Sunday, April 06, 2008

Techno-Mandarin Blind Spot

Not all the magazine news at SXSW was bad. Besides the idiotic travel magazine I commented on earlier, another magazine fell out of my goodie bags (twice). It was an old favorite, Wired, which I've usually enjoyed engaging with, which is not to say I've always enjoyed reading it. But its goofy utopianism (I've still got their December, 1999 issue around here somewhere, with its truly over-the-top predictions for the next few years of the coming millenium, and I really should dig it out for a giggle sometime) combined with hard science and information has almost always made it worth looking at. My last copy was a couple of years ago, and I found it utterly changed and virtually impossible to read; I abandoned it on the plane on the way back here, unable to get through a single article.

But this one was different. Not only had there been another design change, always a challenge to the eyeballs (and, I have to admit, the eyeballs won this round for reasons I wasn't able to analyze: just imagine, glitz and readability), but this issue also managed to shore up my belief in paper being the best medium for long-form pieces. I read everything in the issue.

Including the cover story, natch. It was by the editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, who had impressed me years back with his "long tail" article, derided by many, but nonetheless filled with truth for those of us who create stuff, be it music or writing, which is treated as inutterably ephemeral by the mainstream culture. And, as it happened, time began to prove that this whole concept he'd articulated was, for the most part, solid. Which was good.

This time the article is called "Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business", so I had a feeling this would be utopianism with more than its fair share of goofiness and wide-eyed neophilia.

As it turned out, there were some great facts in there, as well as some questionable statements, but overall (and I'm not an economist, so I can't poke holes in it from that vantage-point) I felt like it was a worthy intellectual exercise, definitely worth the investment of my time.

Or I did until I came to this paragraph in the section outlining some of the key concepts (which no doubt Anderson will expand on when this article comes out in full book-length next year):

· Zero marginal cost
What's free: things that can be distributed without an appreciable cost to anyone. Free to whom: everyone.
This describes nothing so well as online music. Between digital reproduction and peer-to-peer distribution, the real cost of distributing music has truly hit bottom. This is a case where the product has become free because of sheer economic gravity, with or without a business model. That force is so powerful that laws, guilt trips, DRM, and every other barrier to piracy the labels can think of have failed. Some artists give away their music online as a way of marketing concerts, merchandise, licensing, and other paid fare. But others have simply accepted that, for them, music is not a moneymaking business. It's something they do for other reasons, from fun to creative expression. Which, of course, has always been true for most musicians anyway.

Ahem.

Especially in the wake of SXSW, this hurt. Let's look at these sentences again: "But others have simply accepted that, for them, music is not a moneymaking business. It's something they do for other reasons, from fun to creative expression. Which, of course, has always been true for most musicians anyway."

It has? A musician goes to all that trouble, training to be able to play his or her instrument as well as possible, practicing endlessly to maintain the level he or she's already attained and, possibly, to get better, just for the joy of it? What are you supposed to live on while doing this? How do you pay your rent? What kind of self-expression do you get when you're living under a bridge? What percentage of, let's say, the New York Philharmonic is doing its job only for "fun" or "creative expression"? Which is not to say that those elements don't come into it.

Musicians now give their stuff away because there's very little alternative, because there's a huge bloc of consumers which feels entitled to the products of someone's hard work without in any way helping to support the person who made it. Fortunately, there are those who are working to change this, to find a way that mediates between the indentured servitude of an old-school major record deal and flat-out piracy.

Perhaps in Chris Anderson's world, artists live on nectar distilled from the dew and clothe their children in raiment spun from sunlight. Perhaps Chris Anderson himself lives this way.

But I doubt it.

1 comment:

Olivier said...

Ed, these discussions really need to be better grounded in fact. For instance, since you mentioned classical music, isn't it the case that orchestra players and directors are paid for their performances and get almost nothing from record deals, which are more marketing? Is it or is it nor a viable model? I suspect it is. The case of star players or singers, esp. soloists, might be a bit different, though.