Earning a crust : paying for web content

Seems we have to wait a bit longer before finding out whether STFC gets screwed over. So. Hows about something different.

Some of you will have noticed that the web version of the Guardian is still free whereas The Times is not. Past the front page, its behind a paywall. Of course, all right thinking people recognise this for the evil it is, dirty capitalism eroding the freedom of the internet. Ain’t that right ? Maybe not. On Monday a wonderful article by Caitlin Moran appeared with the most insightful – and funny – left wing defense of charging for web content. Her basic argument is that in the historical past creative work was only possible if you were either rich and leisured, or sucked up to a rich patron. That changed in the twentieth century; ordinary working class folk with talent could earn a living wage, for example by working for a newspaper. Now, she says, the Bohemian insistence on everything being free means that people like her won’t get paid, and only rich folk will be able to afford to express themselves.

Its actually a very funny piece of writing, also covering travel agents, pornography, and Lily Allen. You can find it here. If you have a subscription to the Times… Possibly this PDF file may bear some resemblance.

She also made the same argument for music and the current debate over copyright and digital rights management. Here I part company. It aint the same. Musicians have been exploited by record companies for decades, and digital rights management is all about protecting their interests, not the musicians. Here is Courtney Love explaining it perfectly. That article is ten years old but its still spot on.

I still find the idea of newspapers like The Times or The Guardian very useful. They organise material in a structured way, they employ the best writers, they are guarantors of quality, they have their own style, and their own traditions; you may feel youself to be a Guardian person, or a Times person. This seems worth paying for. Can you imagine having the same feelings about Columbia records ? You don’t want to buy something from a particular corporation – you just want Lily Allen, or Claudio Abbado, or Radiohead.

In the web age, why do musicians need a massive army of suits to spot them, contract them, record them, distribute recordings, publicise them, and take most of the profits ? They don’t. Traditional record companies are dead, or should be. The future is with companies like Earbuzz and CDBaby and, if you are into jazz and classical, Magnatune.You make your own recordings; you pay them to take your stuff; they flog it for you, and pass back to you most of the proceeds. Thats most. Not one percent. Right now these “labels” don’t have the big names. But they should. I think they will.

Don’t start me on scientific journal publishers.

20 Responses to Earning a crust : paying for web content

  1. Nick Cross says:

    Most pre-20th century astronomers where gentlemen astronomers, or clergymen. With regards to journalism, there have been a lot of people pointing out the problems with cheap journalism – journalists forced to produce dozens of stories a day, mostly rehashes of press releases without proper fact-checking. Nick Davies wrote a book “Flat Earth News” a few years ago, which I recommend.

  2. Nick Cross says:

    I didn’t really finish that last comment off properly. Nick Davies’ book covered this topic and more generally the issues of poor journalism and why they came about. Falling newspaper sales and the shift of advertising from newspapers to websites all affect the incomes of papers. The New York Times tried charging early on for some web content, but gave up because people were reading other sites instead. If a good model for charging had been developed early on and used by lots of publishers, then journalism may be in a better shape.

  3. She also made the same argument for music and the current debate over copyright and digital rights management. Here I part company. It aint the same. Musicians have been exploited by record companies for decades, and digital rights management is all about protecting their interests, not the musicians. Here is Courtney Love explaining it perfectly. That article is ten years old but its still spot on.”

    Give me a break. “The record companies exploit artists, so illegal downloads are OK.” This is serious ignorance of reality, on a par with young-earth creationism or voodoo. Carl Sagan’s baloney detector would be off the scale.

    From what income should musicians live if listeners no longer pay for content?

    Any artist who wants to give his music away is free to do so. If he chooses to sign with a record company, that’s his business.

    I spend a lot of my time following music. Once, on a mailing list, someone posted a pointer to a torrent of a new release by a well-known-in-some circles but by no means rich musician (who has spent most of her life with a non-music day job). She herself chimed in and pointed out that she does appreciate the royalties from people buying her stuff and with luck she would be able to spend more time on music, which should be something everyone interested in her music would appreciate. Talk about straight from the horse’s mouth! What happened? Several people chimed in with essentially your argument, the anarcho-pirate crusader who protects musicians from exploitation. As Einstein said, two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity (and he wasn’t sure about the former).

