Monday, 27 September 2010

The cost of free? Not this again.

(image courtesy of Gisela Giardorno, 2006, Flickr, CC)

Over on the Guardian's PDA blog professional songwriter and musician Helienne Lindvall (who previously published for BMG) has written a post in which she seems to find it "ironic" that authors like Cory Doctorow and Chris Anderson charge upwards of $25,000 for professional speaking appearances when they are proponents of "giving away content for free as a business model".  Lindvall points to a number of speakers who seem to be advocates of this approach, such as Seth Godin, Peter Sunde and Gerd Leonhard, who all seem to offer advice on what the music industry needs to do in order to adapt to the digitally distributed economy of bits and bytes.

Somewhat strangely, she bundles the Stanford law professer Lawrence Lessig in with these speakers, despite his interests being more aligned with reforming the punitive restrictions brought about by blanket copyright that prevents material that is no longer commercially viable from entering into the public domain.  After all, he, Hal Alberson and Eric Eldred established the non-profit Creative Commons sets of licences to accommodate this problem.

I've blogged on these topics before (for my MAC309 students) and it's worth watching the short video below if you aren't familiar with the 'free' thesis

I responded to Lindvall's original post highlighting the problem with the "irony" that only she seems to see.  Is it ironic that Doctorow and Anderson charge what Lindvall seems to think are disproportionate fees for live (or video-linked) appearances? No, not really given the arguments put forwards by these writers.

One of the core arguments around the 'free' thesis and its derivatives is that value traditionally associated with content that used to make money in a physical format (ie books, CDs, film, etc) is that content producers have to be more dynamic in how and where they solicit their economic recompense. If that means charging for their expertise and presence then so be it. This also seems to ignore recent data that suggests the creative industries are alive and kicking in Norway and the UK at least.

There seems to be a parallel with the live versus recorded experience with regards to musical performance. It's one of the reasons why the TED conferences are so expensive - if you want to be in the presence of 'celebrity' you pay a premium. Presence is what pays and what people seem to currently value.

Anderson's argument may have its flaws but one thing rings true, the enemy of the creative artist is obscurity. Artists can survive in a digital economy with the right foundations - they need to be able to justify their output is worth paying for and leverage the relationships and opportunities presented by the internet. They need to (re)connect with their fans and give them a reason to buy. This is why you'll find Doctorow making limited edition bespoke editions of his novels that retail at over $300 whilst Amazon bulk sell his hardbacks at a discounted rate (this was one of the themes of his novel, Makers).

Note: I'm not claiming that piracy is a legitimate way for consumers to interact with artists and their content, but I'd be disingenuous to claim that it doesn't take place.   If Doctorow and others can incentivise people to pay for their content in the guise of appearance fees then so be it. They are most likely leveraging the current economic climate and their present celebrity cache to their advantage.

In some respects these speakers are making the new economic conditions work for them.  Several of the commentators on the original blog piece have made the clumsy parallel that these appearance fees are the equivalent to the live music performance.  However, this isn't quite an easy equivalent to make, especially for a band where the fees are spilt.  It might work for solo artists...  It has been suggest that these authors are writing the books with the intention being they will make the real money by touring.

So, is it really that ironic?

[EDIT] It seems like Cory Doctorow has actually responded to the blog post pointing out that he seldom charges for public appearance at all. He does them mostly for, you guessed it, free.


Crosbie Fitch said...

It is not the intellectual work that is to be free, but the public - to copy as they used to be free to, prior to the 18th century privilege of copyright that suspended that natural right.

Those who would restore the people's cultural liberty have absolutely no problem charging for their intellectual work. Having an audience free to copy your performance doesn't preclude them paying you to perform.

Have you not heard 'Free as in free speech, not as in free beer'?

Rob said...

Thanks for the post, Crosbie. This sounds like the distinction James Boyle (amongst others) makes in the The Public Domain.

I have no problem with 'free' as in 'liberty' but I'm guessing that the original author was equating the 'ironic' 'free' with zero cost. Perhaps I conflated the dual articulation when I invoked the notion of the public domain? Perhaps I shouldn't have raised that spectre.

It seemed to me that original post was addressing this issue (eg "giving away content for free as a business model"). As far as I can tell, many of the people that were invoked prefer to be paid for their intellectual work (whatever the format), but there are instances they duly acknowledge when this is not always possible (eg some forms of piracy). Doctorow encourages his readers to make various ebook translations, Anderson gave away a version of his audiobook via iTunes.

Crosbie Fitch said...

There is sometimes a need to give away one's work, e.g. as a promotional loss leader by an as yet undiscovered artist.

Thus independent film makers may give away their films (freely shareable by a virally discovering audience) to build up a fan base that they can then invite a commission from to fund the production of further works. One cannot expect to be commissioned by those who despite auditioning one's work do not find it to their taste or interest.

A musician may be commissioned by their fans to perform in a recording studio in exchange for the publication of that recording (freely shareable), just as they may be commissioned to perform in a stadium. In both cases ordering of tickets can be used to determine whether there are enough funds to make it worth the musician's labour and costs.

That fans are once again at liberty to make, distribute, and sell copies is only a problem to the copyright exploitation industry. For the musician this is a big chunk of a recording label's 99% commission on sale of copies. Hence the modern musician no longer employs the services of a label. By deal with their fans directly they get 100% of their fans' commission. Moreover, all copies, distribution, and promotion are performed by their audience for nothing. It's a better deal for both. The artist and their audience get their liberty back (otherwise in the hands of the label). And consequently liberated fans commission more enthusiastically.

This is the future we're moving to - despite the best efforts of the traditionalists trying to hold it back (lobbying for the re-enforcement of their 18th century privilege of copyright).

Doctorow is still not quite there yet - compromised by commercial considerations.

Even more discussion:

Rob said...

Great comments, Crosbie, thanks

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