Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Software will eat itself

I think we programmers can get a good perspective on what is happening in our industry by taking a look at the far more glamerous world of pop music.

Problems with piracy is not the only thing our two industries have in common.  The other is the conflict between the money men and the performers.

Life is so hard for the music industries managers.  They are entirely dependent upon the talents of others.  To make money they need somebody who can actually produce sellable records for them to sell.
   
Backing the right performers has always been difficult.  One of the excuses for the high prices of CDs is the fact that for every successful band the labels have to back a hundres losers.  Not a very good success rate in choosing the right talent.
   
Even when you do manage to find a winner then you have to pay them a fortune to keep them.  [1]
   
Poor, poor executives.  How are they going to support there expensive habits when talent is so difficult to manage?

What gets the executives really excited is when they get a winning formula.  This is why they love manufactured pop bands.  Right now Britain leads the way in mass producing bands featuring young, good looking lads and lasses  [2].  No more money wasted on losers, they can produce a successful band of pop idols out of managable teenagers and pump money out of them until their shelf life expires.  This is the pop industries equivalent to outsourcing, based upon age rather than geography.

Fate loves to whack these money hungry executives with ironic tragedy.  Just when they think they've finally hit the winning formula it all goes horribly wrong.  Back in the bad old, unpredictable days the UK pop industry was one of the best in the world, dominating the all important US charts.  Now UK bands have almost no impact at all in America [3].

Just when they thought they're winning, they've lost the market.

Any parallels?  I think so.

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/2291605.stm
[2] http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1312/5_373/53501700/p1/article.jhtml
[3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/1947857.stm

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ged, what do you think the parallels are?

NC
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Parallels are lines that only meet in infinity. HTH.


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

I fail to see where you want to take this. Please provide the "IT industry" parallell you are alluding to.

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Both are industries that rely on talent.  The majority of people in the decision making positions are not the talented ones.  These managers are always trying to reduce there dependancy upon the talent.

Also, the less experienced talented individuals will often allow themselves to be exploited because they are 'being payed to do what they enjoy.'

Consider these words by Courtney Love:

http://dir.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/06/14/love/index.html

I think that Courtneys idea of giving away the music and living off tips reflects the sentiments of many open source developers who want to give away the software and live of consultancy.

I also believe that, in their efforts to maximise profit and eliminate the risk of dependancy on talent, the managers damage their own market.

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Another important parallel is the product itself.

I think that software is closer to a song than a manufactured product because of its constantly evolving nature.

In manufacturing you produce a chair, and it is a chair.  You use it to sit on.  If you can make sure that you can produce x amount of chairs and they are all good then your safe.

It's not good enough to churn out x amount of songs all the same.  Thats what's happening in the UK charts now.  Manufactured bands  churn out song after song that all sound the same. 

The music has to evolve constantly, otherwise nobody will buy it. 

In the same way, it is no good churning out software that is always the same.  The software has to evolve, offer something fresh and innovative.

You cannot achieve this evolution by simply applying a formulae.  Talent, skill, innovation and risk taking are required.  Without these element, the industry cannot survive.

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

But one piece of music is the same no matter what.

People will always need bespoke software.

James 'Smiler' Farrer
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ged,

aren't most people in IT paid a salary? I fail to see the comparison with the Courtney Love article.

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Yes,

Both music and software can be replicated endlessly with little effort.  My point is excacly that this is not where the manufacturing effort lies.

There are many small businesses still using XBase applications written in the early 80s.  Some people are still happy listening to the records that brought at 18 and feel no need to buy anything new.

It is not necessary to replace music or software in the same way you have to replace a car.  The product does not necessarily 'wear out.'

The customer has to be compelled to buy new products because they are fresh or original or perhaps in a new format.  For example, because a text based interface is replaced with a gui or a Vinyl LP is replaced with a CD.

Despite this critical difference between manufacturing and the writing and releasing of songs and software, the managers are always trying to apply a manufacturing model. 

It simply doesn't fit.

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Another parallel:

pop stars think that they are intrinsically worth what they earn.

doobius
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Courtney Love's article reminded me of this page that demonstrates the one acceptable use of the blink tag:
http://www.negativland.com/albini.html

nathan
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

And for every well paid pop star there are a thousand struggling wannabes.

The pop start is convinced that the difference between their money and the wannabe's money is because they are vastly superior.

Ged Byrne
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

"Backing the right performers has always been difficult.  One of the excuses for the high prices of CDs is the fact that for every successful band the labels have to back a hundres losers.  Not a very good success rate in choosing the right talent."

Except that they make the artists bear the load of the risks.  Studio and marketing costs are deducted out of the artists' royalties, so the artist can still lose money after selling 100,000 albums.

T. Norman
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The comparison I make is about talent and the tiny details that lift someone above average. I don't think there are thousands or even hundreds of great "songs" out there that fail because they aren't discovered. The level of musical skill has increased enormously over the years.  Hundreds of guitar players can imitate Hendrix note for note but few can produce something that lasts. We all know that perfect musicianship isn't necessary for a great song.

Nor do I believe that many can get rich with "art" unless it entertains a lot of folks. When jazz became art rather than entertainment, it lost its traditional audience. As snobby as I can be in my musical tastes, I can't resist a great pop song.

To me a great difference is that personality and marketing personality is huge in the entertainment business.

