Free Online Content, and Its Discontents

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Does anyone else worry that the proliferation of free online content has increasingly devalued the sorts of artistic media (writing, videos, pictures, music etc.) that can be freely and easily distributed online to the extent that it is going to ultimately discourage creative people from going into those fields (i.e. getting liberal arts degrees) since they can’t really profit from doing those things– which is going to degrade the quality of that content overall until it’s really not even worth paying for anyway?

I mean, not that you need a degree to make art or to write; many people do that very well with no background or education. But overall, if people are not obtaining educational backgrounds and skills and guided experience in those fields, I would argue that in general, the overall quality of the majority of what is produced might eventually start to go south.

Also, no one out there is suggesting that an accountant or lawyer give away free services or consultations on the internet. No one asks someone who produces and sells goods to give those away for free on the internet.

But artists, writers, musicians are encouraged to give away their handiwork for free on the internet. If they ask for money for it, they are spurned.

When I look at writers from my parent’s generation, many of them started out in journalism, working for newspapers and magazines as their careers. They were able to make a solid living as writers; their skills and efforts were monetarily compensated. To someone from my generation, who does the majority of their writing for free or for token payments, this seems like a fantastical concept.

I’m not sure what the solution to this is– but I do feel like we can start by not sympathizing with the backlash that various news sites have gotten for erecting paywalls in order to access their content. After all– they are businesses. Businesses need to make money. It costs money to produce content for news websites; to pay writers and editors and fact-checkers and web developers, etc. etc. I’m ultimately tired of the idea that high-quality content on the internet– articles that took weeks to research and write; songs that took months to write and record; videos that someone spent time and money and energy creating, should be viewed by the general public for free.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I wish that every quality site that has a loyal readership would, if not erect a paywall, then at least have a prominent paypal donation button so that people can show their appreciation and put their money where their online bookmarks are. If everyone did it, then it wouldn’t be as tacky and weird for those few who did give the general public a way to reward them for producing high-quality content. And it would be a reminder (and a better reminder than those sad, sad sidebar ads about losing bellyfat and getting car insurance quotes) that quality content isn’t free to produce, and shouldn’t be free to consume.

AKIE BERMISS: Free online content. While many have moved on the practical solutions to this new state of things this is a question of — still! — grave importance to me.  iIs been over a decade since the mp3 was introduced to the world and still the music industry is reeling from the blows of that technological leap.  And still they are being dictated to by the medium as opposed to controlling it.

Now, that said, there is something to be said for this hyper-democracy in the arts.  Everyone can do anything:  You want to make a movie? Buy a camera for a couple hundred dollars, some software for another hundred, and buy some online classes for some chump change.  [or: use you're increasingly adequate-for-cinematic-shooting smartphone to shoot footage, torrent a cracked copy of the necessary software, and watch a couple dozen youtube videos about how to use it -- you're ready for the "bigtime."] That kind of availability of the means of art-making have made big companies a significantly less critical to making said art.  Add that to something like Facebook or Twitter and you’ve got publicity.  If you can compress your work down to something capable of being enjoyed — so to speak —  on a smartphone or tablet device and you’ve got the beginnings of viralcy (and then he coined a term).
Sadly, yes, this also means that anybody with computer, a smartphone, and the internet can make a movie, an album, write a “book”, produce a photo album — whatever.  And so, yes, quality has taken a STEEP nose-dive in many areas.  Music, for example, is basically whatever is gone viral that year.  You’ve got a couple of giants from before everything came tumbling down who can still run the market for a few months [see: Jay-Z/Kanye West] but basically, you need to be exceptionally flamboyant to get any traction on the internet.  Attention spans have dwindled to the 15 seconds an average youtube ad might be (some people can’t last even that long) so the first thing after the add better be giant boobs and/or guns and/or a barrage of bright colors and rapid sounds.  Or, you’ve lost them.
I still — still! — maintain that this can be ameliorated but the options for turning the tide become less and less reasonable the more we allow this kind of thing to run rampant.  I think the last best hope is for skilled individuals in each field to take a stand.  This will mean taking on the spurnage that comes of making people pay for your music (even if its something as little as spotify).  We need to get together and say, this isn’t free, go screw yourself if you want free stuff.  I think the result will be a short-term loss of interest from people looking for what is free and then a burgeoning interest in those with disposable income when they realize that there is something cool and elite and hip out there that they can get for a bit of treasure [see: Apple for the last decade, pre-iphone 5].
For the only way  to separate the wheat from the chaff is to separate the wheat from the chaff.  If one truly believes one’s work is better than what Joe Blow makes in his/her bedroom then one shouldn’t put it on facebook for free like Joe Blow did.  One needs to come up with an intelligent way to have one’s work compared to Blow’s but ascertained as something better.  Now, if that means SOME free content or going directly to discerning listeners or creating buzz or something — one can do that.  But, as Molly insinuated, there has to be some different experience between getting amateur stuff and getting stuff from professionals.
The pitfall of my plan? Turning all the arts into what classical music has become in the last 50/60 years.  Making an elite club is nice when we’re all young and monied and can adore each other.  Eventually, you get old, and busy, and die and then you’re left milking the survivors til there is nothing left.  We should be careful we don’t become too exclusive or esoterica — there is no longevity in it.
In the end creativity must be applied not only to the art work, but the business of the arts as well.  Most folks working with artists (A&Rs, Agents, Managers, etc) are giving you the same old line about everything. They want artist to act as if the internet is just part of the same old infrastructure — and not something wholly different.  I could write more, but I have to go update my facebook, twitter, and google+ profiles before people forget about me and get distracted by something Will.I.Am has done. Again.
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