Hit Makers Must Adapt to Digital Disruption Too

Balancing Act Between Online One-Hit Wonders and Mariah Carey

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Pop-culture mavens who are used to creating hit properties are contending with the disruptive nature of emerging digital media just like the rest of the media world. But in some ways, MySpace and other social networking sites are making their jobs a little easier.
Ben Silverman, Benny Medina and Bonnie Fuller
Ben Silverman, Benny Medina and Bonnie Fuller Credit: Larry Busacca/Wireimage

At a panel discussion hosted by the Association of National Advertisers and Microsoft yesterday in New York, record producers Benny Medina and Simon Renshaw, magazine executive Bonnie Fuller, TV producer Ben Silverman and Motorola chief designer Jim Wicks insisted hits aren't dead, despite prodding by the moderator, Vanity Fair writer Michael Wolff, that they should be more scared.

A hit is still a hit
One conclusion seems to be that nowadays a hit can be still be a hit even if it only appeals to one slice of the population. If it's out there, the audience that embraces a hit song will find it. "I'm confident in what people will go anyplace to get," said Mr. Medina, CEO of Handprint Entertainment, and who manages pop star Mariah Carey. "My business model isn't based on specifically having to sell it through current distribution, but based on trying to monetize it."

The genesis of hits has changed. Epic Records President Charlie Walk, who was in the audience, said he'll sign any band on MySpace that gets 800,000 streams on two songs. Rob Bennett, general manager of MSN's entertainment and video services, cited the recent "History of Dance" viral video as an online success that came out of the blue.

"I'd like to see the dancing guy's second video," said Mr. Silverman, pointing out that there's a role for professional hit makers to play in moving a one-hit wonder to the next stage.

The celebrity of being a nobody
Ms. Fuller, chief editorial director at American Media, which counts Star and Men's Fitness in its stable of magazines, called MySpace "a wonderful research device." For a Star profile of Kim Kardashian, Nick Lachey's new girlfriend, staffers used her MySpace page as research. She also said the site is helpful in a culture where anybody can become an instant celebrity, based on a viral video or flash-in-the-pan news report. "A lot of these nobodies who become celebrities have MySpaces," she said.

Michael Jackson, president of programming for IAC/InterActiveCorp and a former Universal Television executive, was the most bearish on the traditional TV industry. "Some of the legacy broadcasting TV organizations won't exist in their current formation in five to 10 years time," he said, adding it is the "bland, mass-compromised networks trying to reach a lot of people that were in the most trouble."

"It's not so much a problem with the consumer, but with the funding mechanism," he said. He offered ABC's now canceled "Alias" as an example of the problem. The Jennifer Gardner show likely cost $3 million an episode to make during its run. If ABC ordered 22 episodes a year, that's $66 million. TV shows have traditionally been paid for by initial broadcast transmission, repeats during the summer and then syndication. Now, he argued, shows can't be repeated during the summer because people don't watch TV and, in the case of "Alias," it's less valuable in syndication because it's serialized. "So how do you pay for it? And, you know, thanks to [digital video recorders] people aren't watching commercials, so that's an even bigger disruption."

Ridiculing digital initiatives
Later in the panel, he ridiculed his former company's moves into the new-media space: "At one of the upfronts, a senior executive who shall remain nameless announced 200 digital initiatives. That tells you that they're clueless -- you don't have to go to business school to know that having 200 digital initiatives isn't going to work. They're all desperately flying the digital flag because that's the fashion of the month."

Mr. Renshaw, a principal at Strategic Artist Management who shepherded the Dixie Chicks to fame, said the music business needs to move to a model where Web sites allow for more interaction, because a truism of music fans is that they always want more access. The Dixie Chicks are using the Internet as a means of building a direct client relationship with their customers and eventually envision it delivering music directly to fans.

Later in the event a marketing executive from Unilever asked the panel where brands fit into the space and how the panelists could help less sexy consumer package-goods brands enter the pop-culture space.

The panel perked up. "You should talk to Ben and I," MSN's Mr. Bennett said. "No, you should talk to Benny and I," Mr. Renshaw said.

Inviting producers to ad sales table
Then, a more serious Mr. Silverman said producers would be better at helping brands integrate into pop culture if the producers could be present at the table, talking to the marketers about their goals and targets.

"[In TV] I'm not asked or wanted at the [ad sales] table," he said. If he had more information about the brands advertising in his shows, he'd be able to come up with a better portfolio of ideas for them. Since he signed a distribution deal with MSN, he's been invited to the table to talk to the marketers. "That's what will get us into this [digital] world more quickly."
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