The Great Unbundling

Nobody wants to watch the Discovery Channel. 2.9 million people viewed “Naked and Afraid.” But a hundred million paid for it. More than a buck a month. The CEO made $156 million. Now what?


Verizon is following the customer, allowing its FiOS TV subscribers to pick and choose channels. And the content providers are going nuts!

Sound familiar?

Let me analogize for you.

A CD cost $12. But people only wanted to hear one song. There was no other way to get it than to purchase the album. The labels liked the income and the acts believed the other nine tracks had value, but not to the ultimate customer, who didn’t care and oftentimes didn’t believe in the act at all, moving on to someone else soon thereafter.

What changed the equation?


Piracy is disruptive, sure it’s theft, but it breaks the logjam. You might be bitching you’re making less money on recorded music, but you’re simultaneously complaining about your cable bill.

You can’t have it both ways.

Napster begat the iTunes Store, the great unbundling already happened in the music business, and the acts still haven’t recovered. Turns out most people only want the single, and with everything available they don’t want your music, maybe not at all. Kind of like in cable… The three networks used to have 90% of the audience, but now the four and a half networks get a fifth of the viewers, with the rest spread amongst a zillion outlets. And these outlets get paid by the cable company, via extortion. That’s right, the providers consolidated the channels, such that if you turn off one, we won’t give you the other. As a result, customers are paying for what they don’t want to watch. And they’re sick and tired of it.

Now in music we’re ahead, you can get all the programming in one spot, whereas in TV you’ve got to have a subscription to Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, cable, internet… They’re inviting you to pirate. However, we’re also moving in the wrong direction in music, with the exclusive. Once Apple/Spotify/Tidal all have different product people will return to piracy, or stop paying all together, as they’re doing with cable, cutting the cord.

HBO is going direct. You no longer need a cable contract, you can subscribe on the internet for $15.

But HBO is a winner, Discovery is not.

Taylor Swift is a winner, you are not.

That’s right, the old model was different. Very few people could record and distribute. Radio was the only way to get traction, and the major labels controlled the slots. And, as stated above, music was sold in a bundle for a high price. So, if you ran this gauntlet, you were a winner, you made money, whether it be the advance on your deal, even if you were a failed artist, or the royalties you got as a songwriter. But now that old system has been decimated, via the internet and piracy, and it turns out most people don’t want most music and you just can’t make what you used to.

Like Discovery. I’d cancel it tomorrow if I could, I haven’t watched it in years.

Nor have I viewed the vaunted ESPN, which costs every cable customer six plus bucks. That’s right, the success of sports is built upon a fiction, that we all care. But we don’t. Go a la carte and sports turn niche. Well, they tumble to a level far below the perch the media puts them upon now. As for the value of live sports… That’s to the advertiser, other than the Super Bowl, which is a national holiday, most people aren’t watching the game either. And if we all stop paying six plus bucks a month…

Everybody makes less money.

The corporations didn’t beat you, the public did!

It turns out people have time for great, they’ll even pay for it. HBO has got over 30 million subscribers, it costs $15 a month. Just like people will pay triple digits to see a superstar in concert. But they won’t pay to see you.

Superstars are making more than ever before. Sure, recorded music is a smaller piece of the pie, but ticket prices have far outpaced inflation and sponsorship offers are legion.

But it’s hard to become a superstar. You have to be great, you have to have promotion, to gain traction and stick you have to be at it for years.

And there are very few shortcuts. Ignore the U2 tour hype. They scaled down from stadiums, their new album was distributed and not heard. The people going are all Gen-X’ers who still believe, there are no new fans, because U2 is irrelevant, because the band doesn’t have hits.

You hate that you need hits.

But that’s what “Game of Thrones” is.

No one wanted to watch “John from Cincinnati.”

And that obscure show you love on Animal Planet… It’s being paid for by those who never watch, who aren’t even aware of it. It’s going to disappear when the great unbundling appears.

Which is happening now. In five years the TV landscape will look totally different. You’ll pay less, but there will be fewer high quality shows available. Then again, maybe TV should be made on the cheap, for YouTube.

You can be on YouTube. You can put your music up there and get paid just like the superstars.

But you won’t make much because most people don’t care, you have a tiny audience not because your promotion sucks, but you do.

Sorry to wake you up.

But what killed you was the customer. Turns out the customer only wants great. And if something is superior, there’s seemingly no limit to what he’ll lay down for it.

Them’s are the rules, that’s the game we’re playing, don’t shoot the messenger, your cheese was not only moved, but completely stolen, you can complain all you want but it ain’t gonna make any difference.

Note: Partially inspired by “How Cable Lost The Remote”

One Response to The Great Unbundling


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  1. Pingback by Links for “May the 4th Be With You” | Off the Map | 2015/05/04 at 12:43:24

    […] The Great Unbundling – Bob Lefsetz strikes again – asking the key question, “If I can get just the piece of media I want why would I pay extra for the fluff?”  Great piece. […]

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  1. Pingback by Links for “May the 4th Be With You” | Off the Map | 2015/05/04 at 12:43:24

    […] The Great Unbundling – Bob Lefsetz strikes again – asking the key question, “If I can get just the piece of media I want why would I pay extra for the fluff?”  Great piece. […]

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