Responding to the Free Content Boom… With Free Content

There’s a really thoughtful post over on Mercy Not Sacrifice exploring the difficulties that are arising for creators in the Information Age.  Morgan Guyton talks about the current trend in consumption where people are becoming more and more demanding for free creative material.  The status quo is that consumers can get plenty of entertainment from free sources these days, especially in relation to creative fields with low overhead costs (*cough*writing*cough*).

Just about anyone can be a producer, which is great from a diversity standpoint; I’m able to scan over my blog feeds and see cartoonists, scholars, regular schmucks (like myself), and all kinds of other folks whose interests overlap with my own to some degree, and we’re able to share our ideas and creations openly and freely.  It’s fantastic.

Feedback loop

Feedback loop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even people who aren’t interested in being creative producers still contribute to the information stream constantly through social media; I’m certainly guilty of checking my Facebook feed regularly to see what my friends and family are up to (and what they’ve found online).  Most of them are not trying to produce anything for the internet in the same way that I am with my blog, and that’s okay.  They still contribute by curating and sharing their own online experiences.

Morgan points out that the downside of this flood of free content is that people who are seriously trying to make a living by means of their creative outlets are in a tight spot.  Akin to the Millenials’ problem of having to do ‘unpaid internships’ in order to pad their resume for a real job, creators are now in a position where they have to produce a tremendous amount of content and distribute it without hope of monetary compensation because that’s the model we’ve built on the internet (one caveat to this comparison is that the Millenial problem is unfair and includes a false promise of guaranteed future success; living off of art has never carried with it a guarantee of steady livelihood).  I think the logic goes that because Sturgeon’s Law is in effect at all times, it’s not fair to consumers to ask them to plunk down money for content that is not necessarily of the same professional quality that is available through premium channels.

I get that.  I’m on a tight budget, and the internet is my primary source of entertainment, so if I’m going to stick to primarily indie outlets, I don’t want to have to pay the same premiums that I would expect to put down for the types of entertainment I can’t include in my budget.  Of course, then we start to develop into a feedback loop, because if I were someone who was trying to monetize my creations, I’d be contributing to the same trend that leaves me without a source of income, which leaves me in the poor house, which means I still can’t afford to pay other creators for access to their creations.

It’s almost like the solution would be to have everyone agree that they were going to pay some indie content so that we could reverse the trend by stimulating the internet economy.  Or something.  Solutions like that are always weird cries out into the online void for someone to do something without a clear plan as to what that something should be.  Perhaps in this case it’s a cry for an increased minimum wage movement on the internet.

Nonetheless, these are idle musings on my part, because I have the luxury of having a secure job with a good paycheck.  I can afford to contribute my writing freely because I’m paying my bills through other means, and I get a sense of satisfaction from knowing that some people are reading me.  Would I like to actually make money off my writing?  Yes.  I don’t think anyone who’s taken the time to develop writing as a skill beyond what’s required for whatever mental grunt work your job demands has ever not dreamt of earning money that way.  I’m especially fond of the daydream of selling my fiction, although I know enough about the industry to understand even authors who have “made it” and can rely on consistently selling their work to a wide audience don’t make a whole lot of money that way.

Still, it’d be nice.

As for the problem that Morgan brings up in his post, I don’t really have any solutions or interesting thoughts to offer up in response.  It’s a dismal situation for creators who want to make a living with their work.  I sympathize.

Maybe we all should just agree to pay someone five dollars every month for their work, whether we think it’s worth that much or not.

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2 thoughts on “Responding to the Free Content Boom… With Free Content

  1. Thinking specifically of music, I wonder if the ‘premium channels’ you allude to are part of the problem. Not so much in terms of pricing structures (and responding to tighter profit margins by aiming at an increasingly narrow product range, but in terms of standard contractual chains.

    What I mean is that something like iTunes or Spotify rely on an aggregator model for royalties payments (ie pay per download/stream) but outsource the aggregation itself to a subcontractor, passing the cost of this down the line. And because the creator is invariably on the bottom rung of the contractual chain, they’re ultimately bearing all the costs themselves – margin fees and so on.

    There’s a way of making these things profitable again, other than the band-aid of ad revenue, someone just needs to find it.

    I thought a fair enough compromise is for people to form clubs (like they used to in the old vinyl/early cassette days) – say you have 7 people; each goes out and buys a CD or a DVD, they pass it round, those that want to copy it do so. That way, as you say, at least everyone’s getting something, and for the cost of 1 album or movie you’re getting several. And copying from hard copies means that you’re often ensuring that a relatively greater proportion of the money you pay ends up in the bank account of the creator.

    It’s still piracy and thus both immoral and illegal, but it feels (to me) fairer.

    I dunno, I try and buy all of these things because I’m old-fashioned, and I don’t go to many gigs or the cinema that often. Plus I’m increasingly infuriated by people who get debut albums by the raftload for free and justify it by saying ‘well I do buy the ones I really like’ and when you ask which ones they say ‘Bon Jovi’s Greatest Hits’ and when you point out that the guys with debuts out are probably pretty poor whereas Jon Bon Jovi was wealthy enough to buy himself an AFL franchise, so if you’re gonna steal from one, probably it’s less bad to do it from the ones who’ve been around for decades.

    Also, no one should buy Bon Jovi records because there is such a thing as taste.

    Apologies if you’re a Bon Jovi fan, naturellement. (and for this stupidly long ‘comment’)

    • No problem with not liking Bon Jovi. I enjoyed “Wanted Dead or Alive” but beyond that I have no opinion about the man. I like your idea about media purchasing clubs as a potential middle ground between piracy and being forced to pay more for content than you think is fair. At least in a seven way split, each artist selling their work gets at least one guaranteed sale where they might normally get none (though 1/7 potential revenue is still far from ideal from the producer’s side). On the bright side of the internet boom, artists do have a lot more opportunity to reach their audiences without having to go through middlemen, which does mean a larger percentage of each dollar does end up in the artist’s pocket, even if the total number of dollars decreases. It’s a really complicated issue, and one that I’m not smart enough to present any viable solutions on. I just thought it was worth thinking about, especially with the growth of online communities in conjunction with content producers.

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