I’m a pro photographer, and sometimes I imagine a future person looking back at my work 100 years from now. What word would I want them to use to describe me? Groundbreaking, perhaps? Innovative? Brilliant and misunderstood (probably not that)?
No, I have a very specific word in mind: prolific.
Why? We live in a world where content is everywhere. According to a recent study by Nielsen, American adults consume an average of 11 hours of media per day. This includes music, TV, movies, Medium articles, etc.
Think about that for a minute. 11 hours. If the average person sleeps (let’s be generous) eight hours per night, that means we’re awake for 16 hours per day. So we’re interacting with content for the majority of our waking hours. You’re doing it right now. Live TV still accounts for more than four hours per day, with the balance split between radio (one and three-quarter hours), apps (two hours), websites, and other media.
That’s a lot of content. Feeding the need for that content is a major undertaking — and a lucrative business.
Racing to the Bottom
Despite the huge explosion of content consumption, it can still feel like producing content is a race to the bottom. For much of the 20th century, musicians could release an album with a major label and count on years of revenue from record sales. Writers could publish a book (or a column in, gasp, a print newspaper) and expect to make at least some money for their trouble. And photographers at a certain level could rely on four- or five-figure assignments from cash-flush magazines and advertisers.
All that has changed. According to data from Rolling Stone, music publishing saw steady increases in royalties through 1998. What followed was a rapid decline, which nearly halved the value of the industry by 2008. A similar story has played out across the content landscape. With blogs and the internet, everyone is a publisher, and traditional print media has changed dramatically. In photography, pros are competing with microstock sites, free content sites like Unsplash, and even Instagram. Large, lucrative photo licenses are largely a thing of the past, outside very specific parts of the industry.
So what’s a content producer to do? Is it all doom and gloom?
No. If you feel disheartened, keep repeating this to yourself, like a mantra: 11 hours. 11 hours. 11 hours.
Remember, content consumption has never been higher. Return to that graph from Rolling Stone, look past 2008, and things appear downright rosy. After a decade-long slump, recorded music royalties went up nearly 4000% between 2008 and 2016. The industry is now worth $43 billion per year, the highest ever. So what gives?
It’s a Streaming World
While the need for content has never been higher, the way we’re consuming it has changed. The world of streaming is here. Rather than buying our music, we stream it through Spotify and pay for it with a subscription or by selling our attention to advertisers. Instead of getting a daily newspaper, we stream our writing through platforms like, ahem, Medium. Instead of paying a ton for cable, we stream our entertainment through Hulu or YouTube. And instead of brands hiring photographers like me for large one-off shoots, they subscribe to and stream tons of images from stock agencies like iStock and Shutterstock.
With streaming services, the value of a single piece of content goes down dramatically. But again, there is so much consumption today (11 hours, 11 hours, 11 hours) that overall, the content world has never been larger or more lucrative.
So how can content producers thrive in this new landscape? With the value of each piece of content going down, but the overall consumption going up, there’s only one thing to do: Produce a lot of content.
Rather than focusing tons of resources on producing the perfect photoshoot, album, video, or whatever you create, focus your resources on making the process of producing content as cheap and easy as possible. Why rent an expensive studio when you can record your band on your iPhone, edit the recording in GarageBand, and have it ready to stream on Spotify tomorrow via CDBaby? Why wait to get a TV deal when you can make a series with a cellphone camera and have it on YouTube in minutes? Why do expensive photo shoots in exotic locations when customers want to see well-shot pictures of everyday life, which you can sell directly through iStock or Alamy?
Another reason to focus on volume is that it’s difficult or impossible to predict the value of content in advance. That passion-project short film you spent months producing might languish on YouTube with a few hundred views, whereas something you shot on your phone in 20 minutes might go viral and reach millions. I’ve spent thousands of dollars producing pictures that never sell (like an ill-fated experiment with renting an electronic microscope), yet at the same time I’ve taken photos out my car window (relax, I wasn’t driving) that find an audience in the hundreds of thousands.
