Freedom Isn’t Free: An Essay on Digital Content

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A Reflection on the Cost of Digital Content, with 10 Suggestions to Fellow Christians

“ ‘Information wants to be free.’  So goes the saying. . . I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.”  — Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget

Jaron Lanier is one of the foremost computer scientists in the world, and the man who coined the term “virtual reality.”  He has spent more time reflecting on the implications of the internet than most anyone else on earth.  In his recent manifesto, You are Not a Gadget, he argues persuasively that the movement towards free information on the internet has choked creativity, dumbed down innovation, and led to a popular culture of nostalgic malaise.  In order to make his point, he looks at most modern music and its apparent inability to do much more than rehash, mashup, and remix the songs and styles of previous generations.

Lanier points out that the economics of free information were supposed to unleash a generation of new artists, writers, musicians and craftspeople who would be unfettered by the need to seek corporate sponsorship or wealthy supporters.  Unfortunately, I believe we have seen a morass of inadequate and amateurish products and a deficit of excellence in the artistic fields. Of course, there are also excellent artists doing excellent work, but these brave souls find themselves in an environment in which it is increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to support themselves on the proceeds of their art. Further, the economics of the internet have led to the bankruptcy of many journalistic institutions and the severe degradation of the free press.  While there are untold numbers of celebrity-hunting bloggers, there are fewer and fewer credible journalists with the backing to go after the most important stories.  Democracy needs a substantial press, Edmond Burke’s “fourth estate;” we are in grave danger of losing ours.

I believe we have done enormous damage by refusing to pay for content simply because it is in digital form.  By stealing music, we have prevented musicians from operating creatively; and hindered music business people from encouraging and producing new talent.  By pirating photography, we have cut the legs out from under artists.  By refusing to pay for journalism, we have devastated newspapers and network news.  Those of us who consume free internet content have made it increasingly difficult to produce high quality movies, television, journalism, fiction, poetry, art, music, travel guides, cookbooks–the list is endless.  Yes, there are more videos to watch than ever before.  But the best of these are still being produced by the movie studios and cable networks of the old economy.  These studios and networks are being financially starved to death.

“Who cares?” some say.  After all, NBC and EMI and HBO are just big corporations.  Fight the power, screw the Man!  They deserve to burn.  The problem is that they are burning, but there is no one to replace them.  Will rich bankers rise up to sponsor the next Sopranos?  Will the Church take contributions to bankroll the next U2?  Is it Bill Gates or the Pope or the Sultan of Brunei who will save us from an endless stream of cat videos and 80s remixes?  I am amused by basketball tricks on YouTube, but I fear that I will never see another Godfather.

All of these concerns are pragmatic, and ultimately selfish.  I want to be well informed and well entertained.  But I have other concerns as well.  I am a Christian, the pastor of a church, and a priest of the Anglican Communion.  It is my duty to speak to my fellow Believers, especially those in my care, about the moral cost of free internet content.  I do not intend to moralize to those outside of my faith; but I would like to speak to those inside of it.

On one hand there is the moral principle against theft.  A great deal of digital content is stolen simply because it is digital.  Most people in the Church would not break into someone’s house to steal a DVD from a shelf or a picture from the wall.  However, many of us might pass along movies or pictures which we have illegally copied.  In so doing, we are violating one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou Shall Not Steal.” (Exodus 20:15)  We have also violated Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) Stealing from another person is not loving.  Further, in many cases we may be going against Christ’s final commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) When we steal from Christian artists, many of whom we worship with on Sunday morning, we ignore the instructions that Jesus said would set us apart from the rest of the world–“by this will all know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” (John 13:35)

I am speaking to myself.  I have personally stolen digital content.  While I have never illegally downloaded music, I have ripped CDs and passed them on to others, and I have received digital music that other people did not have the legal right to give me. I have no idea how many times I may have misused digitized art to spice up powerpoint presentations at church functions.

It is easy to steal digital content, as it is easy to view digital pornography or gamble illegally online or send anonymous messages of hate to those who differ from us.  It is all done so privately, so effortlessly.  There is little or no danger of being reprimanded by any outside source.  However, these behaviors are deadly to our souls; and God is always present.  There is no moral difference between sinning with a computer and sinning without one.

On the other hand, there is the more complex question of using content that is available both free and legally.  There are no laws against consuming much of what we might find on the internet.  In many cases, this content may be distributed under specific conditions, such as a Creative Commons License (as this essay is).  The site where we find the content may be trying to pay for itself through advertising, for instance, or through private investment.

The problem is that most high quality content found on the internet (music, video games, stories, illustrations, etc.) costs significantly more money to create than it is making on-line.  There is a huge gap between the cost of production and the price of consumption.  Some organizations, such as the New York Times or the makers of the game Spore, complain about this gap and seek to correct it.  When they do, they are endlessly mocked on blogs and many consumers refuse to pay up.  This results in such organizations either backing down or finding themselves with far fewer customers.  In either case, the degradation of content continues, professional people are laid off, and the public gets more and more Beyoncé mashups to feast on.

