July 2009

Jul
8
2009

Thoughts on Freeconomics: being a content artist is frightening

A few days ago I stumbled across the firestorm debate over Chris Anderson’s new book, Free. It started with Malcolm Gladwell’s review in the New Yorker, was rebutted by Seth Godin, and then, fueled by those three luminaries, spread far and fast across the interwebs.

In the middle of my attempts to follow the dendritic proliferation of response, the book itself became available — yes, for free — on Scribd and then Google Books. I stopped to read it through.

The book itself, and many of the responses to it, have sparked several different lines of thought for me — enough that it will take several posts (and days) to get through them. Here’s one:

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One of Anderson’s core arguments in Free is that trying to get people to pay for digital media is a losing proposition. Gladwell summarizes it thusly: “The digital age, Anderson argues, is exerting an inexorable downward pressure on the prices of all things ‘made of ideas.'” The result is that content creators — writers, musicians, artists, anyone whose output can be represented by bits as well as atoms — are increasingly unable to make any money from their content.

I think Anderson is correctly identifying an inevitable shift. Yes, one might decry an individual example or poke pinholes in some of the associated conclusions, but by-and-large he’s codified a pattern that I’ve been consciously puzzling out for a couple of years now and instinctively aware of, in a fuzzy sense, for much longer.

What I can’t do is match his cavalier attitude. He seems entirely unbothered by the idea that words and music will not make any money for their creators, because he’s confident they can always find some tangential source of income: live appearances, advertising, related merchandise.

It seems clear that this is the future, and content artists will adapt to it or perish. But not only is this model dauntingly difficult for most artists right now, I can’t help but wonder whether some unexpected future technology will remove even those options from the table. Star Trek-style matter replicators that make atoms as easy to copy as bits are today, full-sensory holograms that reproduce everything about a live performance … not discernibly less likely than today’s circumstances would have seemed twenty years ago — though of course it’s probable that the next game-changer will be something as-yet undreamed of. I fear we are only partway down a long slippery slope, and I have no idea what the bottom looks like.

I wouldn’t worry so much if I felt more confident about the relative value society places on content creation (aka ‘art’ in the umbrella sense of the term). Writing, and to a lesser extent photography, get the worst of this; there’s some general recognition that drawing or singing or playing an instrument requires some talent — or at least a lot of practice — but a pervasive myth that anyone can write, and less awareness of difference in quality. Or so it seems to me. (I’d love to be convinced otherwise.)

That’s about as close as I will get to railing against the inevitable. Pragmatically, I am much more interested in that aforementioned problem of finding a self-supporting niche as a content creator in the radically shifting marketplace of the immediate future. Which I’ll talk more about soon.