A sea change is coming. It has to.
The distributors of media are in the middle of it. Book publishers, music producers, film and television makers. Even Seth Godin, international marketing guru who has made a tremendous amount of money through publishing a whackload of books, has decided he’s never going back to traditional publishing. There was a time that a creative person could only share their stories with a handful of people on their own. They needed a distributor/broadcaster/record label to share their art with the world. That’s no longer the case. Artists can reach their audience directly online. Even if they don’t want to.
Especially if they don’t want to. Because people are getting their content for free. Even if the artist is not distributing it for free. It’s a digital world, baby, and as soon as something exists digitally, there is a way to get your hands on it without paying. The thing is, no one can be blamed for this. It’s human nature. It comes down to the old maxim:
“Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?”
This applies to more than just issues of fidelity and relationship commitment. It applies to almost anything. I know people, great people, people who wouldn’t hurt a fly and stand strongly by the letter of the law, who have pirated software or music. Who stream movies and television rather than pay for a satellite or cable feed. Who download ‘free’ books for their e-readers. And we can’t blame them. It’s human nature. We are all prey, at different levels, to that maxim. Why buy the cow?
The publishers, the distributors, have all tried to fight it. “Well, let’s make damn sure the milk isn’t free.” There are copyright laws that carry fines which would bankrupt a third world country. Napster was shut down. Limewire sprung up. Limewire is constantly under threat of shutdown, but no one can touch the multitude of peer-to-peer torrent sharing. The lawyers are getting richer but the trend isn’t reversing. It is getting harder, on a daily basis, to make sure the milk isn’t free, because someone will always find a way to get it. This is totally fuelled by the tragedy of the commons. One person, stealing – er, downloading – a handful of books or movies isn’t going to collapse any of these empires. The problem is, everyone sees it that way. We cannot control the price of, or access to, the milk.
What book publishers, music producers and broadcasters need to do, then, is stop trying to avoid the question, and instead, answer it.
“Why should we buy the cow, when we can get the milk for free?”
People are going to continue ‘stealing’ the milk, until they have an answer to this question. This is where our focus needs to be. It’s certainly the only way the publishers, distributors and broadcasters are going to continue to be a part of the game. How do we associate value with the work that is being created? As an artist, this has a lot of resonance for me. Fortunately, as a theatre actor, I don’t have to worry too much – I’ve never been onstage in a show that has been ‘bootlegged.’ But as a film actor, or writer or creator, how can I continue to do it, and afford to do it, when the probability of my work being watched or distributed for free is directly proportional to how many people find it enjoyable? In fact, are we approaching a point where an artist who only has a small loyal following is more likely to see money than someone who has a potential commercial success? You can find every Stephen King book for free somewhere, but I don’t think my friend Wayne Arthurson’s books will be hot torrent items, not for some time at least. And again, we think, “So what? Stephen King makes a kajillion dollars per book.”
But how long will that be sustainable? Music stores are closing, newspapers and television networks are going bankrupt and book publishers are fighting over who can produce electronic books cheaper. When is the bottom going to fall out?
When is someone going to answer the question, and share it with the world in a way that everyone believes, that resonates with them and that defeats the tragedy of the commons? Why should we buy the cow when we can get the milk for free? We all know we should, but until that ‘why’ is shared in a common voice, no one is going to.