In music, Matt Farley is the patron saint of volume. He’s an artist who has zero hits but has made a living by releasing over 20,000 songs on Spotify. They cover every topic you can imagine, from David Beckham to guinea pigs. By reducing his cost of producing songs to nearly zero, he’s turned what’s normally a winner-take-all industry into a lucrative daily grind.
In many cases, successful content comes down to luck and timing. Maybe an influencer logs into your social media platform of choice right as you post something, shares it, and causes it to trend. Or conversely, maybe Google’s SEO gnomes just hate one of your blog posts and it never goes anywhere. When the value of a piece of content is unknown, it doesn’t pay to put years of your life in one basket. And when there’s so much luck involved, and each piece of content is essentially a lottery ticket, it does pay to make yourself lots of tickets. Diversify, produce quickly, learn from what works, and grow.
Yes, But What About Quality?
I can already hear the critics chiming in: But what about quality? If you’re focused on producing content quickly, won’t the quality suffer? Won’t your output suck?
The challenge with quality is that it’s inherently subjective. If you’re a fine art photographer, you’d probably find my shots of the facades of tech companies’ headquarters terminally boring. But if you’re a financial journalist, you’ll look at them and go “Aha, the perfect image for the top of my next story on Amazon!” Likewise, if your band produces 1980s-inspired K-pop death metal, a classical music lover will probably find it very low quality. But those in your community will love it and be thrilled that they found you on Apple Music!
With so many different types of people and companies consuming content today, there’s no fixed definition of quality. One consumer’s quality content is another consumer’s garbage. It doesn’t matter — so long as you’re reaching an audience that appreciates your work, you’re producing something of quality.
One caveat, though, is that technical quality is a little different. No one will buy my photo of a random tech company if it’s blurry or poorly exposed. And no one will read your Medium articles if they’re formatted weirdly, have lots of typos, or are poorly written and researched. Technical quality is important, but with much better recording tools, editing tools, and simple tech functions (like spellcheck!), the bar to achieving a basic technical quality is much lower than in the past. My cellphone shoots 60FPS 4k video. Five years ago, a camera that did that would have run five grand or more.
So yes, make sure you achieve a basic level of technical quality. But beyond that, focus more on producing content quickly and cheaply versus making something perfect.
Embrace the Machines
How can you produce content faster and cheaper? Some of it comes down to a mindset — focusing less on perfection and more on meeting an immediate consumer need. I’ve produced YouTube videos that are terribly shot but provide useful information about electronics. I get yelled at in the comments section, as the watch numbers and engagement metrics rise and rise. Read The Lean Startup, pretty much any productivity publication on Medium, etc., and you’ll get the drift.
Another aspect, though, is choosing the right tools. Artificial intelligence, for example, can do wonders for automating the process of producing content. Using AI software from Google Vision, IBM Watson, Imagga, Clarifai, and CloudSight, I can automatically tag, organize, and even caption the photos I shoot. Hundreds of hours of labor in creating a valuable end product are automated away. It allows me to produce more than 10,000 saleable photos per year.
Creator software is cheaper, too. It can even (surprise) be streamed! Adobe Creative Suite, which once required a $4,000 per seat purchase and an enterprise sales deal, can now be had for a $60 per month subscription. And again, the physical devices for producing content have never been better or cheaper. Equipment that cost $10k a decade ago (or didn’t even exist) can now be had for under $1k.
Which brings me back to why prolific is the superlative I’d choose. In a landscape with so much consumption, there’s never been a better time to create. The world is hungry for content, and that hunger will only grow as more people are connected and devices become faster and better. With such a diversity of people, platforms, and types of content, the only way to make sure you’re creating something of lasting value is to create a lot — to maximize your exposure to this unprecedented landscape of viewers, readers, listeners, and fans, and to see what grabs their interest.
So if you’re a creator, focus on lowering the costs of creating, both in terms of time and money. Use today’s advanced tools like AI to streamline your workflow and try creating with more of a focus on your audience’s real needs and less on perfection. You might find the exercise artistically freeing — when the cost of creating new content is low, it’s cheap to fail. You can afford to be more experimental and to try new things without caring too much if they don’t succeed.
In short, try being prolific. You might be surprised by how enjoyable it is and how much great content you produce.