Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Who wouldn't want free milk?

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.



  1. Interesting how, in many cases, the answer to this question, in my mind, lies in production quality - or perhaps more to the point, distribution quality or the potential for value-added material.

    Yes, I stream TV - but I pay for the privilege to watch it on Megavideo, which has much better quality streaming. I buy books for my Kindle on Amazon because I trust the files to be properly formatted, look pretty to read and have additional available content - like jacket descriptions and editorial reviews etc.

    So one of the answers as to how to monetize the web, I think, is in value-added service. Yes, we can all download the latest Harry Potter/Lady Gaga/Stephen King/Glee episode for free - somewhere online. So producers are going to have to start sweetening the deal with valuable add-ons to make the 'official' content more worthwhile than the free downloads. IMHO...

  2. In the music industry at least, value-added has more potential than production quality. After all how many thousands of people listen to pirated music that is a low quality, highly compressed shadow of the real thing through crappy ear buds in a noisy environment? My not-remotely-scientific observation says quite a few.

  3. I'll just stick to this arguement: "Music stores are closing, newspapers and television networks are going bankrupt and book publishers are fighting over who can produce electronic books cheaper."

    I have been able to live my life now 3 years without watching a television news program and yet I manage to stay well informed of the bureaucratic and health information I need to know for my family. Why? Because the news is not news. There are only so many "stories" I can hear on television about car crashes or bitchy people complaining about some trite thing before I realize none of that has any impact on my life. In that time I have also come to realize most of the other stuff on television is just as bad. It is mindless drivel churned out by out of touch tv executives. Most of mainstream media is controlled by people with far larger household income than myself motivated by profit to try to reel my attention span in. The recent plea from local tv stations is particularly sickening as the 6:00 news tries to maintain viewership off of the hardship of others - videos of houses on fire, people dying in car accidents, old people complaining about spam. That is not news. The real local news is coming out through digital forums, where virtual community members are sharing information that is relvant to your life, or talking about movies they enjoyed, or restaurants they like (in the olden days, it was neighbours talking on their front stoop). The same goes for music/movies/television shows. Most of the product out there is rehashed material without a lot of soul - why would I purchase that? Most aren't even worth the time it takes to download. For genuine artists that I enjoy, I will buy the CD or DVD because I know the money is going to go towards something I enjoy. The DVDs are even more enticing when it is something I know I will want to watch more than once. As for bookstores, I think the crap on television (*cough*fox*cough*) has diluted the intellectual waters down enough that people are unable to read books, but that is a seperate arguement entirely.


  4. When the networks give me the option of watching a show that I like by streaming off their website, I do so, and watch the commercials (shorter than on the tv broadcast) because I know money from the commercials will go toward the show that I am enjoying watching.

    If they don't give me that option, they are stupid, because they are pushing me toward downloading the show.

    If you give people an easy, cheap, and legal option they will take it.

  5. Yup, I agree with Liz. The way to stop people from stealing content is to make it more convenient to buy it than steal it. (at a reasonable price) I know no one who torrents music any more, because it's just so much easier to buy it from iTunes. One quick search and hit buy, and for 99¢ I have exactly what I'm looking for directly on my device. With Netflix, for $10/month I can watch all the content I want without having to search it, wait for downloads, convert it to watch on my device etc. The convenience factor far outweighs the cost. The only reason I'm ever drawn to try to torrent content any more is that infuriating "This content is not available in your area" bullshit. When a company refuses to sell content to me because of where I live, or makes it unavailable by cheap, convenient channels, I feel no moral obligation whatsoever to not steal it.