Certainly many people produce content simply for the love of it.  I am personally in that camp.  I record film reviews solely as a hobby.  But I can afford to do this.  If I wanted to set aside all other work to become a serious film critic, the current on-line economy guarantees that my family would starve.  Thousands of professionals are losing their vocations because of the high cost of “free” content.

While most Christians agree (theoretically) that stealing is wrong, I want to challenge our moral principles still further.  When St. Paul was writing to the churches, there was a question as to whether pastors should be paid.  In addressing this question Paul quoted both the Old Testament and Jesus himself when he wrote “the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” (1 Timothy 5:18)  Paul is speaking of our need to pay ministers; he is not speaking about digital content creators.  However, there is a principle here I would suggest we consider.  Notice his use of the agricultural example used by Moses. (Deuteronomy 15:4)  As an ox tread grain the Israelites were instructed to leave its mouth free.  Why?  So that the ox could eat as he worked.  Paul then associates this with Jesus saying ‘a worker deserves his wages.‘ (Luke 10:7) If a dumb animal should be allowed to make his living off his own labor, why not those who preach?  And why not those who create intellectual and creative content?  Just because their content is digitized and placed on the internet, are they less deserving than animals or pastors of reaping reward for their work?  Should we pay our pastors for their helpful words, but not our musicians and reporters and poets?

I believe that it is a Christian duty to pay laborers for the work they do on our behalf.  If we run a business, we should pay our employees.  We should pay the people who we might hire to mow our lawns or care for our animals while we are out of town.  We should pay our taxes so that the police and firefighters and teachers on whom we rely may be compensated for their efforts.  We should do our part to pay those whose digitized content we both use and value.  This seems to me to be a reasonable application of our Lord’s declaration that “a worker deserves his wages.”  This sounds like justice.

With this in mind, I offer these suggestions to my fellow Christian Believers.  They are not commandments, as I refuse to lay down any law.  Rather, these are thoughtful and godly ideas.  These are not suggested laws or market practices.  They are meant for individuals.  I would ask that my readers consider these suggestions and pray about putting them into practice.  I would also encourage others to comment on this essay, challenge my ideas, and make other suggestions.

10 Suggestions for the Christian’s Use of Digital Content

1) Do not steal, even if you can.  Do not download or share files which are being offered illegally.

2) Do not receive stolen merchandise, even if it is digital.  If content was taken illegally, or is being offered to you in violation of the law, politely refuse to accept it.

3) If you have stolen content in the past, delete it and buy it legally.

4) Do not violate the terms of use of digital material.  If a file is offered for non-commercial use, do not use it commercially.  If a picture is available for use if you attribute the artist, attribute it to her.

5) When in doubt, do your best.  Some files have been copied and re-posted so many times you may have no way of ever finding the original terms of use.  There is no perfect system; do what you can.

6) If you regularly use content and that providing site gives you the ability to contribute, do so.  For example, if you listen to the “This American Life” podcast, visit their website and give them some money.

7) If you visit a site and you see a link to interesting and legitimate advertising, don’t be afraid to click on it.  While I don’t personally like advertising on websites, it is a large source of income for many content providers.

8) If you like a site or service that does not receive contributions, write them an e-mail and ask them to give their users the opportunity to contribute.  For instance, if you read a blog three days a week and there is no way to financially support the blogger, ask her to provide a way to support her site.

9) This may be my most creative and crazy suggestion.  Pick ten of your favorite providers of free on-line content, whether large corporations or non-profits or individual artists.  Get their addresses, and send them some money with a letter (even just a couple of dollars).  Tell them that you are sending them this money because you have consumed their content for free, and you believe that they deserve to be compensated for the benefit that they have provided to you.  Yes, this is radical.  Yes, it is counter-cultural.  Remember the story of King David and Araunah in 2 Samuel 24:18-25?  David wanted to build an altar on Araunah’s land, so Araunah offered to give him the land for free.  But David replied “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24)  Paying for something even when it is offered to you for free is a principle found in this story.

10) Pass this essay on to others.  Yet, it is almost 2000 words long.  But these ideas may spark thoughtful discussion, dissent, and debate.  Even if you totally disagree with what I’m saying, consider engaging with this material.

 

Respectfully,

Fr. Thomas McKenzie

Profile photo of Thomas McKenzie

Thomas McKenzie is the author of The Anglican Way, a book he describes as a traveler’s guide to the Anglican tradition, as well as The Harpooner, an Advent reader featuring harpoons—how awesome is that. He graduated from the University of Texas and attended seminary at the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1998 and planted the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville in 2004, where he is the still pastor. He’s also keeps samurai swords in his office, and wears a skull ring.


