The fall and rise of attention: towards a direct-to-audience economy

We live in an attention economy. How long have we lived in an attention economy though? Is this a social media thing? Or is it an internet thing? Can we trace it back to cable TV? Or perhaps to the third industrial revolution? The first industrial revolution? The moment attention became a commodity is perhaps the moment that more and more people had leisure time. As this notion of leisure extended to a broader class base of people - at least in Europe and the USA - in the 19th Century, those same people also had more disposable income. This combination birthed a leisure economy. From that moment on, it became common place to spend money on things that entertained us. As this economy has grown, it has led us to this moment:

So, if we live in this attention economy and ever more attention is consumed where does it stop? Can we put more into a minute than what we see on this wheel? What does that mean for the music you want to put out? How will you stand out from the raucous noise surrounding everyone’s ears? How do you get people to listen? Or should we be asking very different questions to define success and growth?

1-of-1 NFTs

How often do you give your full attention to something? How often do you give your full attention to someone? I listened to Don Diablo talk about NFTs on Dutch national television yesterday. Here’s a guy who’s knee deep into crypto trying to keep it simple for a mass TV audience. The interviewer asked him about his NFT concert - the one he sold for 600 Eth - and in his reply Don Diablo explained how special it is to have this one-on-one relationship with someone. And it helps, of course, if that someone is an Ethereum whale. The premise stands, however. Selling someone something of which there is only one will get them to pay attention. Especially if the buyer and seller relate to each other and establish a human relation.

Does that mean that you need relationships with whales to turn Web3 into revenue streams? And why would you need Web3 tools to benefit from a one-on-one relationship? This last question actually captures one of the most common arguments against Web3. But, as Nathan Baschez recently argued, Web3 building blocks are modular, open, and set to compose on top of each other. So there is no single player who vertically builds the infrastructure of a new technology. Instead, this happens like a big symphony that’s being composed by all the various instruments in the orchestra. There might not be an overarching genius keeping everything together, but if the communication is strong the whole orchestra can pull off the symphony too.

This leaves us in this messy phase where one person stands to benefit a lot as they already have the power to invest. But for every Don Diablo NFT concert, there’s a little success story on the likes of Catalog where an independent artist sells a song as an NFT. That one sale can then support the recording of a new album, or simply represents a month’s rent. What’s important, though, is that each new iteration helps create the symphony.

Poverty of attention, richness of community

But a 1-of-1 NFT isn’t truly going to lift us out of the clogged up minutes of the attention economy. What it does do is provide another tool in a broader move towards direct-to-fan models. Such models aim to flip the value relationship between artist and fan by letting the former make money directly from the latter. We have had crowdfunding, subscriptions, tipping, and now we have communities, sometimes decentralized. Within Web3, these communities share ownership, governance, and stand to profit together from the work they do.

Writing back in 1971, Herbert A. Simon, economist and cognitive psychologist, put forward that “information … consumes the attention of its recipients.” And for sure, a common question in DAOs is how much time you can put into a project. And the same goes for any other task you want to involve yourself with. But note that Simon wrote this in 1971, long before our current crazy internet minutes. Note also that Simon already spoke of information consuming our attention. But what if we switch this around? What if our attention consumes the information? That would give us much more control over what’s going on. And that’s where community can help.

Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (2002)
Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (2002)

Looking at Perez’ theory of great surges, what always strikes me is how it looks like this relentless capitalist advance of growth over growth. And yet, that’s not how she sees it. The growth can manifest itself differently and I reckon it’s the community that leads the way here. If you take that turning point between the installation and deployment periods, one reason we get through that bubble is because of investment of capital. Another reason is through investment of other resources, such as human capital.

Communities and the future of music

So what happens if you stop looking at Perez’ great surges of technological advancement through a prism of financial growth? What other kinds of growth can you focus on? One framework that’s being put together for this comes from the Protein community.

Whether you’re a musician, a label, a venue, a manager, etc. this framework forces you to ask what good growth is and how to then set out to achieve it. Personally, I feel this framework will help everyone in the music industry better define their own role in a world where direct-to-fan, or direct-to-audience, is your best bet at sustainability. And that’s sustainability in art, life, and relationships.

  • Time and space to make your music
  • Time and space to, basically, have fun
  • Time and space to organize the relationships between artists and their various audiences

Beyond time and space, it also provides a way to cut through the clutter of information available to us. It’s a kind of community-led and curiosity-driven gatekeeping function. Within the community this curiosity can then be rewarded, which is also immediately a great way to escape the money-breeds-money driven nature of much of Web3. Similar to leisure, which was always a luxury for the rich, it can seem like onboarding in Web3 has the same problem. With leisure, the issue has long been that it’s been defined against what’s it not: work. With Web3, we also need to move to a framework that allows us to start from its positive and talk about what it is versus what it’s not.

Vine swinging

Let me end by rephrasing Jim Griffin’s quote on Tarzan Economics - made famous again by Will Page recently. In my recent discussion of Page’s book I said that the next vine to swing to for music is that of direct-to-fan community building. Let’s have Griffin’s quote from 2008.

“We’re still clinging to the vine of music as a product. But we’re swinging toward the vine of music as a service. We need to get ready to let go and grab the next vine, which is a pool of money and a fair way to split it up, rather than controlling the quantity and destiny of sound recordings.”

And let’s put that into the now:

We’re still clinging to the vine of music as a service. But we’re swinging to the vine of music as a community. We need to get ready to let go and grab the next vine, which is an audience-driven community generating a small pool of money split up as they, together with the artist, see fit, rather than pumping music into an already information-overloaded digital distribution system.

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