Free: so good it hurts

Gift EconomyMike over at Techcrunch lashed out at Billy Bragg for whining, in a New York Times op-ed, about the doomed, sorry state of business for digitally distributed music. I agree that Bragg shouldn’t hold his breath for any of Bebo’s cash, and that whining isn’t going to help solve anything. But man, is Mike tough on those artists.

What’s one difference between Techcrunch and some music artist, aside from the obvious that Mike probably (hey, I might be wrong there, who knows) wouldn’t make a great living playing the guitar, while any random musician likely has little understanding of the inner workings of the Valley startup scene?

Here’s one: one the one hand, Mike and the gang get to focus on building the value of the Techcrunch property, and then enjoy the very same economies of scale he denies the artist, through unbounded distribution at little marginal cost (bandwidth). In Mike’s case, distribution is fueled by the quality of the content, spreads via the viral pathways of the blogosphere we all like to call link love, aided if need be by aggregators like Techmeme.

So Mike’s striking gold, because he gets ad impressions and prospers more or less proportionally to traffic at the site. He certainly prospers unfettered by the fixed cost of publishing Techcrunch. Great!

Yet I wouldn’t get too cocky about it: it’s not like he came up with the business model or anything. He just happens to sit at a juncture where it’s been enabled and trail-blazed for a while. Great timing, it affords him the chance to focus on content.

On the other hand I see angst-ridden artists, driven to a state of quasi-panic by the impending doom of the model they had assumed regimented their industry, for the reason Mike highlights: costless distribution, ultimately leading to the drying up of any distribution-related revenue stream. It gets worse for artists: no one is putting up with ads around the medium. All we can offer them, right now, is to hop on a bus and tour the country: concert time, baby.

Aside from Bragg’s unlikely claim to Bebo’s stash, I think it all boils down to the not-so-surprising, frightened reaction of artists as the tectonic plates shift under their feet, with no new model in sight, aside from the clearly less scalable concert and t-shirt angle. At the very least, it’s understandable they should exhibit symptoms from the growing pains of being forced into evolving a business brain, instead of focusing on creating great content, in their case making music.

So a bunch of musicians are probably feeling, right now, like kids whose favorite toy has just taken a bad fall from the table and is irremediably broken: they’re going to try hard and put the thing back together, in spite of the foregone conclusion, until they land a new toy.

I wouldn’t throw stones: the ad-supported blogosphere is our collective glass house; if all of Mike’s readers, one way or another, ad-blocked away his income source, he’d be scrambling to find a new business model too.

I brought this up in a conversation with Mike in the comments to his post. His answer: we need to deal with reality. Correct. Whether we want to or not, we all deal in reality here so, clearly, his suggestion of moving back to digging holes if your business model falls apart is always an option.

But I still think we’re missing the bigger picture, the bigger point: why feel so smug about beating up on the artists? They’re one of many canaries in the coal mine. Nick Carr, unsurprisingly, is quick to draw the parallels with the exploitation he repeatedly spots and denounces as sharecropping in the content generated by users in social networks. And commenters to Mike’s post eloquently point out that the software industry exhibits the very same costless distribution traits currently driving artists to panic. Software is on a commoditization and collision path with the same fate, and I think blogging is far from immune. Free economy all around, indeed.

What we need is a new set of business models. No time for whining, but no time for belittling the insecure artist either.

Music is only one of many instances of the collectively self-imposed and fashionable trend toward canceling the gains in productivity that economies of scale have afforded many industries until now. In Carr’s words: we’re operating under the cloud of neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.

So while we can wait until we’re in the same tight spot as artists, and only deal with the problem then, why delay? The underlying issues are at least partially common, and solutions revolve around coming up with new, scalable models for the digital age, not around going back to an artisan model where you can only earn income from performing live, being paid by the word for your articles or by the hour for your software.

Fred Wilson, constructive as always, focuses on just that: solutions. At least in the case of music, he reminds us that royalties based on streaming make a lot of sense, and suggests what we need is infrastructure making it easy to pay for content as we go. I like that it ties right back into the simple notion, too often depicted as obsolete, that paying for stuff we consume makes sense. Until the day we truly find ourselves living in a world of abundance, it feels about right.

Photo: for a girl called zaza, by jek in the box; Creative Commons license: Attribution, Non commercial, No Derivative Works.

1 Comment

  1. I agree completely. One should not ever ‘whine’ – that is, one should never battle injustice by, telling people about things that are unjust.

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