34 Comments

  1. David H

    Years ago I got to interview Bo Diddley. One of Bo’s nicknames was “The Originator.” Bo rightfully saw himself as one of the progenitors of rock. Besides writing and recording many hit songs, he was a technical innovator and creator of a namesake beat that was the foundation for countless compositions by other artists. When I interviewed Bo, in the mid-80s, he was playing small clubs just to pay legal bills and keep food on the table. He lamented his bad teeth, that he couldn’t afford to have fixed, and other health problems that he largely ignored for lack of proper health insurance. He blamed the record companies that had paid him little or nothing for the work he did during 1950s and 60s that was still earning them money. Bo, like many of his contemporaries, had been robbed by those corporate entities that had profited from his creativity. Unlike many of his peers, Bo kept at his legal fights and concerts long enough to earn some money as well as acclaim. But others who weren’t quite as good or well known ended up penniless or forgotten. I don’t say this to counter any of your points, Fr. Thomas. You make some very good arguments and much of your advice should be followed — especially by Christians. However, with all respect to you and Mr. Lanier, the problems many movie studios, record companies, television networks and newspapers have is largely of their own creation. And they can’t generate much sympathy from people today because of the exploitation on which they were built. I am a newspaper editor. I have worked almost 30 years in the newspaper business. I have followed carefully the disruption caused over the past decade to my profession and those other creative fields. The problem isn’t simply that people are stealing from these entities. The problem is just as much that a great deal of the profit made by many such organizations came from the wrong places and was used for the wrong purposes. Many of the publicly owned newspaper companies that are now crying poverty made 30-40 percent profit margins only 5 years ago. They charged exorbitant advertising rates because they were the only game in town. They used that money to reward shareholders while running up mountains of debt to make their empires larger.
    People stealing their content didn’t cause the whole thing to come crashing down. The internet just gave readers and advertisers a nearly infinite number of alternate choices. The end of scarcity for advertising inventory would, by itself and over time, disrupt their business models. Their rapid and calamitous decline has been because that isn’t the only disruptive factor at work. Lots of record companies homogenized content, punished or ignored creativity, and cheated their artists. Movie studios are famous for a creative process that is more likely to turn a silk purse script into a sow’s ear movie than vice versa. And television networks built themselves on a business model that dates back to the discovery of radio waves and simply can’t continue in an era when there are 554 channels on cable or satellite and the whole World Wide Web besides. A common denominator for all of these enterprises has been an over-whelming and short-sighted desire to avoid innovation in the belief that would protect profits. The fate of content creators wasn’t even a factor in their consideration. An upside to the digital present is I can reward artists directly. I can buy a records directly from the proprietor’s web site so that he gets dollars rather than the dimes and pennies many record companies would pay. A downside is that he has to promote himself and balance any extra direct sales income against the losses of digital piracy. So the real argument to be made is not for the support and protection of the companies — many of which have played a major role in their own demise. Why people should act responsibly and pay for what they consume is to ensure the flow of quality content and protect the people who create it.
    Quite frankly I don’t know if it is possible or even desirable to save the record companies, television networks, movie studios and, yes, even most of the newspaper companies. Without the financial pressures they now face many would return to the callous business practices of the past. And even if everyone contributed a few dollars to those they most value that might not be enough to keep many going — even if their stockholders weren’t demanding ridiculous returns.

    But people should follow your advice on not stealing simply because it’s the right thing to do. And maybe if we each do the right thing that will at least create a framework for the individuals and institutions that will carry music, movies, television, books and journalism into the future.

  2. David H

    PS: Forgive the run-on nature of the previous posting. I wrote in other software that apparently creates carriage returns that don’t agree with the Rabbit Room.

  3. Brent

    I can’t argue with the idea that, if someone wants to be paid for a product or service, you should pay for said product or service. However, I think that the story of David at the threshing floor is being stretched unnecessarily to support his argument when Thomas states: “Paying for something even when it is offered to you for free is a principle found in this story.”

    Christianity is all about being given something that is free and undeserved, something that is costly but given to us at no cost. While this certainly doesn’t preclude us from offering to support musicians (or bloggers or YouTube video makers or ….) who give us entertainment at no cost, I certainly don’t think that makes it a requirement. The act of creating and the joy of giving may be that person’s only motives for making their work available to us.

  4. Profile photo of Thomas McKenzie

    Thomas McKenzie

    @thomas

    Thanks for commenting. I really hope that others will comment on my post, both here and other places it shows up. I’m hoping that we can have some good conversation about these topics.

    David H makes great points, and I do find myself in the weird position of defending the Man. I know that record companies and newspapers etc. have abused their content-creators, and if I were writing this essay a decade or two ago maybe that’s what I would be focusing on. But, even though there have been many abuses which I condemn, these corporations have done a great service to society by promoting high quality content. Not always, and not always well. Points taken, and thank you for them.

    Hey Brent, I agree I am stretching and using the story of David in a talmudic way. I feel good about using it because I am not making any requirements or laying down any law. I have no interest in requiring Christians to do any of these things I suggest. I am saying that one way we can show honor to someone who has created content is to give them money, as money is an important way we communicate value in our society. I would never even dream of making this some sort of obligation. The making of new rules for Christians to follow is the work of the Galatian Agitators, and not something I would like to emulate.

    Oh, please keep the comments coming!

  5. Tony from Pandora

    “The internet? Is that thing still around?”
    –Homer Simpson

    This is a tough post for me. I must admit I’m guilty of theft. I even rationalize it when ripping “christian” cd’s to friends calling it a witnessing tool. If I quit my high speed internet service, I could probably buy the cds I’ve stolen and still have more money in my pocket.

