This article is free. Brainwash didn’t pay me for writing it, and they aren’t charging you for reading it. I’ve made it available to the world gratis.
And I’m not alone. If you check out Brainwash’s archives, there are hundreds of article just like this one. Almost all of them were produced for free too. And Brainwash is just one tiny corner of online pundit universe. There are thousands of bloggers who provide high-quality (and some not-so-high quality) commentary on politics and current events, all for free.
Some popular Internet pundits would probably like to charge their readers for access to their writings, but they are prevented from doing so by the stark forces of supply and demand: there are dozens of other talented bloggers competing for each reader’s attention, and if one tried to charge a toll, most readers would go elsewhere instead of pulling out their credit cards. Therefore, the vast majority of online pundits give away their work for free.
Why don’t other industries work this way? Music, for example, has a lot in common with punditry. There are tens of thousands of people who aspire to be musicians. Garage bands in every metropolitan area compete for a small number of gigs at local clubs. Most of them are thrilled just to have people listening to their music, and only a tiny fraction ever get recording contracts. One might expect, therefore, that the surplus of music would push its price down to zero, just as it did to punditry. But so far, that hasn’t happened.
Indeed, despite the fact that pressing a CD only costs about $1, retail music CDs typically cost $15. The reason is that producing, distributing, and marketing music all have significant economies of scale. The economics of producing an album work best if the labels produce several thousand copies of an album, and distribute and market the album nationally. But that raises the costs of failure: every time you produce an album that doesn’t sell well, it wastes tens of thousands of dollars. When you buy a CD, you’re paying not only for the costs of producing that album, but also a share of the costs of the other albums that label produced that didn’t succeed.
CDs would be cheaper if the labels could produce and distribute albums on demand. But the economic realities of 20th century technology made that impractical. It wasn’t just that pressing CDs is cheaper in volume. Distributing and marketing music also had economies of scale. Consumers primarily found out about music through advertisements (and through radio), and purchased it through retail stores. In order to properly capitalize on any publicity, it was necessary to stock the album in a significant fraction of retail outlets. Conversely, it would be a waste of money to go to the expense of stocking an album in hundreds of stores without a serious marketing campaign.
The high costs of producing, distributing, and marketing an album nationwide created a high barrier to entry to new music. That allowed the labels to charge $15 for an album and restricted the number of bands that could offer their music to a national audience. But the Internet has swept most of those costs away. An artist can now distribute a song on the Internet for a fraction of a penny. As a result, we can expect an explosion of new music online. Much of that music will likely be offered for free, as musicians attempt to attract new fans.
That won’t do consumers much good if they don’t have a good way of sifting through it all. Fortunately, the Internet provides a solution to that problem as well. Again blogs are leading the way. There are now blog communities for every conceivable interest–conservative politics, linguistics, medicine, feminism. These miniature “blogospheres” serve as efficient information clearing houses: if you have a feminist book you want to sell, a good way to get an audience is to get it discussed in the feminist blogosphere.
The same process can work for music. As the amount of music available swells, there will be a growing community of music bloggers who listen to and review new music. Blog networks work like amplified word-of-mouth, with news of a great new album spreading as rapidly as the latest Lindsay Lohan gossip. Over time, consumers will increasingly find that the music selected by the collective wisdom of the Internet will be as good as–perhaps better than–the music selected by the recording industry.
Musicians that offer their music for free will have a significant advantage in this market, because music bloggers are more likely to link to a song their readers can listen to for free. (Just as the New York Times op-ed page became less influential among blogs after they started charging for access). As more and more musicians offer their music for free to attract more fans, consumers will come to expect free music, just as they expect free punditry today.
This is obviously a nightmare scenario for the recording industry, but it’s not obvious it would be bad for musicians, any more than blogs have been bad for punditry. The most talented musicians would be able to attract fans much more quickly than they could have with 20th-century technologies. And once they’ve built a national fan base, there will be plenty of ways to make make money.
Indeed, successful musicians already make a substantial fraction of their income from endorsement deals, concert tickets, merchandise sales, book deals, and other revenue sources. There’s also no reason that musicians couldn’t pursue a mixed strategy: giving away some of their songs to attract new fans, but charging money for others.
Perhaps most importantly, many more musicians would have the satisfaction of finding music fans around the country who enjoy their music. The vast majority of musicians today don’t have any realistic hope of making a living at it, but they persist because they love music. The real value of music lies in the enjoyment of both musician and listener. That pleasure would in no way be diminished if less money changed hands.
If I had written this column 20 years ago, it’s unlikely that I could have gotten more than a tiny handful of people to read it. Punditry then was dominated by a handful of paid columnists, while ordinary writers had few opportunities to reach a national audience. This aspiring pundit is happy that has changed. True, it may be harder for me to get a job as a full-time columnist. But it’s far easier to find readers who are interested in what I have to write. The average musician would benefit from a similar transformation of his industry.
Tim Lee is the science and technology editor of Brainwash and the editor at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri think tank. His website is www.binarybits.org.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin