Yesterday we examined the question, should art be free? Today I will begin by giving you the short answer, no. If we don’t want to loose an already dwindling artistic community, somehow, someway, someone needs to be paid. The online piracy problem is not one we can ignore, if we do nothing SOPA/PIPA will return and eventually pass. The entertainment industries just have too much money and too many lobbyists to let the industry be eaten away by illegal file sharing.
Because art has never been free, and it’s not going to be anytime soon, we have to look to alternatives: subscriptions, donations, direct artist exchange, tax credits. Whatever it is, it needs to meet some general requirements such as, limited to no corporate involvement, easy accessibility, affordability, and quality. If the publishing and film industries are anything like the record industry, they’ll resist change until they’re staring death right in the face. A clear case of ‘if you can’t beat em’ join em’.’
The article that inspired the question, should art be free, made a great point when saying that many technologies that we don’t think twice about today were once seen as a direct threat to the entertainment industrie’s way of business. Radio begot Sirius, begot Pandora, begot Spotify. Just as Pay-Per-View begot OnDemand, begot Netflix. That essentially means that there will be push back at first, out of fear, when they understand how to use the technology to their advantage they’ll embrace it.
The first alternative we’ll look at is the subscription model. Netflix, Spotify, and Audible all provide content for free, cheap, or relatively cheap. Netflix and Spotify rely heavily on the notion that ownership is becoming obsolete. As long as you have a computer or mobile device with 3G or wifi, thousands of movies or songs are right at your fingertips. While record labels have mostly come around to the idea, the film studios still have great fear of what endless streamable content will do to their business. Is it cheap? Yes. Is it easy and accessible? Yes. Is there limited corporate involvement? For the time being, yes. Currently they act as a third party, you pay Netflix, Netflix pays the studios. If this is to actually compete with free file sharing then undoubtedly there will be more corporate involvement, perhaps even commercials.
Essentially everyone will come around to this technology over time, plugging your ears and pretending it doesn’t exist just won’t work.
One of my favorite alternative is direct artist exchange. You know when you go to a concert and give a band cash for a record they keep in a briefcase? You can do the same thing digitally. What really seems to turn people off is the music industry corporate structure. For instance, on a $15 CD a band is really just pocketing pennies. On a 99 cent itunes song it’s a fraction of a penny. Through the miracle of Paypal, now you can pay an artist directly for digital content.
Back in December Louis CK released his latest concert film as a $5 digital download through his website. The file wasn’t copy protected which was by design. Sure it will get uploaded to sites like BitTorrent and downloaded by many for free, but in this case it’s much more difficult to justify. At just $5 you’re getting the film for a steal and supporting the artist directly, not a major studio. Artists like Louis CK are hoping that you’ll pay for the content on principle rather then get it for free on principle.
This concept is similar to Bandcamp, a website that offers you the opportunity to sell a digital album independently, bypassing the labels. Bandcamp takes a 15% cut (which is chump change compared to the labels). If you sell 5,000 copies that number drops to 10%. Each song is available for individual purchase or you can buy the full album. The prices are affordable, and on occasion you can name your own price. the business model is still in its infancy but very promising. It won’t stop piracy completely but it creates an attractive alternative.
Francis Ford Coppola is skeptical of an artistic industry driven by money. He points out that artists have only been dealing directly with money for a few hundred years, previously they existed thanks to patrons (royalty, institutions, wealthy individuals). That model never really went away, but it’s making a more popular comeback with websites like Kickstarter and IndieGogo.
Kickstarter offers almost any endeavor the opportunity to raise a specific amount of money to fund a project. The money can come from anyone in any amount, the catch is that you must meet your goal or return the donations. This is a proven method of fundraising, two of our past guests here at the website Karl Blau and Matt Vancil have successfully funded projects this way.
Like Bandcamp, this method creates a direct connection with fans and artists. It effectively replaces not only the studios but also the pitch process, it’s the fans who either fund or pass on a project. While most campaigns thus far have been in the $100,000 or less realm, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine this working with a larger budget. JourneyQuest raised $100,000 and in the end all the content will be available free, without corporate involvement, on their website.
While I don’t see Michael Bay going through Kickstarter for his next mega-film it does offer an attractive alternative for any independent production seeking funding.
The last alternative is one that I find very intriguing, it’s the most unique and completely untested, but I find it’s possibilities very intriguing. Author Dean Baker proposes the idea of an Artistic Freedom Voucher (AFV). This would allow individuals (artistic supporters) a modest refundable tax credit, permitting you to spent up to $100 per year in support of creative endeavors. Baker suggests that this could either go to the artist directly or through an intermediary who supports a range of work. I’m leaving out most of the specifics, so you should read his article here.
The catch is that in accepting this money you become ineligible for copyright protection for a number of years. Baker predicts and I completely agree that this would generate heavy volumes of music, film, performances, fine arts, literature etc. It would restore a thriving community. The other big catch of course is that this would cost the government money, and in a time when supposedly we can’t provide proper healthcare, or education to a nation heavily in debt, many lawmakers would see this as socialism. Consider how much the passing of SOPA/PIPA would have coast to enforce, with extra employees and hours of man power, it would have reached up into the millions if not billions.
There is one final alternative that I’m not calling an alternative only because it seems so far off, it’s probably the most likely scenario next to the subscription alternative. The entertainment industries could simply bite the bullet and find a way to use file sharing networks to their advantage, perhaps even working with them directly. Sure today that seems just as unlikely as having the government support an artistic freedom voucher, but the music industry felt similar about radio and look how that turned out. If they keep trying to force a broad bill like PIPA/SOPA through, they could experience a catastrophic backlash from their own customers.
I don’t see a way for art to be truly free. The alternatives I’ve presented offer new options to a disenchanted group of consumers who have found it easier and more politically motivated to download illegally. One way or another art is going to continue to cost those of us who obtain it legally some amount of money, there are ways to make it more affordable and accessible with limited corporate involvement.