The Washington Post
Earlier this month, Jody Rosenâ€™s blockbuster New York Times Magazine story â€śThe Day the Music Burnedâ€ť revealed not only that huge numbers of important recordings had been destroyed in a 2008 conflagration, but that we hadnâ€™t known the extent of the loss for more than a decade. In the weeks since, many artists have faced the dismaying reality of what happened to the original recordings of their work and the extent of their losses. Itâ€™s a horrible story about the indifference the companies who own significant parts of our cultural heritage show toward these priceless artifacts. And itâ€™s an illustration of just how hard it is for journalists and the public to get the truth out of entertainment companies - and why that matters.
As Erik Wemple noted in The Washington Post after Rosenâ€™s story was initially published, one of the most alarming revelations in Rosenâ€™s article was that back in 2008, a spokesperson for the Universal Music Group was able to convince the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Billboard magazine that the losses in the fire were insignificant. The business side of showbiz has never been an easy beat to cover they have the money and the leverage to make it hard on journalists to pursue unflattering stories.
In the past, though, the press and the public could rely on certain checks. We knew generally what movies cost to make and what they made at the box office. We could pull up the Nielsen ratings for a TV show, see where an album landed on the Billboard charts and read the New York Times bestseller list to know how a book was doing.
Those checks still exist, but theyâ€™re increasingly inadequate. When the mass mediaâ€™s digital revolution hit, the numbers that define â€śsuccessâ€ť and â€śfailureâ€ť changed. Itâ€™s no longer enough to compare what a movie or album costs to make vs. how many tickets or copies it sells because â€śsalesâ€ť are only one tributary feeding into the larger revenue flow. Netflix, for example, doesnâ€™t sell its original films and TV series as individual units; Netflix sells subscriptions.
Meanwhile, the amount of independently verified data made available to the public has been curtailed over the past decade. If Netflix flacks say more subscribers watched one of their original movies in its first weekend than attended the top movie at the box office, we canâ€™t really prove them wrong. The music industry relies more and more on sites such as Spotify and YouTube to disseminate its product, and itâ€™s not always obvious how - or if - those clicks translate into dollars. Compounding the problem for journalists is that the technology that contains and distributes media is getting harder for a layperson to understand. When a catastrophe such as the Universal fire happens, a spokesperson can offer reassurances about master recordings being backed up off-site on hard drives and digital tapes. But as anyone whoâ€™s had to buy multiple cellphones and laptops over the past decade knows, even state-of-the-art tech can decay, malfunction or become incompatible with todayâ€™s hardware.
Without good numbers, and without a good understanding of the technology involved, journalists who write about entertainment often have to trust corporations to be open and transparent with us. But the corporations have very little incentive to do so.
Consumers have been punished for this general policy of obfuscation regularly.
How many times have music buffs been told that an album they bought digitally would be available in perpetuity on all platforms, only to see it disappear overnight after a software update? How many lengthy user agreements have we reflexively clicked â€śI approveâ€ť on, unaware that we were giving away our privacy rights? And, at a moment when organized fans can sometimes give new life to a television show in danger of cancellation, the lack of transparency about the entertainment business makes it harder for consumers to advocate for their own interests and those of the artists they love.
The big picture is even more dire. If weâ€™ve learned anything from the Universal fire story, itâ€™s that we canâ€™t really trust that the people in charge of our cultural legacy wonâ€™t drain it of its current value and then let the leftovers burn - without us ever knowing exactly what weâ€™ve lost. And that the old saying, â€śTrust, but verify,â€ť is poor advice when the latterâ€™s impossible.