    Thanks for the post

  6. Paul B

    “I do not intend to moralize to those outside of my faith; but I would like to speak to those inside of it.”

    I would like to hear more on this idea. I think often about the futility of confronting specific moral problems in my non-Christian friend’s lives. But I can’t help wanting to help them with these things. And it’s toughest when I’m not sure whether the friend is a Christian or not.

  7. Jeff Miller

    I certainly agree with your “commandments” Thomas. Stealing is stealing, and we should avoid that action as Christians. That being said, the momentum behind free content is not stoppable. It is inevitable. As a content creator you have 2 choices – embrace this inevitable change or continue with old business models and hope people pay for something that they can probably readily get for free.

    Compare this “revolution” to the technology that put many factory workers out of jobs back in the industrial revolution. Is it much different from a BUSINESS perspective? Back then, a manufacturing business could replace 100 workers with one machine and increase productivity while decreasing costs. As a business owner it cost people their jobs, but it was also the “right” thing to do to sustain the business – if they didn’t do it, their competitors would and then the entire company could potentially be out of a job.

    If you are a business today that manufactures content then you are impacted this same way in our internet revolution. You either get on board with giving away content for free while providing other value-add services, or you risk irrelevancy. I think that there are plenty of artists (just about everyone here in the Rabbit Room) that have embraced this change and would probably argue that the internet, and giving away free content has improved their career (financially speaking). Noisetrade, this site, Brite Revolution, Radiohead, Susan Boyle (tongue in cheek), Google, open-source software, RHEL…all examples of content creators that have embraced this revolution and are the better off for it I would argue.

    Content is becoming a commondity. You can argue that content is not as good as it was in the “old days”…I would argue that it’s just harder to find. It’s out there – and the smart content creators are taking advantage of this new distribution and business model. As a Christian consumer, don’t steal it. As a Christian content creator, embrace this inevitable change – think of ways you can use free content to benefit your business and improve your content offerings – if you don’t, you won’t be creating content in 5 years.

    JM

  8. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Great post, Thomas, and while I entirely agree with the call to buy instead of steal, I don’t entirely agree with the assertion that the internet and free content has made us worse off artistically.

    I think the toppling of the media giants and their get rich business models may yet prove to be the best thing to happen to art in our culture in twenty or thirty years. Though I too have a hard time imagining the rise of another U2 or Springsteen or the making of another film like The Godfather, or Apocalypse Now, I think the world may yet surprise us. I think our culture is in a stage of transition. We’re all trying to figure this relatively new thing out. When the dust settles, I think, I hope, the ground will be a fertile place for creation and the distribution of that creation, on a scale that wasn’t possible even thirty years ago. And with the trend toward artists being able to go it alone, to survive, and in some cases prosper, outside of the corporate structure, I wonder if we won’t one day arrive at a place where artistic endeavor can support the artist at a level that’s been almost unheard of in the past.

    Who knows?

    I think the best thing I can do in the meantime is to shine a light on work that is excellent. There’s more crap out there than ever, but I think the ratio is unchanged, there’s simply more trash visible, obscuring the hidden gems. One of the goals of the Rabbit Room is to guide people toward finding those gems amid the wreck.

    One thing that really does bother me is when I see artists giving away their work for free. I have a very hard time imagining how that’s a good idea in the long term. It trains the public to expect free content. If this idea of giving it away continues, I wonder what’s going to happen in five or ten years when we’ve convinced the world that what we create isn’t worth paying for and no one is willing pay us for anything. It feels to me like sawing away at the limb your standing on.

  9. Andrew C

    This is a great post, Thomas.

    I’ve heard of people looking into the letter of the copyright laws and say there is room to rip their own copies without them “breaking the law”. But even if that were the case (which I doubt), for us as Believers, it is not about seeing how much we can get away with. That’s the antithesis, I think.

  10. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    You talk about music and journalism and I have to admit this is my number one concern with the publishing industry which is just now grappling with ebooks and what that means.

    I feel torn because as a book blogger I love the idea that I’m helping underexposed authors get more recognition for their work. On the other hand, I don’t mind having some gatekeepers who decide what gets published and makes sure that it has been properly edited. And with the new digital content revolution, I think that will happen less and less and that even less books will become a part of the collective cultural community. Will the world ever have another Harry Potter? I sure hope so, but I don’t know.

    In any case, I appreciate this post and I like your ideas. Where can I send a check to my favorite blog? 😉

  11. Aaron Roughton

    Thomas, great post. One point jumped out at me in particular. By your logic, is it somehow wrong for those of us who can afford to create content as hobbyists to do so and not charge for it? If I went to a farmers market every week with my garden produce that I grew in my spare time and gave it away, those farmers who were there selling their goods would lose business, unless of course my produce was not of good quality. I’ll look to your freely posted reviews as my first source for movie information. Should Rotten Tomatoes and Movie Mom be worried and upset about lost ad revenue? Is there some extension of your suggestions that would require you to charge me out of moral obligation to those who rely on income from movie reviews?

