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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

Survival of the arts in an on-line world

According to the news media (and their owners/backers who have a stake in the perception of the truth), free downloading, peer-to-peer, and loaning copies to friends will mean the demise of all forms of creative artistry. The argument goes that as created works are distributed for free, the artists will not receive money. The artists will therefore not produce, and mass culture as we know it will implode.

There are a number of enormous holes in the argument, the hard ones being a) people are still willing to pay to have the quality of the DVD plus its special features, or the features of the game discs plus included artwork, or the fidelity of the CD plus its liner notes in flippable form, etc., b) people who download and share tend to be people who buy, but we are in an age where p2p and social networks are the trusted ways to find new music, c) entertainment budgets that used to only go to books, movies, and records now get split up among books (and on-line books and self-published books and sites like fictionwise.com), and movies (and their corresponding DVDs and downloads and Netflix etc.), CDs [with monopolistic price gouging (but that's a separate discussion) and iTunes and indie labels etc.], the enormous business of video games (which didn't exist in this scale ten years ago and certainly takes a nice chunk of disposable income), plus everything else that you can spend your spare change on that didn't exist ten or fifteen years ago. And this is without even discussing the "soft" questions of convenience, time invested, and attention span.

But whether you drink the MPAA/RIAA Kool-Aid or not, the question remains: In an age where creative content can be easily copied and distributed and thus becomes essentially free, how does the artist/creator make money?

There are some simple solutions that most companies are exploiting, such as:
1. Include goodies in the object you buy in the store that make it more interesting than the object you download for free. Yes, it costs more, but historical operating margins were ludicrously overblown. Think of it as justice for the consumer.
2. Make additional content available (e.g. on-line) only to customers who have a key from the original item. This is easy to track, and is especially popular for games -- think WoW.
3. Make the quality of the original item higher than anything other than an enormously large download.

But those are not really solutions, because they are simply attempts to perfect a business model that seems doomed in the medium term. They are band-aids.

The best discussion that I have seen to date on how to really actually survive as an artist, using the business structures and environments that have been provided by the on-line world, is on Kevin Kelly's blog here:

http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/03/1000_true_fans.php

The idea is that if you have (say) 1,000 true fans, who wll always buy your stuff in whatever form it comes out, you have enough to support yourself pretty well. If each true fan coughs up $100 of pocket money per year on your creations, you can certainly continue to make a fine living from them. He goes on to discuss microfinancing and other ways for beginning artists to get started, and it is certainly worth a read if you have skin in this game.

Kelly's ideas continue on the now ancient premise (from way back in the nineties) of disintermediation; as long as the middle-man does not add perceptible value he will be bypassed. Perceptible value is provided by talking and sharing with friends or listening to radio stations that have your tastes. Perceptible value -- particularly in music and cinema -- is essentially zero for the labels and production companies. I have never heard in my life, nor will I, statements like, "Hey, have you heard the latest band from Universal?" or "Look at this! New Line has a movie coming out!" The perceived value to the consumer of these brands approximates zero. The music that the band makes has value, the distribution stream used to get the music to the consumer has value. Napster had value. But now, a CD can be made in the studio for $500 and distributed on-line, and there is no going back.

The simple facts remain that consumers are not essentially evil, and that people are willing to pay for what they perceive to be valuable, but that neither legislation nor marketing can roll back perceptions of value that have been so fundamentally altered.

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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

December 2011

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