Picture the scene. It’s a summer Saturday morning. Camden, North London. 1978. I’m 15 years old.
I look at the new releases and hunt through the bargain bins in Rock On, the coolest record shop in London. I buy a newspaper and sit down in a café with a hard-boiled egg and a cup of black coffee. I cross the road and browse new books from Martin Amis and Philip Roth. As noon strikes, I wander into Dingwalls, take a spot to the side of the stage and soak up the mysteries of Miles and Bird and Monk – music from another planet, another time, relayed to me by a sextet of local young savants who open doors I’m all too eager to walk through.
Hours later, I emerge back into the sun, three pints worse for wear, and make my way for a lie down to another dark room – a cinema, this time also figuratively a dark room as there’s a game of Russian roulette on the screen and a bunch of boys from Pittsburgh hunting deer. It’s a long way from the suburbs of London, I muse, but then so I am, and my Ma will be wondering where I am. As night falls, I make my way back home to my real world. Until next weekend, I say. Until next weekend.
Fast forward to 2020. 42 years in the blink of an eye. I’m no longer in Camden. I’m no longer 15 years old. But that boy is still inside me. And what does he see? He sees that the things he loved that day – music, books, movies, newspapers – have all gone through a boom and a bust that has left them withered and fragile, shadows of what they were when I loved them so well.
What happened, the 57-year-old me wonders? How did things I assumed were a fixture and inviolate end up in such a sorry state of affairs? Newspaper industry circulation at 1940 levels. Music industry sales half what they were in 2000? Independent bookstores as scarce as hens’ teeth. 257 channels with nothing on.
Two things happened. We loved them to death. And software.
I wasn’t the only one to love music, and books, and movies, and newspapers – we all did. We all wanted to be John Lennon or James Clavell or Robert DeNiro or Bob Woodward. We all wanted to follow our passions and our higher callings and express our uniqueness. We all wanted to make a living doing the things we loved in the way that the people we loved did. So, we started up bands, or we wrote books, or went to theatre or film school, or knocked on the doors of newspapers editors, and before we knew it there were a million bands, and a million books, and a million movies, and a million journalists.
Very few of the millions of us had paid much attention in economics lessons. In fact, very few of us had had economic lessons. So, we hadn’t heard of, our thought much about, the law of supply and demand. But it had heard of us and wasn’t going to take prisoners.
Simply put, in loving these creative passions, supply exploded and swamped demand. In 1958, there were a lot of teenagers and not many bands. Elvis (well Colonel Tom really), the Beatles, the Stones and a small number of other bands consequently made out like bandits. In 1978, there were far more bands, but the relationship between supply and demand was still balanced enough that another Elvis and Bruce and Sting and U2 could live like kings, though not probably like Macca or Keef (or The King of Rock And Roll). By 1998, there were tens of thousands of records released a year, and even the most obsessed teenagers couldn’t keep up with the flood of new material. Interest waned and making a living in music became harder for the stars and impossible for the wannabees.
The same thing happened in the publishing industry. A million books were published in the US last year. A million! 95% of authors don’t sell more than 5,000 copies. Have you opened your news app recently? Notice how many sources of news and information there are? Ever wonder what the average salary for a mid-career journalist is? $44,000. On Netflix, there are over 2,000 shows and 7,000 movies. A friend of mine who’s made a couple of those (quite successful ones) frames his checks from Netflix as they’re not worth paying into the bank.
Video didn’t kill the radio star. Oversupply did.
Well, that, and, as I say, software.
When I was in my twenties, I spent every single penny I could put my grubby little hands on buying guitars and keyboards and hiring practice rooms and making demos and paying to play – trying to be the next Lennon or Costello or Paul Buchannan. In total, I must have spent many tens of thousands of pounds of money I couldn’t really afford pursuing that dream.
Now all of that is called GarageBand. Which you get for free when your Ma and Pa buy you a Mac for Christmas. Wonder what’s happened as a result? 24,000 new songs are released on Spotify every day.
Let that sink in.
In 1958, there weren’t 24,000 songs released in the whole year. Probably not in the whole decade.
We love music so much we’ve killed it.
Software was the weapon.
Apple and Ableton and Logic Pro (and a bunch of others) have put the means of production into the hands of millions (maybe billions) and made music so ubiquitous there’s no scarcity value to monetize. Don’t like that song kid? (After the kid has listened for three seconds) Here’s another. And another, and another, and another …
In 2019, Elvis (of the C variety) and some of his famous (and less famous) pals wrote to Spotify asking if they could have a few more crumbs from the Swedish banquet table.
Software gave kids an easy way into the music business and software became the music business and in the new horrible imbalance between supply and demand created a marketplace – a platform in modern business parlance – that sees music as just another commodity to be traded like gold or corn futures.
Software gave us easy ways to write and publish books and easy ways to create movies and TV and easy ways to publish news and in all that ease, demand became swamped by supply.
Software ate the things we loved – extracted the nutrition ($$$) and left caca behind.
That’s what happened. That’s the sorry saga of the last 40 plus years since the release of My Aim is True, which I thought was the most important thing of my lifetime (family excluded of course) and the Apple I, which I now realize, is the most important thing of my lifetime (family still excluded of course).
Software has – probably without fully realizing – ended up hurting, not helping, the things that the 15-year-old Ben dreamt of. That the 57-year-old Ben still dreams of.
In our 2017 (irony alert) book, What to Do When Machines Do Everything, we wrote a chapter called Abundance, in which we extolled the virtues of using software to drive prices down and argued that this was the route to greater collective prosperity. That Spotify’s market capitalization today is $48bn and Apple’s $2trillion sort of makes the case that making things cheap (every song under the sun for c. $10 a month) optimizes for a world in which software rules.
But it’s in that story of abundance, and of love, and of oversupply, that the seeds of destruction are sown. And it’s in another area that I love that I think we may see the same effects play out again – across the next 40 years ahead of me.
In software itself.
Today all the cool kids are going into software. College classrooms around the world are overflowing (well, they were pre-Covid) with wannabee Zucks and Kalanicks working on their full stacks and their Tensor Flows and their Perl and their Rust. Machine Learning tutorials get more plays on YouTube than Machine Gun Kelly. Khan’s is the Academy. Music is still cool, but every kid knows there’s no money in it anymore. Movie theatres are literally dead, and books are for losers.
Tech – software really – is where the action is, and young people didn’t need all of their elders’ STEM exhortations to figure that out.
But the coolest thing in tech is the burgeoning no-code movement that uses software to write itself. Last week UnQork got a $2bn valuation round of funding to bring coding to the masses. If you’re a New England Patriots fan, you’ll have noticed ads for Zudy behind Coach Belichick’s head during the post-game interview.
In the seeds of our love of tech the future of its demise is being planted.
A demise that is a ways off, but in sight, in the way that music’s demise seemed impossible to imagine as a 15-year-old, but now seems entirely understandable as a 57-year-old.
In 1958, a couple of young songwriters wrote You Always Hurt the One You Love. It wasn’t about music or software (who knew what software even was in 1958?) but it struck a nerve with singers then (covers by Fats Domino and Ringo Star) and does ‘til this day (Ryan Gosling did a fun version a while back in Blue Valentine). It’s stuck in my mind down through the years; perhaps the hipsters played it in Dingwalls that day?
But the writers captured a truth that is universal. Loving things to death is not, historically, a one-off oddity. It could happen again. Something that seems a fixture and inviolate – the software/tech industry we all love – is nothing of the sort. Something that is riding high could be heading for a fall. Supply and demand don’t care what we all love. And laws don’t take prisoners.