  12. Thomas McKenzie

    Hey Aaron,

    I’ve actually thought about this, and one could argue that it is a possible outcome of my argument. However, I have to think that giving things away for free is a good thing, generally speaking. I agree that it can harm the economic interest of others, but there is no way I could advocate against people giving away what they create.

    Now that I’ve taken this step and started this conversation, I’m beginning to wonder if sites like Rabbit Room and mine may have some sort of obligation to give people the opportunity to contribute financially. I can afford to do free movie reviews, and I love doing them. At the same time, do I need to at least give folks the option of throwing a couple of bucks my way for movie tickets? That’s what I’m struggling with today. I also recognize that a couple of bucks for me isn’t a big deal, but for many people in this world that is a huge amount of money. I don’t want anyone giving a blog money rather than feeding or clothing themselves, good grief!

    I know that I don’t have answers. I also know that I’m really opposed to rule making about any of this. And I know that the world has changed. I’m just so glad to have a format where we can talk about the implications of these changes to our personal lives.

  13. Jaclyn

    The very creative drive that propels artists to imagine and create I think will lead us to find ways to create, no matter the economic climate. VanGough bought paint before food. That breaks my heart.

    I don’t think it’s fair that artists can labor and starve with little compensation, or even thanks, in return for the insights and beauty they reveal. It stings whether this famine results from heartlessness in the form of corporate policies, theft, or simply eyes that do not see the wonder in front of them. Think of the people who laid eyes on Emmanuel and wrote him off as a glutton, or a lunatic.

    Yet this whole business of living down here seems so unfair, the best I can do is as Thomas suggested and buy up all the good work I can afford, and in turn work hard to craft high quality work for others. I also hesitate to lay down laws. Simply not my place. I’ll leave that to our King. He has the best eye.

  14. Josh

    Pete said, “One thing that really does bother me is when I see artists giving away their work for free. I have a very hard time imagining how that’s a good idea in the long term. It trains the public to expect free content.”

    I think for some artists, at least independent artists, it can be great. I’ve bought lots of cds over the years after downloading free songs from artists, and often I end up coming back to their website looking for new releases. Case in point, JJ Heller. I saw a post a couple years back right here in the Rabbit Room that linked to her website with a free download of her Painted Red album. Now, never having heard of her before, I wouldn’t have paid for this upfront without hearing it, but I downloaded it for free. I loved it. A couple months back, I had a little bit of extra cash to spend, and actually not only purchased this album on cd, but her Pretty and the Plain album, too (which, incidentally, is awesome). Not saying that every time someone puts a free .mp3 up on their site I’ll end up purchasing the album, but it’s happened more than a few times, and I don’t think that easy access to free content necessarily results in people not wanting to pay for anything; it can also make people more aware of good ways to spend their limited entertainment budget. If it’s quality music, I’m still more than happy to buy it, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I

  15. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Josh,

    I agree that free samples are a great thing but I see artists all the time giving away entire records. I think it’s the sort of thing that’s great for a one time gimmick i.e. Radiohead but to do that more than once is detrimental to the economy as a whole. It seems to me that a system like that devalues art.

  16. Jaclyn

    And to comment more specifically on the discussion at hand… I like to think that people would be grateful and excited by a freebie, then out of their appreciation for the work would purchase the full work, but I know myself. More than once I’ve taken advantage of a freebie and never supported the artist. My convictions won’t let me do that anymore, but I understand not everyone holds those convictions.

    I like that we’re called to be light-bearers, rather than steamrollers. *This little light of mine…*

  17. Jeff Miller

    Pete – how is giving away an album more than once detrimental to the economy as a whole? Even if all musicians gave away all their records for free, I doubt the global economy would flinch. Now, the “macro” economy of musicians might take a short-term hit…but the ones that can charge for value-added services (e.g. concerts, merch, limited releases/b-sides, fan clubs w/ backstage passes, etc.) will survive – and most likely thrive if their art if good and enough people dig it.

  18. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    By ‘as a whole’ I mean the economy of the artistic industry. My poor choice of wording.

    I’ll refer to Jaclyn’s comment above as a perfect example of why I dislike the large scale giving away of free content (and I don’t mean samples or occasional promotional tactics.)

    Another example. I use Netflix instant view on my Xbox. It’s not free exactly, it costs $10 a month to use. But because I have movies available that seem free to me, I never EVER rent movies anymore. Even if there’s a film I want to see that isn’t available on Netflix, I won’t watch it because I’ve been spoiled (trained) to expect my movies for free and I’d rather watch a free one than something that costs me $4.

    That hasn’t happened to me with music yet, thank goodness. Or with books. I still buy all my content. I think I did the Noisetrade thing one time but it made me feel dirty. I won’t use it again. (No, I didn’t tip. Hence the dirty feeling.)

    So I find that I, as a Christian and a person of conscience, have been slowly trained to expect my home movie viewing for free and I wonder how much easier less discerning people are led down similar paths? How long before people don’t want to pay for books? or movies at the theater? or stage musicals? or concerts?

  19. Jaclyn

    I think those kooky video mashups (or at least full-length audio previous) are a great way to give something free to music browsers.