    This is NOT comparable to academic publishers. Academic publishers essentially operate by charging people (through subscriptions or page charges) for the right to publish, and then sell that same content back to the same people who created it. In the old days, there was a need, for practical reasons, but in the internet age, traditional academic publishers have lost much of their justification. The difference is that the people who publish in such journals don’t earn their salary by selling their papers.

    In the academic environment, it is perhaps easier to make the mistake of assuming that since the internet has eliminated some of the middle men in academia, the same must apply to the non-academic world. But that’s not the way it is, for the simple reason that many people, including musicians, earn their living
    (ponder the concept) by selling the fruits of their efforts.

    Your diatribe is akin to saying that banks make money by collecting interest from their customers (of whom none are forced to do business with the bank), so society should accept armed bank robberies. After all, it only hurts the bad guys, right?

    I am a huge critic of the two-party system in the UK, but at least it keeps loonies like the Pirate Party (I assume you’re a member) out of Parliament.

    Now back to discussing astronomy.

    • andyxl says:

      Wooahhhhh !! Tell me where I said illegal downloads are ok. The businesses I quoted are places where users can buy music. They do this without DRM. Its just that nearly all the money goes to the artists.

      • “Tell me where I said illegal downloads are ok.”

        I think this counterargument is a red herring. I once heard someone state, with a straight face(!), that illegal downloading was a response to DRM. Of course, what actually happened was the reverse. Music without DRM is easier to distribute without paying the artists, even if the initial copy was paid for, and non-DRM music is more likely to be the source of illegal downloads.

        I find it hard to believe that musicians who sign with conventional record companies (many of whom earn more than both of us together) stay their out of ignorance. Presumably, they think they are getting a good deal. Sure, there is probably some abuse, but targeting conventional labels per se is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

        “She also made the same argument for music and the current debate over copyright and digital rights management. Here I part company. It aint the same. Musicians have been exploited by record companies for decades, and digital rights management is all about protecting their interests, not the musicians.”

        Here, you do come close to saying that “illegal downloads are OK”. Certainly that is the position of Courtney Love (how relevant the opinion of someone is who profited financially from her lover’s suicide to the extent that she is wealthier than we ever will be and thus doesn’t have to live off her royalties is another question).

        Basically, DRM makes it more difficult to copy music in digital form. What fraction of the profits the record company passes on to the artists is an independent issue. I can imagine that the fraction varies without DRM and that the fraction varies with DRM. Of course, another aspect is that it might be better to have a smaller fraction of a larger pie than a larger fraction of a smaller or almost non-existent pie.

        I don’t see what copyright has to do with what fraction of the profits is passed on to the musicians, but it has a lot to do with illegal downloads (since violating copyright is why they are illegal). If your point is only that some web-based labels pass on a higher fraction of the profits to the artists, then why mention DRM and copyright at all? The Guardian article discusses paying for content vs. getting it for free (though not necessarily illegally), so I think I can be forgiven if my impression was that you are propagating “music should be free”.

      • andyxl says:

        I am impressed you can detect I am getting close to saying something even when I don’t say it. However…I think I can spot where we have both been misled…

        … you are probably right (I haven’t checked) that Courtney Love thinks music should be free. What I was recommending was her trenchant analysis of where the money goes, i.e. all to the record companies and almost none to the musicians. I didn’t mean to imply that everything she says is right.

        Meanwhile… Caitlin Moran’s article supported Lily Allen – but she defended DRM at just the time when music companies were trying to bully the government into enforcing their privilege. I was reacting to that.

        When you buy a physical newspaper, you don’t have to sign a contract that promises you won’t give the newspaper to somebody else… Notice that although Apple were in favour of DRM at first, they backed off it. They noticed that they were making money just fine, so whats the problem ?

        Anyhoo.. (i) I am perfectly happy with idea of paying for online newspapers. (ii) I am perfectly with paying for music online. (iii) When I do so, I would rather pay that money to the creators, rather than an unnecessary industry that doesn’t add much value. (iv) There is still a need for middle-men type businesses, but its pretty lightweight and simple. Thus, I am also happy effectively paying some money to the likes of Earbuzz or Magnatunes. (v) iTunes is a pretty sensible business model too, but it would be cheaper per track if Apple didn’t have to pay all that money to A&M etc.

        Clear now ?

  4. “In the web age, why do musicians need a massive army of suits to spot them, contract them, record them, distribute recordings, publicise them, and take most of the profits ?”

