide reasonable ways to get content fairly, the people will just take it.

Perhaps even more disturbing, they will not even feel badly about it because you have become perceptually unjust.

The masses cheer for Robin Hood, not for the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Dear Film & TV friends, don’t kid yourselves that you are above the fate of the music industry. Sure, your product is less replicable than music because it’s more complex. But the crowds will get there. And besides, the content is already on torrents around the world. We can get it for nothing if we want to. But as Hulu has thus far shown, there are viable alternatives to this fate. Many people are more than willing to watch a few well-done commercials in exchange for quality free online programming. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to limit the applications we can use to see it.

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If you liked that post, then try these…

The Sexy Organization by Josh Allan Dykstra on June 20th, 2011

Experience vs. Innovation by Josh Allan Dykstra on December 5th, 2011

The Artificial Scarcity Of Promotion by Josh Allan Dykstra on February 13th, 2012

2 Comments

  1. m
    April 2, 2009

    yep, you definitely unleash a bit of your finest soapbox revelry here… gotta love it.

    -m

    Reply
  2. Andrea
    April 26, 2009

    This is good. I loved reading this. You’re such a great writer, Josh!

    Reply

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