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Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

May 18, 2010

Elegant 17th Century Farm House...

A couple of times a week Thomas Friedman has a brilliant idea that explains everything in the world economy! Or the world political situation! Or both!  That’s convenient, because he also has a column in the New York Times a couple of times a week in which to disseminate these gems.  While the Times has joined all the other newspapers in struggling to stay afloat in the rough seas of new media, I’m sure they still pay Tom well. And the moment Tom gets enough columns together he slaps them into another book. They sell like hotcakes.  All of which makes him the envy of many struggling bloggers. (Not this one. I make my money with music.)

Anyway, enough about Tom. What’s got me writing about him is one of his columns of a few months back.  In it, as is often the case, his latest grand theory comes bundled with a couple of neat personal anecdotes. Stories of entrepreneurs he knows and the clever things they’ve done to survive the terrible economy (which while not the cause of the Times’ troubles, has made them worse).  The gist of Tom’s story is how these entrepreneurs produced media projects using on-line talent, at a tiny fraction of what less clever guys pay for professionals, thereby saving themselves a bundle, and hopefully, their companies (and Tom being Tom, the Worldwide Economy!)

These entrepreneurs saved hundreds of dollars on the voice-overs.  I’ve never hired a low-cost narrator on-line, but I have worked with those expensive professional guys and gals a number of times. I also worked with an amateur. Once.  The pros I worked with could knock off a ten page script in half an hour, leaving before their minimum hour was up.  But that didn’t rankle, because we were paying for that studio time, and got on to the next part of the project. The time I hired an amateur, after ten hours he was still slogging his way through on the script. I finally called a friend in to help. A professional.  I was very lucky that my client was so kind (or foolish) to work with me again after that. I’ve heard similar tales from others.  I’ll give Tom the benefit of the doubt on this one – for all I know the country’s crawling with voice-over talent willing to work for peanuts, and if you don’t have to sit there while they spend hours getting it right, maybe it works out fine.

The music I can comment on.  He bought it at a site “for pennies.”  I went to the site and the stuff I saw actually cost $10, but whatever, Tom, ten bucks is dirt cheap for production library music.  The site was hard to navigate. I didn’t like the music, but maybe that’s just me. What was interesting, though, was that the “most popular” piece had been bought 12 times, grossing $120.  If the composer was paid the standard royalty of 50%, that’s $60 for the most popular piece on the site.

This is where Tom’s grand thesis –that all this cost saving is great for the economy – starts to fall apart. He does admit at the end of his column to a flaw in the plan -that

it doesn’t create any jobs.  That’s when I found myself saying, Wait a minute. Because what I saw was a lot of people losing their jobs. Narrators, composers and photographers put out of work by amateurs. I’m not impugning their work, just stating the obvious: if your highest selling song makes $60, sorry, unless you can crank out five pieces a day, you aren’t making a living at it.  (I’ve done that, a few times.  But the next day I’m worthless.)

...and this McMansion.

Then I had an evil thought. Given the Times troubles, using Friedman’s logic they could give his column space to any of a number of talented bloggers, who I’m sure would be glad to do his job gratis, for the publicity. See how Tom likes hitting the street along with all those out of work voice-over guys and photographers….

Then I remembered.  I’m still making a living, and so are many of my friends in the media business, despite all the cheap competition on line. That’s because the guy in that old coffee commercial had it right:  “You get what you pay for.”  Successful companies like to be associated with high quality productions, because to do otherwise makes them look bad. I’m not suggesting corporations should waste their money on Avatar-level effects. But even the priciest music is always a fraction of any production budget.

I just went back to that music site. As I expected, Tom’s plug did them well.  Maybe someone there’s even squeaking out a living at their music. But at whose expense?

I’ve got my own anecdote, this one fictitious, though after Tom’s column, it sadly might have been the fate of someone who read Tom’s column and decided to try it his way.  A producer makes a video for his best client, a job that nets him $30,000.  He’s about to use a $60 piece of music from that library he likes, except that he just read Tom’s piece.  He goes on-line, excited, and finds something for ten bucks! Oh yeah!

He premiers the video for his client, who happens to represent over half his yearly income.  A heavy silence follows, then, “Uh, looks fine.  But…what’s with that music? I don’t know…” He gives the producer a long look. He gets someone else for his next project. Saved 50 bucks and went out of business.

A last thing. There’s an aerial photo of Tom’s house floating around on the internet (shot by an amateur, or a pro, I don’t know.)  Though house isn’t quite the word…palatial estate? Compound? Mansion? Castle? One of those.  What I’ll bet is that Tom didn’t pay bottom dollar to the guys who built it.  And that the paintings on the walls aren’t made of velvet, didn’t come from Walmart for $20. No, I’m sure they’re Art. Which, in my opinion, is just as it should be if you’re Thomas Friedman and can afford it.  Imagine how we’d be impoverished if Pope Julius had gotten fed up with expensive, cranky old Michelangelo and hired some no-talent kid to slap a coat of paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Or if Bach’s patrons decided to cheap out and replace him with some lute-plucking drunk.

We can’t always expect to be surrounded by works of genius. But – to employ a Friedmanesque metaphor –if our culture is like a great common living room, every corner of which sounds with the tinkle of ringtones and flashes with bright images, some now in 3-D, then we don’t want it to be a drab lifeless place, any more than any of us would choose to live in a trailer. Beautiful things that bring meaning to our life and culture tend to cost money. And Tom Friedman knows this very well.

Tom's 11,000 sq. foot Humble Abode

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