Movies win in the recession, but music is probably going to eat it
I wasn’t surprised to see that this weekend set the record for highest grossing weekend, in part because we paid $15 a pop for a matinee to see “Avatar”. Of course, that’s in New York; I’m sure that it wasn’t so expensive everywhere else, though having gone to see 99% of the movies I’ve seen in the past 7 or so years at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, I have no idea what a movie costs. But rising costs are going to result in rising receipts, even if the same number of tickets sell.
But that’s not all there is to it. Even when they’re expensive, movies are still a relatively cheap form of entertainment, and so they actually can do much better in a recession, as people choose movies over other, more expensive ways to get out of the house. I’d bet that Netflix and other forms of at-home movie and TV are going to do a lot better, too, as staying in is the cheapest of all. But on Christmas especially, people are looking for an excuse to escape their families, and so the movie business wins and wins big.
However, I suspect that this recession may really be the end of the music industry as we know it. They’ve been dying for a long time now, due to downloading, competition from indie labels, and alternative distribution that gives people what they want (the music they want to hear on demand) for free, like YouTube does. People justify spending on movies, because movies are better than alternatives. But the alternatives to buying music more diffuse. They do include illegal downloading, but it’s also true that people will just skip it and listen to the radio or YouTube instead. The corporate tendency to play it safe doesn’t do the music industry any favors, because if you flatten all music out and make it sound the same, then the consumer only has to buy one album to get that sound, even if they like it.
I’d also argue that the recession is going to create an obstacle to selling more music that’s a little harder to overcome, which is that people are more attracted to comforting things in hard times. When it comes to movies, this might mean seeing more formulaic comedies and action movies, but with music it’s a little different, because records are so much more replayable than movies. So, if you want something comforting with music, you’re going to just play your favorite stuff, instead of exploring new stuff. Again, this is going to be all the more true when the product the industry is pushing is designed to be as disposable as possible, making your favorite albums sound more timeless by comparison.
All in all, what economic hard times mean for the entertainment industry is a complicated thing, and actually pretty fascinating. Radio really came into prominence during the Great Depression, and it’s hard not to wonder if the actual economic downturn played a part in that, because it encouraged staying home for your entertainment. We’re looking at a surprisingly similar situation now, both in terms of the severity of the recession and in the fact that there’s all these infant technologies that provide cheap entertainment in the home that stand to benefit. One thing that indicates that the same thing may in fact happen is the fact that Kindle books outsold real books at Amazon this Christmas. I don’t know why that might be. It’s probably a combination of factors: the novelty of Kindle books makes them easier to push for Christmas than regular books, the sense that they are less wasteful than real books probably helps them sell when “green” has become a marketing tool, and just the fact that Kindles were given as presents, and so Kindle books were sold on that like video game sales tag along after console sales.
But I also have to wonder if the perception of thrift during a recession plays into this. I say “perception”, because I’m not sure a Kindle is actually cheaper. The books aren’t much cheaper, and the device itself is expensive. (Though Kindle books on iPhones probably help push sales.) But what Kindle books do is they don’t take up space, and so they create the perception of thrift for that alone. That, plus the association of “green” with thrift helps make something that reduces paper waste and tree usage seem thriftier. I think that people also tell themselves that buying a Kindle will help them read more books, which is both considered a virtuous thing and a great way to get bang for your entertainment buck. The same money spent on a 2 hour movie will buy you 6 or more hours of reading entertainment, after all. Kindles create an opportunity to indulge these arguments while getting rid of the downside of walking around with a bag full of physical items that will take up space in your house. (Of course, you can’t resell Kindle books, but I doubt as many people are devotees of the resale shop as I am.)
Anyway, thought I’d toss out some random ideas on how the recession will affect entertainment. What trends do you see, Pandagonians? Which do you think will stick, and which do you think are flashes in the pan?