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.


  1. 9 Jul 2009 at 5:53 pm

    the thing that irks me is that the ‘luminaries’ Thinking Big Thoughts, With Attendant Publicity about all this — most especially Anderson, but all three you cite fall into the category — are by and large marketers, not creators. Not to say that they’re *not* writers and thinkers, but as good as Gladwell might be as an essayist, he’s a better marketer. CA in particular has a genuis for packaging the work of actual creators and becoming the one who reaps the large speaking fees and ancillary opportunities from it.

    Which I’m not knocking — it’s a skill, and all power to him for mastering it and using it to make a boatload of money. I mean it.

    But it’s galling to see him spinning a blithe ‘don’t worry, create and cash will follow’ story when what he’s profiting from isn’t really his skill as a wildly original thinker, or lyrical writer, or dogged researcher; it’s his skill as a marker who can sell the value of a package built atop the work of others. it’s all good when you’re the top of that food chain. most people aren’t, and it’s not hard work or raw creative talent that separates it all out in this New Content World. It’s marketing skill. I’ll have a lot more respect for the pundit who tells *that* story.

  2. 15 Jul 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Technology that made stuff as cheap as bits are now would at least have the upside that we’d be able to live on a lot less money. That might take some of the sting out of hardly being able to earn any.

  3. 23 Jul 2009 at 11:36 pm

    I love ‘Thinking Big Thoughts, With Attendant Publicity.’ So very apt.

    As for marketing skill being required, I agree; that’s part of what I want to talk about in a future post.

  4. 31 Jul 2009 at 7:21 am

    I’ll make a good attempt to catch up on reading _Free_, but I’m sort of curious to see the line of argument that says “digital age = artists screwed.” It is true that CD prices have come down — but that is because the cost was artificially high. CD production costs are way down due to technology, and the world of marketing has changed in an internet-savvy age; it costs less to promote something on YouTube than it does to buy airtime on TV.

    Music in the digital age also means that, for example, artists can stream a few free samples on their work on their website and I’ll cheerfully buy an album I never would have stopped to buy before because I can listen to someone’s work from my computer. Jonathon Coulton’s web presence made him famous; he got the geek-market. We have smaller and more specific markets these days, and people can capitalize on that.

    The digital age also means I can economize time for buying better, and the marketing can be correspondingly faster — I will buy books on my Kindle because I can read a free sample, when I would not have had the time to stop by the bookstore to do so. And I’ll do it just because Amazon told me “If you like this, you might also like this.” People can and do pay for media, when the business structure is done right.

    The reason that print newspapers bitch about the decline of their business is because they were always beholden to their advertisers, and the business of advertising on the internet is a whole different ball game — little, non-targeted ads are unlkely to garner an audience, and we’re no longer a captive market. But if newspapers geared their news towards cornering specific markets, not the international or national news, the people in that market would still pay for that, as well as the advertising that is relevant for that. The New York Post is more solvent than the NY Times, and more people pay for it in New York because it reports on local news — their specific niche, in other words.

    I believe that in general, the internet makes it easier for people to factionalize (is that a word?) and there are more specific markets because of that. When Amazon points me to, “if you liked Stephanie Meyer, you might also like…” they are capitalizing on the preferences of a specific sub-market, and if they pin me into that market, they’re usually right, and I usually *do* buy what they tell me to.

    On a non-ranting note, you are the only blog writer who ever makes me go look up vocabulary words, and THAT IS SO WORD-LOVIN’ COOL! :)

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