As wonderful as the internet may be, it causes a lot of problems. For starters, it is putting newspapers out of business. It’s also radically changing how artists, writers and musicians make their living. And in case you weren’t paying attention, it’s starting to look like a crisis.
Different groups have responded to the impending collapse of publishing in different ways. Some writers sell sponsorships for their books and then offer an acknowledgement when it is printed. Many musicians have adopted the self-publishing and distribution tools long available to authors, leading to experiments like Amazon’s CreateSpace. And there are those who have gone the route of directly asking for contributions and donations to support their work; the digital equivalent of a performer passing the hat, you might say.
The problem is that some of these experiments are running head-long into good old American sensibility and propriety. There are even people saying that some of the new content generation schemes are inappropriate; including that old bastion of American common sense, Ms. Manners. Manners has even gone so far as to say that for a novelist to ask for a contribution is the same as begging, or panhandling.
She says it like it’s a bad thing. The simple truth is that artists, musicians and storytellers have long been beggars. The content industry of the 20 industry is a tremendously new invention, and as I noted above, it’s running into another time tested American value: frugality and a love of private property.
In fact, there seems to be this attitude that, “After I’ve purchased the novel or CD, I own the work and ideas. I’ve invested in its creation.” This little nugget rears it’s head most commonly when discussing music. Even the great Steve Jobs has been known to say, “People don’t want to rent music, they want to own it.”
Except … that’s bullshit. An interesting idea, or a well written book, or a beautiful piece of music isn’t like paying for a hamburger. You aren’t reimbursing someone for providing you a good or service. And I’m frankly shocked that anyone would think that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is only worth the price that paid on iTunes. The true worth is far greater than the price of admission. Would you seriously think yourself exploited for buying a second recording, or for paying to hear it at a concert?
Of course, that’s when people can be bothered to pay for content at all. An exacerbating factor is that many people expect ideas to be free or very inexpensive. How many times have you heard a variant of this argument, “I would buy more music (or books) if it wasn’t so expensive! Nine dollars for an album is just out of my budget!” Ironically, these same people don’t blanch at dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars for an iPod or iPhone.
While bad, this attitude can further devolve into something much more poisonous: “The artist owes me for reading, viewing or listening to their work. My piracy is helpful! After all, I am promoting them and making them famous!” But being famous doesn’t pay the bills. There have been many authors, artists or musicians who lived in squalor while enjoying enormous fame and prestige.
A music or literature pirate might even justify their position by saying, “I’m sticking it to the music industry (or publishing industry), they’re a bunch of greedy pigs!” And the pirate might have a point, if he weren’t doing far more damage to the creator of the content than to its distributor. Big businesses like record labels and big publishing houses don’t respond to that attitude by lowering prices or dealing fairly with their customers. Rather, they become more draconian in how that content is disseminated. Ever wonder why Digital Rights Management (DRM) and related technologies were born? It might just have something to do with the American sense of entitlement.
Clearly, something needs to change. Artists and musicians can continue to experiment with different pricing and distributions schemes, but I remain rather unconvinced that it will have a lasting effect. What we really need is a return to the patronage system of old, with a few major modifications. Certainly, artists should continue to sell recordings, books and other tangible goods. But the public should also undergo a shift in our attitudes and ideas about what the arts are and how we support them. That might mean that we transform our understanding of what a “donation” is.
When buying a book or donating to a writer, it’s foolish to think that you are somehow providing a fair compensation for the ideas and entertainment that you receive. Instead, it is much healthier to view your contribution as a support so that the artist can continue to create future content. This notion actually fits in pretty well with the concept of Fair Trade.
We also need to understand that the price we pay for a book or CD isn’t about the value of the materials. Textbooks aren’t expensive because they are printed on beautiful paper with artwork and in color; they’re expensive because researching and writing their content is hard. For example, the “Contributors and Reviewers” page for Gray’s Anatomy (the anatomical guide, not the television show) lists sixty different authors and content reviewers, though only the editor and chief is credited on the cover.
Except, how do you actually bring about the needed shift in attitudes and culture?
That’s an excellent question, and I’m not sure that I can offer any insight. The Europeans have tried to shape public perception through generous subsidies. But direct governmental support of news agencies and publishers is controversial for good reason. As a cure, it might even be worse than the illness. If you’ve got any ideas, let’s hear ‘em!