(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.