Earning a crust : paying for web content

June 23, 2010

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.