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If Content Is King, Why Does the Package Matter?


"Content is King" is one of the most thrown around sayings of the internet era. It makes it sound as if long lines of billionaires are produced every year out of content creators. Yet most of the individuals who have become billionaires in recent years are more aligned with technology or platforms that deliver content than actual content - or they are merely big investors who happened to put money in growing industries. Content is a growing industry - not so much in creating lucrative careers, but more in the opposite. It's created an expansive cyberworld of hobbyists.

Packaging has always played a key role in the marketing of content. People don't just buy books because they believe they contain a wealth of information. The cover has to captivate and motivate as well and the same was true with album covers. Even though the Beatles' White Album proved you don't need a fancy cover to sell albums, they had already become the most popular band in the world at that point and had the luxury of putting out whatever they wanted.

For purists, the content is sometimes the sole reason for purchasing a product. But most of the mainstream doesn't live the lifestyle of an art purist. While purists follow their ideals about content that is marketed as art, the mainstream follows patterns and trends created by marketers.

If content really were the reason for buying music, there almost wouldn't be much of a reason for people to buy music that is currently popular. Think about it: at what time in history was the current top 40 ever more important than the entire history of music? That's like saying 40 songs are more important than 4 million songs just because they're newer. That might make sense if everyone agreed that music keeps on evolving.

Ironically, the more efficient packaging got, the more the music biz empire shrank. As late as the 90s there were 6 major labels that owned most of the smaller labels that populated the charts. Now in 2017 there are 3 big labels that dominate the charts, earning about the same level as 15 years ago, but nowhere near the level of 20 years ago.

The argument that the internet killed the music biz is plausible only on the surface. After all, the internet didn't kill other content industries such as books and movies. What really happened was the music biz got more corporate and uptight, gravitating toward soundalike artists more than exploring unchartered territory. Packaging became more visual - in the form of TV game shows - as content became more generic. The music biz always like to outdate itself as a way of making trends seem new.

So when digital downloads no longer seemed new, the biz went full force to rent music streaming libraries at monthly subscription rates instead of keeping the focus on individual packages. Although the music streaming biz has not become profitable yet, it has succeeded in convincing a small percentage of the population that a package full of content quantity has more value than content quality of any smaller quantity.

Now you can access millions of songs for the price of what one album used to cost and it doesn't take up space, nor do you need to nurture products to keep them in mint condition. In that sense, the digitalization of music has been an environmental victory. But that raises the question: why can't the musical experience be more about content quality than embracing quantity? Shouldn't this be the real driver of music sales instead of the promise that you get to hear tons of songs regardless of quality?

Part of the mystique of the album for decades was the cover art, which for many people had the same value as paintings in a living room. So in a sense the package and content overlapped. Starting in the early 80s music buyers began building their CD collections. For many people it was merely replacing classic vinyl with CD versions of the same recordings. It's what saved the music biz from a recession caused by promoting too much disco in the late seventies, which helped sell 45s but not so much albums.

These days vinyl albums stack up in people's basements and attics. But if it were about the content, why should they be cast aside in the darkest corners of the home? Could it be that all those stacks of albums have no real resale value to old record stores unless the vinyl is in mint condition? How come CDs that are in mint condition are worthless if any part of the jacket is missing? The problem with vinyl records was that consumers weren't taught to keep the product in mint condition. Otherwise all those album collections would be worth a fortune today. Then again, if that much vinyl stayed in perfect condition without ever getting played, would it have that much value as an antique rarity?

It's just like an old guitar. Even if it still sounds good, it's worthless to a collector if it's not in mint condition, unless it belonged to a legend. But in order for items of any kind to remain in top condition, they need to not be used much, making them exist outside of pop culture consumption. It also puts artifacts outside the realm of content being the reason for holding value. Yes, the the artist and title matter and can affect the price for an out of print vinyl selection. But in order for it to maintain its highest value it needs to not be consumed as content and remain in tact as a package.

None of this knowledge was ever taught to consumers who envisioned their record collections as having everlasting timeless power. Can digital music ever be considered collector's items if units do not exist as packages in the physical world? That crosses over into a deeper topic on what the power of musical content means and how at one time it represented a doorway to escapism within the mind or as voice for social concerns in the real world. Either way it meant something important.

What the music biz and other content industries have lost track of is that the most loved content ever is enjoyed inside the mind, making the packaging irrelevant, at least from an artistic perspective. Of course, packaging is necessary for commercial reasons. The question is: can the music biz ever recapture the imagination that made our culture want to explore beyond the limits of packaging?

Created by Alex Cosper