A related and huge difference is that folks don't personally perform software in puclic. The personal connection isn't there.

Finally plenty of musicians support their family away from the glamour of hit records. They teach, they play at receptions, they play in copy bands, they play the organ in church, direct choirs, and edit soundtracks for whatever. The economy has a place for them.

I don't think I'm getting anywhere with this except that most programmers would really prefer to be rich rock stars.

tk
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ged, I don't think the analogy holds, although it might later on.

The music industry is a much more blatantly exploitative one, with a large, powerful group of essentially useless middlemen controlling the entire market and thus controlling the incomes and careers of the talent - the musicians.

This is OK if you're one of the annointed musicians. Otherwise it sucks.

The software industry differs in that it requires more expertise, and thus it's much harder for useless middlemen to dominate it.

.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

>> The software industry differs in that it requires more expertise, and thus it's much harder for useless middlemen to dominate it.

Maybe not in the category of off-the-shelf software, but employment and contracting are dominated by worthless, exploitative, lying recruiters and brokers. A few good ones exist but the attitude of most of them is basically that of the jock/macho athlete who looks down on the nerd.

Yeah, I know, don't use them, but most contract positions are filled by bodyshops with a "temp agency" mentality of screwing the candidate.

Bored Bystander
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Having worked in both industries...

The music industry certainly has a much healthier gender balance. :)  Workers in both industries have their share of complaints too.

Despite the plethora of manufactured pop bands the UK pop chart is still the most interesting in the world. I don't really think there's any other country that has so much diversity in its pop charts.  The UK charts actually has "pop" moments still (and don't be hating on Girls Aloud :) ).

Steve Jobs was interviewed by Rolling Stone (was a topic on /. yesterday) and he talked about the whole advance system (i.e. labels give the artists a huge pile of money to record an album, and then have to pay back that money before they start to get fully compensated). The problem is that only 1 in 10 artists makes significant amounts of money and successful artists have to cover the costs of unsuccessful ones (which is why so few of them see money).

A manufacted pop band is an expensive entity - someone like Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) is not a natural singer and by her own admission has to have a large number of takes to hit the right notes. That adds up to more time in the studio, more dollars spent. Then you have (frequently) expensive videos, the cost of professional songwriters and marketing campaigns to attract the public's attention. When it comes down to it however, it's really the "zig-a-zig-a" (i.e. the song) that catches the public's attention.

These days with a laptop with ProTools (or something similar) you can record an album. Maybe you can't record an album for a five-member girl group, but for many styles the laptop + ProTools option is feasible. If the setup costs more than $10-$20K I'd be surprised. To record an album you don't need the kinds of figures being handed out as advances (hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, more in others).

So if you don't need the record company's money to record an album what do they provide? Marketing and distribution. But you have to pay for the marketing costs while not having much control over the marketing strategy. Now if iTunes/Napster 2/whatever really take off and become the main way of distributing music it's feasible that artists might sign directly with iTunes to get a bigger cut than they currently do via record labels.

I think this is a scenario Apple, Microsoft and others anticipate. Seeing as contracts specify the formats in which the label can distribute the music, it is possible artists may make the records themselves, sign a distribution deal for CD, DVD, vinyl with a record company and sign a download deal with iTunes (or with a specialist label that specialises in online distribution and gets tracks out to iTunes/Napster/whatever Microsoft come up with/etc).

This mirrors what some people have been talking about in some of the recent outsourcing threads about programmers starting their own shops. Particularly with open source software, and even in the case that Joel discusses with the start up of Fog Creek, it isn't that much of an obstacle to set up your own software company (say compared to the 1970s - how much would that IBM mainframe set you back?).

In the case of both industries there's a widespread dissatisfaction with the middleman and the availability and affordability of technology mean that in both industries the middleman can be avoided. Both industries are also hiccupping and changing.

Interesting times.

Walter Rumsby
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Nathan,

That site does have a wonderful use of the blink tag. Thanks. Never thought i'd see such a thing.

Tony Chang
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The comparision is probably incorrect, I just wanted to float the idea after listening to a radio program about the state of British pop, and being struck by some of the similarities.

I think that the pop industry shows some of the issues being faced in software, but magnified.  This can be useful because it makes it easy to see exactly whats going on.

Walter, thanks for your post.  This is exactly the type of thing I was grasping at.

The whole position of the middlemen within the music industry is being seriously undermined now because they are losing control of the means of distribution.  There desperate efforts at legislation show how paniced they are.

These really are interesting times.

Ged Byrne
Thursday, December 11, 2003

>The comparision is probably incorrect, I just wanted to
>float the idea after listening to a radio program about the
>state of British pop, and being struck by some of the
>similarities.

Although there are some definite parallels - the main one I'm thinking of is innovation. UK pop is becoming more and more bland and less innovative.

I think the outsourcing issue and/or reduction in perceived respect for 'coders' (from 'code monkey' up to 'software architect / analyst / design') is going to reduce the number of innovative solutions.

Probably to the point where people will continually solve things using the same approach more and more often without looking for more suitable alternatives.

Ged, just out of curiousity was the subject a reference to PWEI? (Bring back the music of the early 90's...!)

Gordon Hartley
Thursday, December 11, 2003

Gorden, you got it.

Ged Byrne
Thursday, December 11, 2003

Good to see there are still some <BLINK>Netscape</BLINK> users out there.

AJS
Saturday, December 13, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home