    I’m not one that gets anxious for release dates, but after I heard/watched (seen through the glasses of the recipient of a foot rub) the Hark the Heron’s “Canadian Heart” I decided I HAVE TO HAVE the album, and I kind of want it right now. Plus, I can make a YouTube playlist of all the Hark the Heron’s songs and listen to my heart’s content. Sure, I can’t listen to it on the go, but I also didn’t pay for them. =)

  20. Jaclyn

    If preview content is hosted by an outside entity (a website, movie theatre, etc), then there’s no way I could claim it as “mine,” if that makes sense… though that does open up another can of worms.

    Now I’m rethinking those YouTube playlists…

  21. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    Well libraries also make it possible for people to never buy books or rent movies. And they very much should exist. I buy books because I value them, I want to support authors and I also receive quite a few for review and I like to give back. But I understand that not everyone will be able to do that. And now you also have Amazon giving away free kindle books.

    The interesting thing about libraries is that they may buy 20 copies of the latest best-seller but you may have to wait awhile to read it on a waitlist. So people who don’t want to wait will still buy it.

  22. Chris Whitler

    I dunno about content getting worse. Before the internet there was “Three’s Company” and they also let Bruce Willis record “The Return of Bruno”

    But yeah, I’ve used stuff I shouldn’ta and I try not too. Thanks for the reminder and encouragement

  23. Tony from Pandora

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, WHOA!!!!! This thing has gone too far and out of hand too fast…. ‘Return of Bruno” was awesome.

  24. David H

    A couple more anecdotes to make a slew of points.
    I have a ton of record company horror stories from my days as a music reviewer. There was the band that won the second MTV National Best of the Bands contest, which included an EP contract, that got talked into make a full-length album only to discover they couldn’t sell the 50,000 units required to cover the advance. Or the young guitar rocker who took the bait when a record company offered him a solo deal. He dumped his life-long friends/bandmates and let the A&R guys convince him to change his sound. End result: he was history.

    But the one that hits closest to home for me involved a guy named Billy Price. Billy was front-man, chief songwriter/arranger and spokesman for The Keystone Rhythm Band. He established his rep singing for guitarist Roy Buchanan before forming KRB.

    When I ran into him almost 10 years after their inception they were a very popular regional act with a five-state circuit taking them through college towns in PA, NY, MD and NJ as well as regular gigs in NYC, Philly, DC and the Jersey Shore.

    Every time they scraped together enough cash they cut an album. But they had to pay up front for studio time, produce the records themselves, decide how many copies to have pressed to vinyl and then try to sell those at their gigs because they weren’t big enough to get into chain record stores and there wasn’t any other mechanism for small indie artists to distribute back then.

    The knock on every record was it failed to capture the essence and excitement of the band. For them the reality was they couldn’t afford the time and expense of making something special.

    In the late-1980s Billy and the band signed a deal with an indie label that had popped up in Philadelphia, Antenna Records. They cut two disks — one studio and the other live — that finally tapped into the je ne sais quoi the drove fans nuts at their shows. Next thing you know they are signing a major label deal and Billy is telling me that after all the years of family sacrifice and endless touring — including many occasions when he was ready to call it quits — he was finally going to realize his dream.

    A year later, after the failure of their big record, which included a more “accessible” sound as dictated by management, Billy announced the band was done. He quit music for several years and went back to school.

    Last I heard Billy was working for Carnegie Mellon University doing PR. He formed a new band in the mid-90s and tours/records on what he described as a “semi-retired” basis doing pure blues. Funny thing is, though, he is now better known and sells more records then he did during his days of full dedication.

    You can buy or download everything he ever recorded from his web site, including my favorite from the “Is it Over…” album “(Momma come quick and bring your) Lickin’ Stick.” He and his band have done more than one European tour in the past few years and are considered among the best in their musical niche.

    Before the internet they would likely have faded to near obscurity by now. These days they make some bucks selling CDs and digital downloads that would be otherwise impossible to obtain. And that brings in enough gigs for blues-mans holidays to jazz festivals and regional clubs.

    Long story, I know. What’s the point(s)?

    1. The traditional recording industry used up and threw away more acts then most of us will ever know.

    2. In the past those bands had virtually no way to distribute their music without record companies and frequently faced the Hobeson’s choice of compromising their art or being ignored by those who controlled the distribution channels.

    3. In the new internet economy free or not isn’t the only choice and free, in many instances, can be the right business decision. It really depends on what you are selling. Many big-box stores advertise loss-leaders, which are items they sell below their cost to get customers into the store in hopes they will buy other more expensive items. It isn’t a new idea, but for musicians and some others the question is are you selling music or something else. Many have had success selling access, like back-stage meet/greets, home concerts or premium goodies while giving their music away. Heck, on some albums the record company may only pay them less than a dollar per unit anyway.

    4. People don’t buy albums anymore, they buy tracks. This change has drastically affected the bottom line of the record industry, but reality is that many records only have one or two good songs on them. In this day you can’t force people to buy 9 pieces of dreck just to get that one tune that sets toes tapping this week.

