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2008-01-12

The Consumer Food Chain

Having come in at #1 on the charts, Radiohead's In Rainbows seems to have given the lie to the notion that offering free or "name your own price" digital downloads will always result in diminished sales.

Shoddy economics aside, what troubles me about such talk is the epistemological implication that people are fundamentally not trustworthy. And what troubles me more is that companies incite such discussion about a condition they created.

Let's muck about in another of my thought experiments. Have you ever gone to the supermarket, shopped, come home, and discovered that you were undercharged by, say, $5 or $10? Have you then decided not to go back to give the store the money you owe? I admit it. I have.

When I pause to think about why, there are many reasons. But the main rationalization is this: They screwed up, not me. And they're a big corporation that can afford to absorb their mistake. Besides, how many times in the past have I been overcharged for things in that store? Don't they have huge markups to account for such mistakes or theft?

Again, I admit it—it's all just a rationalization for my own laziness and chintziness. However, who created the context in which such rationalizations can exist? Companies have spent billions trying to convince us that they and their products make our lives better. Maybe they have, maybe not. The point is they've done their darnedest to convince us so and, in the process, have placed us at the bottom of the commercial food chain. It is, after all, our dollars they're hunting.

Therefore, it irks me when corporations frame the digital download argument in terms of theft. It irks me more when they scream theft on behalf of the "artist"—artists who are paid pennies on the consumer dollar for their own work. It happened with Napster. It happened when the majority of downloaders of Stephen King's failed experiment, The Plant, did so without paying.

People are not inherently thieves. Nor are they inherently cheapskates. However, they have been lead into a consumer environment in which rationalizing free downloads seems a viable option. They didn't create the environment, but they will play in it.

Digital technology could offer a viable option. There are new distribution and business models out there to discover—ones that are equitable for both the artist and her audience. The problem is, that leaves the corporations out of the equation. And they don't like that one bit.

3 comments:

Without The H said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Without The H said...

I had to revise my original comment because I’m still thinking about it. Users are demanding instant gratification and that's easier with digital formats. They want it now and they want it to sound good.

The Radiohead example will be hard to duplicate. Radiohead is already an established artist with loyal, plugged-in, technology savvy fan base. And yet enough of the diminished sales market went out and bought the physical CD to make them #1 and get everyone talking.

What about the artists who post their tracks and videos themselves to MySpace and YouTube? Can 1 good idea be built into a career?

We're already seeing the loss of even more jobs at their old label, EMI. Artists still on the label are getting the press coverage to protest their treatment, which may be a ploy for attention (Robbie Williams) masked by good intentions. I personally heard Courtney Love yelling in my face that the place was “cheap.” My answer was “Of course! Have you seen my paycheck?” Her rants continue and are not very sane, but it highlights my point:

The moneymakers in charge are maintaining their grip on the old ways to continue to make a lot of money. And now they have to answer to the “public” of the stockholders who demand quarter-by-quarter profit growth. Businesses based on intellectual property need to take chances with untested ideas to find the next, great idea and to foster creativity. They can’t take those chances if they just need to turn a profit. The model for music has to change and it will take a lot of experimentation to figure out which change works.

porpentine11 said...

A note on The Plant. Most of us would long for such a failure. The project was only a failure in King's World. According to the Register:

Horror maestro Stephen King has revealed he made nearly half a million dollars from his e-book experiment The Plant.

The US author received a total of $721,448 from readers, who voluntarily paid their dollar for the first three instalments, and $2 for the last three. After expenses, such as advertising and site maintenance, King said he made a grand profit of $463,832.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2001/02/07/stephen_king_reveals_the_plant/