    In the web age, why do astronomers need a massive army consisting of the STFC, the University, the UK ATC, the RAS, the Royal Society etc to spot them, contract them, coordinate their research, engage in public outreach, publicise them and take most of the taxpayers’ money?

    Why don’t you just do astronomy and put the results of your research here on your blog, with a link to the raw data?

    Oh I see? You would no longer have any dependable income, maybe even no income at all? What’s the problem? What are you, a capitalist or something?

  5. Brendan says:

    Wow.

  6. telescoper says:

    I’m distraught that The Men’s Disciplinary Rubberwear Gazette has now started charging for its online edition.

    • Reminds me of the conference organiser who got a visit from his sysadmin when the traffic to the conference website skyrocketed. All were puzzled, since the conference was over. Asked if he had changed anything, the hapless chap said that the only change was that he had put up a page with directions about the proceedings. Title: Submission in LaTeX.

  7. “When you buy a physical newspaper, you don’t have to sign a contract that promises you won’t give the newspaper to somebody else”

    True. However, the newspaper business was never in danger of running out of money because of a person buying a newspaper and letting other people read it. By the time enough people could read it to make a dent in the profits, it would be out of date. However, people can (and do) copy a music file to millions of other people. Big difference. Many things are legal until they start to become a problem.

    “What I was recommending was her trenchant analysis of where the money goes, i.e. all to the record companies and almost none to the musicians. I didn’t mean to imply that everything she says is right.”

    Nor do I claim that everything she says is wrong. I just think that the question of the percentage of profits going to the musicians and the problems with copyright are two separate issues. They are often conflated by people claiming “the artists are just getting a small fraction anyway” to justify illegal downloading. The proximity of various buzzwords perhaps made me jump to conclusions; sorry if I misunderstood your point. 😐

    “Notice that although Apple were in favour of DRM at first, they backed off it. They noticed that they were making money just fine, so whats the problem ?”

    I think this is down to the typical Apple person being someone who is happy to pay for a good product; for different reasons, different from the typical Microsoft user or the typical Linux user (and perhaps not that far from the typical VMS user).

    “Clear now ?”

    Indeed. I agree with i through v. I actually buy CDs rather than download stuff though. I would pay in either case, but I like to own physical media, have a nice booklet and admire my IKEA Benno shelves full of CDs. 🙂

  8. telescoper says:

    A point which is perhaps worth making about newspapers is that the cover price is only a part of the income of the publisher. Advertising makes up the rest. On average, it accounts for about 50% of income.

    An interesting calculation has then to be made. Advertisers are more likely to place adverts in magazines with higher circulation figures, so do you cut the cover price to boost circulation and increase advertising or increase the cover price and cope with less advertising. The answer depends on the elasticity of the market, i.e. how much sales are influenced by changes in price. Many decades of experience have taught the newspaper industry what this is for print media.

    For online editions, there’s so new that nobody really knows what the elasticity so you have companies trying experimental strategies. Most newspaper companies seem to have thought that their online editions could turn in a profit without charging at all because they would attract plenty of advertising revenue. This hasn’t happened, at least partly because of the recession. That’s what seems to be behind the Times wanting to charge readers of its online edition.

    • Phil Uttley says:

      The London Evening Standard is a perfect example of this – they recently became a free paper, presumably because the advertising revenue is enough to turn a profit. I suppose this model can work in London, but may be trickier elsewhere. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain their standards relative to the usual ‘lightweight’ free papers like Metro, but not living in London I don’t know if this is happening.

      • telescoper says:

        From the little I know about it, I believe the evening newspaper trade is a totally different kettle of fish compared to the national dailies and involves quite different strategies. For one thing, it seems most evening papers are local so probably have different kinds of advertising.

        The main factor for me choosing a newspaper is the quality of the crossword, which is why I stick with The Grauniad.

  9. andyxl says:

    There may be another factor. Many years ago when I was part of running an undergraduate dramsoc, we noticed that shows with higher ticket prices tended to be better attended. It seemed that people decided they must be better…

  10. telescoper says:

    …and anyway, what about my old 78s?

  11. telescoper says:

    It’s quiet here.

    I thought I’d add this story which points out that the Times has lost 90% of its online readers since setting up a paywall.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jul/20/times-paywall-readership

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