    5. Unfettered from the restrictions of record contracts many artists are finding new and innovative ways to make a living at their craft. Jane Siberry offered fans options of paying .99 cents per tracks, setting their own price or taking songs for free. According to her, she averages better than $1 per track since offering that choice. Other artists have set up tip jars or commission programs or pre-purchased self-publishing. http://www.scratchback.com/ is just one way to put a tip jar on a website.

    6. Freemium is the new gold standard. Pandora is a great example. I listen for free but have the option to pay for a service that will give me more listening time without commercials. Pandora has converted only about 1 percent of subscribers to their premium service but that provides them with a legitimate second stream of income to advertising. From the artist point of view, I have discovered more than a dozen acts whose music I have purchased because I heard them first on Pandora including Holly Brook, Regina Spektor, Dar Williams and Ginny Owens. Three of those names might never have tickled my eardrums without Pandora.

    7. Giving away entire albums isn’t just a gimmick and doesn’t necessarily train people to expect everything for free. Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and some other artists have discussed some of their free gambits as a way of deepening the conversation between them and their fans. Reznor and others, like Ben Folds (those his was not exactly free), have released songs broken down by individual instrumental tracks so that fans could remix, mashup and return their work. Consensus is that 99 percent of what comes back is crap, but one gem could not only give them new insight but also lead to future sales and possibly launch the career or some budding artist or DJ.

    8. The internet is quiet possibly the most disruptive technology ever known. Unlike previous disruptive technologies, which tended to affect specific industries or areas of commerce, the internet has turned almost everything on its head (not just creative fields like book publishing, music, journalism, television etc., but also retailing, garage sales, communication and more). Industries that have previously been touched by disruptive technologies — main-frame computers, the shipping industry and railroads — seem to indicate that opposing such disruption is futile. Once it starts there are two choices — adapt or die. Now that’s a Hobseon’s choice.

    9. While it’s sometimes hard to say exactly what the internet is, one of its greatest gifts and curses to us is nearly infinite choice. In the newspaper business we used to joke that anyone can be a publisher all they need to do is buy a press (at my current employer their last press purchase, about 20 years ago, cost more than $20 million). The internet provides what is essentially a free printing press to everyone. The upside is many who would have never been published before can share their writing with the public. Downside is alot of that writing is crap and even the good stuff can get buried under tons of detritus. On the other hand, if you are innovative and really good, you may be able to promote your stuff high enough up the pile that people will actually pay you enough to make a living. Then again, the downside is with so many choices people are either only willing to pay less or the audience is so dispersed there aren’t enough paying people to support the product or its producer in the way it might have been supported before.

    10. What you (the maker) want or what you (the maker) need don’t carry the same weight in the internet economy. Actual value is more dependent on me — the purchaser. It used to be that people priced advertising or automobiles based on a) what it cost to make them and/or b) what they believed they market could bear. Anyone remember going to buy a car and haggling over the price? What you paid to purchase might be higher or lower than the next person through the door. These days I go to Edmunds.com and know what dealers pay for vehicles, whether the manufacturer has any hold-backs or advertising incentives and thus exactly how much I should pay for a car. I don’t bargain with dealers on the seats and wheels and engine part of the car because they know when I walk through the door that I have the power to find what I want at the price I am willing to pay. They can take that money or I can give it to someone else. But the amount of money won’t change based on the vehicle components. The bottom line of the internet economy is what is it worth to me. If my sense of value and your cost to manufacture don’t meet, you will probably go out of business. It may not be nice or fair, but it is reality. That forces sellers to stop basing price purely on the widget. What may get the deal done at something that works for me AND for you is value-added stuff like honesty, dependability, customer service. And if you cheat, the internet may give one person enough leverage to wreck your entire business.

    That’s way too much pontificating. Just one more anecdote.

    In the early 1990s I interviewed Tom Clancy (“Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games,” etc.). Clancy had just signed a 6 book, $30 million deal that was amongst the largest ever in the publishing industry. He bragged during the interview that among the clauses he insisted on was that no one had the right to edit his work. It wasn’t just that he could nix any editor’s redlines with which he disagreed. His contract said he could tell the publishing house he didn’t want any editor to look at the book.

    If you have any Clancy novels, line them up on a shelf. Can you tell, just from looking at them, when Clancy decided he didn’t need an editor any more?

    The internet isn’t responsible for more crap appearing in print. There has always been crap. Likewise, the internet doesn’t assure that another Harry Potter will never be written. Chances are there were more than 100 of those written and never discovered in the days before the internet. Perhaps, because of the increasingly fractionalized audience, it will be more difficult for an author to become a billionaire from books. I doubt it, but then again, does J.K. Rowling really need or deserve that much money anyway? And if she only gets millions, does that leave more or less for every other person in the field?

  25. Aaron Roughton

    Thomas, I’m with you on that. Just wanted to see what you thought. Thanks again for starting this great conversation.

    David H., really enjoyed your responses. You seem to have a wealth of experience to draw on, and I appreciate it.

  26. Jaclyn

    “The bottom line of the internet economy is what is it worth to me. If my sense of value and your cost to manufacture don’t meet, you will probably go out of business. It may not be nice or fair, but it is reality. That forces sellers to stop basing price purely on the widget.”

    Thanks, David. I think this sums up everything. Living is messy work.

