Transmedia: Introducing a Future Where We Will Live the Story (Part 1 of 3)

The following excerpt is taken from the Spring 2011 Issue of Pomp & Circumstance Magazine. Courtesy of Pomp & Circumstance.

Transmedia: Introducing a Future Where We Will Live the Story - Sparrow Hall

Image courtesy of Pomp & Circumstance Magazine

When we hear the word “story” the first things that usually pop to mind are books, movies and TV shows. But if you think about it, stories can be found everywhere in one form or another. A record album is a story. So is a video game. Sometimes, a video game is a story that begins as a game and becomes a movie. Or vice versa. I’ve consulted with advertising agencies for over 10 years and I can tell you that all of the most successful marketing campaigns have a story. Whether it’s a commercial, a website, an email, even a banner ad — each of these is weaving its portion of a larger tale.

The fact is we’re drawn to stories, because they live at the very core of what makes us human.
They fulfill our desires — to enjoy life and to imagine our role within it. They teach us, provide us with meaning and document the magic of our existence. But up until now our stories have been limited, each to their own specific format: we hold a book in our hands, we watch a movie on a screen, and so on. We have a single experience with each — with a set beginning and end. We might call these separate formats (literature, film, visual art, music, an so on) our “silos” of storytelling. They have stood since the beginning of time, but today, as the world becomes more and more digitized, the ways in which we’re able to tell stories are expanding. We’re seeing these silos begin to rock and topple, their contents spilling out and co-mingling with other mediums, creating a new format altogether — transmedia storytelling.

The New York Philharmonic with Ton Koopman conducting - Photo by Richard Termine / Courtesy of The New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic with Ton Koopman conducting
Photo by Richard Termine / Courtesy of The New York Philharmonic

In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel H. Pink refers to a new tenet of business that he calls “symphony” – the ability to bring different elements together in harmony to achieve a greater purpose. This principle is at the heart of transmedia storytelling. The idea is that any variety of mediums can converge to form a storyline, or “thread,” and that each medium’s contribution would flow into the next, like water spilling through cascading pools — a book into a video game… or a movie… a piece of art… a line of clothing… a compilation of songs and ears and eyes and minds of audience members who will continue the story in their own ways—be it online, in their homes, in the places they visit, and so on. As consumers of stories we will be able to choose both the shoes in which we walk and the world in which we walk in them. We will be given countless ways to enter a story and explore that journey however we wish. All we have to do is look around us to see why this new holistic approach to storytelling is exactly what the market was calling for.

Ah, the Good Old Days When a Rock Star Could Afford a Castle in Scotland

John Reineck of Soft

John Reineck of Soft

I was out to lunch with my friend and creative partner, John Reineck, the lead singer of the band Soft, when he made a comment about the current state of the music biz. “Do you realize there was only one moment in history when the music industry was actually making any money? It started with the record and ended with the MP3. Just this little span of about 50 years where they actually had a product to sell. This object you had to buy in order to listen to your favorite band. Before that musicians had to tour. That was the only way to make any money. And now, here we are again, hit- ting the road to make a living.”

Legendary musician and producer Brian Eno made a similar comment in The Guardian recently when he said “I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky… It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber.”

Thriller - Michael Jackson - The best-selling album of all time with 110 million copies sold worldwide

Thriller - Michael Jackson - The best-selling album of all time with 110 million copies sold worldwide

Record executives are realizing this all too well, and for fear of extinction are trying to find any way imaginable to reclaim the golden days of a product-based industry. It began with the clamp down on Napster in the late 90s, and has escalated to the point where specialized technology companies like Sonic Arts are being brought in to embed tracking information into today’s promo copies of albums. That way, if an album ends up getting leaked, someone specifically can be blamed.

Leak. What a perfect word. Perfect because it so beautifully illustrates the way the music industry continues to view its most powerful asset – as a thing, something that must be shelved, guarded, and doled out one paying recipient at a time. Because how else will they make any money?

Trent Reznor (right) and Atticus Ross at the 68th Annual Golden Globe Awards

Trent Reznor (right) and Atticus Ross at the 68th Annual Golden Globe Awards

Consider posing that question to Trent Reznor, the musical genius behind the band Nine Inch Nails, who has made a habit of giving his albums away for free over the Web. If you wonder how Reznor could possibly be turning a profit, you should look on YouTube for one of Nine Inch Nails live performances and wait for the camera to pan out to the crowd. All of those people bought a ticket (let’s say $45 a pop), and they’re also buying a t-shirt, and a poster, and whatever other special items Reznor might have in store for them at the merch table. So why worry about how many people will buy an album for $9.99 on iTunes when just as many will buy a hoodie for $50 under a tent by the gate. Reznor understood the rule that successful drug dealers have lived by since the dawn of the narcotics trade: the first taste is always free.

Nine Inch Nails live in concert

Nine Inch Nails live in concert

Trent Reznor, it seems, made Eno’s whale blubber epiphany years ago—realizing that his music was just an entry point for a larger experience with Nine Inch Nails and other projects like his new band/collaboration, How To Destroy Angels. He willingly knocked over the silo of music so that it could spill freely and connect with as many people as possible—people who would then be more likely to become fans and continue the Nine Inch Nails story through whatever means available — a live show, clothing, artwork. Reznor understood the principles of transmedia before it even had a name. It isn’t hard to imagine an artist like this continuing to expand his story through video games, books, and every other medium available—both adding to the richness of the story and the bank account of its creator.

To be continued in my next post…

Sparrow Hall will be speaking on Transmedia and Creative Rights Management at the 2011 StoryWorld Conference in San Francisco Oct 31 – Nov 2.
StoryWorld 2011 - San Francisco

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