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The Things We Can Change

Posted On: 1/19/2010

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While looking over 10 years' worth of headlines for this issue's "Decade in Review" report, I was reminded of the famous "Serenity Prayer," recently proved to have been originally authored in 1937 by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The prayer begins: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

The music and amusements industry is bedeviled with many situations that it cannot change. Some of the biggest "things that we could not change" from Jan. 1, 2000, to Jan. 1, 2010, involved the weather. In the Midwest, locations and machines were lost due to tremendous flooding. In Louisiana and Florida, entire routes were lost due to hurricanes.

Economic storms are another thing the industry cannot change. Heck, even the government hasn't figured out a way to outlaw business cycles. So when the recession of 2001 arrived, and then when the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 fell upon the nation, much of the industry had little choice but to get leaner and meaner than it already was.

But it's old news to say that you can't argue with the weather -- economic or otherwise. In reviewing the headlines of the decade, what really caught my eye were the things that the industry could change, and did. Arguably, two of the trade's biggest victories were political, in the broadest sense of that term.

One major victory occurred in 2001 in a courtroom. Federal judges ruled that videogames are a form of free expression and therefore protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, just like books, movies, radio and TV. That landmark victory led to many similar, winning verdicts in many other jurisdictions, and it will continue to pay dividends for the foreseeable future.

But the story of the Indianapolis videogame ban didn't have to wind up with a happy ending. After years of taking a beating at the hands of the press, public opinion and various local governments, the industry was not entirely confident of the outcome when it decided to stand up for its rights. It could have taken a powder, and if it had, that would have been entirely understandable. Instead, industry leaders had the wisdom to know it could make a difference, and the courage to try.

Another huge victory of the 2000s came last July: Illinois legalized an operator-run video lottery. Admittedly, this victory depended partly on economic weather. But the Video Gaming Act was also a local industry's reward for 20 years of smart, tireless lobbying -- to use Niebuhr's terms: wise, courageous lobbying. The Illinois trade spent two solid decades romancing lawmakers with receptions, campaign contributions, endless information and just plain handholding.

As a result, lawmakers stopped seeing operators, distributors and manufacturers in terms of negative "black mask" stereotypes. Government officials looked at the familiar faces of their industry constituents and saw good neighbors, good citizens and good voters. They saw hardworking small business owners, taxpayers, families and employers. They saw the industry the way it likes to be seen.

It also took wisdom for a handful of pioneers at companies like TouchTunes, Ecast and Rowe (now AMI Entertainment) to see that downloading music was the future. It took courage for them to act on that insight, offering digital platforms when most operators and distributors -- not to mention music labels -- were deeply skeptical.

Neither wisdom nor courage was in short supply among trade association leadership in the 2000s. The heads of the Amusement and Music Operators Association and American Amusement Machine Association did not have to be geniuses to know they had too many shows for a shrinking industry; all they had to do was listen to their exhibitors and look at dwindling show attendance. But the creation of next year's Amusement Expo, to be jointly staged by both associations, had to wait until competitive pressures became overwhelming. Like the economic weather, the trade show environment was something the associations finally had to accept because they could not change it.

Notice a pattern here? In the amusements industry, the "things we can change" are often political (in that broad sense): a courtroom victory, a legislative victory, a trade association policy. It's true, not everybody is cut out to be an innovative entrepreneur who goes out on a limb with new technology. But everybody should have the wisdom and courage to invest in vigorous political lobbying, vigorous legal self-defense, and vigorous association activism. These are "the things we can change." It's a good lesson to keep in mind as we begin the new decade of the 2010s.