  27. Jaclyn

    Mind, I’m still spending my pennies on all the hard-working artists, whether they offer free things or not. I hope the H. L. Mencken quote doesn’t apply here: “An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.”

  28. David H

    One of the great things about being a Christian is I don’t always have to deal with reality in the most realistic way. Faith usually has more parts hope and idealism than practicality.

    So I, like Jaclyn, still think it is right to support in all sorts of ways those doing the work we value and admire — even if they don’t ask us to. Quite frankly, I would rather give a donation to some of the folks here or even organizations with which they are associated, than some faceless company whose prime goal is to reward stockholders or corporate officers. It isn’t fighting the man. Just a sense that the money will be better used to by content creators than by stock speculators and investment bankers.

    Thus I still believe cabbage makes better soup, but don’t think my actions should be dictated on the other hand by whether there is enough cabbage to make a full pot. As one other commentor noted, this is a period of transition. The upheaval caused by internet disruption will destroy many things. My chosen profession has already been hit very hard and the damage isn’t done. This change will be very messy.

    But those most likely to find their way to the other side of this will figure out new ways to grow cabbage and different recipes for soup. I don’t really wish that (how it is working out is not ideal), I simply know it’s true.

  29. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Great, great post – thanks Thomas.

    A couple thoughts, though I’m late to the party here (ironically, because I was on the road with 6 days of internet blackout)

    A number of years ago I read that for every 12 records released, 3 break even with 1 or 2 of those making a profit. That means the big blockbuster albums I hated were paying for the smaller records I loved. In other words, Aerosmith made it possible for Geffen to also produce Aimee Mann.

    In the current economy of digital music, I know that one of the casualties is the small intimate records that were so formative of my current musical affinities.

    However, Aimee Mann went on to have her best success independently in the burgeoning digital age. But that doesn’t change the fact that Geffen Records introduced me to her.

    So The Man may be the villain, but it’s too easy to demonize the record labels and forget that they employed some people who genuinely loved music and worked to get creative and artistic records made on the dime of the mega-acts. Sadly, those employees pose a risk in the current milieu and will likely be the first to be laid off.

    They’re estimating now that for every album sold, 5 people will obtain it through file sharing. Yikes!

    At my CD table I watch as two people come to buy a CD, and then one tells the other: “let’s just buy one and I’ll burn it for you”. They steal from me to my face! The level of ignorant disrespect in these scenarios should be something we’re all concerned about. I’m grateful that Thomas is.

    Another perspective is that one of the services a record label provides is a focused promotion and marketing campaign. After years of doing this on my own, I’m SO grateful to have a team of people on my side. Without them the artist has to be brilliant in every aspect of what they do: a brilliant marketer, a brilliant salesperson, a brilliant web designer, a brilliant strategist, etc. It spreads you very thin… Being with a label can help you focus more on your vocation of being an artist and leaving the strategizing and bean counting to others.

    Granted there are artists who can do all these. Derek Webb is a pretty good example I think. But there are great artists who aren’t as gifted at marketing themselves though they are amazing artists. I think of Pierce Pettis here. When you sign with a label you are partnering with a business entity whose job it is promote you to a national platform while making money off of your music. The record labels aren’t necessarily always the bad guy.

    I’d be surprised if Bo Diddley’s label intentionally abused him. Chances are there were a few people who took advantage of him not having strong legal representation when he signed the contract, and then from there on out he may have slipped through the cracks or have been victimized by a smaller group of people who oversaw his contract. But for every bad apple who abuses artists in the business, there are others who want to help the artists succeed and are in the business because it’s their passion to promote music.

    But consider this – I understand that my records for my label are among the top 3 earners. I was grateful to learn this until I discovered that my records have only earned back about 10 percent of what my label invested in them. yikes! That means that this facet of my ministry exists at the great expense of a businessman who decided to invest in me. This helps me to have a little more empathy for “The Man”.

    I also agree with Pete that giving away whole projects for free devalues music in a way. In the words of another Thomas: “what we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.” Though I’m a fan of Derek Webb, and I think Noisetrade is pretty decent solution to what we’re talking about here, I was disappointed to see in the liner notes of his newest record the command to give away his music. In a way, I feel like some of what he says and does shows some contempt for the system and the people that gave him the platform he has now.

    And a parting thought I’d like to address is the idea of trusting the consumer to do what’s right and the optimism that if we give away something for free it will inspire their support. This looks good on paper and even works sometimes, but I fear that we overestimate our humanity and underestimate our fallen nature. Given the chance to act generously or serve my self interest (in this case not paying) more often than not I’ll serve my self interest. The internet provides us with countless opportunities to serve our own self interests, and this is why Thomas’ post is so important in my mind – because it calls us to more honorable disciplines of consumerism.

    There’s so much more I’d like to say… but I need to go delete some illegal music off of my hard-drive 🙂

  30. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I’d like to also communicate how grateful I am to the Proprietor for his sacrifices involved with making the Rabbit Room possible. It is a labor of love that comes at a cost. I for one would LOVE to see a modest paypal donate button on the page to give us all a chance to support this community if we feel led.

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