The Death of Art?

If Freddie’s post is a perfect example of “declinist, doom and gloomism” mine will be an example of me at my most optimistic.  You see, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, I would have to say “of course not!”  Digital media and the ease with which it can be copied need only be met with creative solutions.  This is where the industries involved – music, film, television, and gaming – have all come up short.  They’ve worried about the same thing Freddie’s worrying about: illegal, and free, downloads, and what this will mean to their bottom line.

What have they done to prevent this wave of techno-piracy?  Well, a numuber of things actually.  At first the industries decided to go after the perps themselves.  They went after downloaders, internet businesses that somehow thought they could get away with distributing music for free without paying royalties (Napster, Youtube), and filed lawsuit after lawsuit.  This didn’t work so well.  For one, there were too many people with too many means of downloading and sharing music, videos, etc.

So then the industries tried to put copy-protections on their products.  DRM, various encryptions, etc. all of which were hacked within hours.  Freddie uses the example of the marker on the disc, which about sums up the ease with which pirates can get around all this fancy technology.

So then a few companies started embracing this new method of distribution.  Some record companies saw Youtube as a great way to market their music, and gave Youtube users free license to use their music in their videos.  Viacom was upset with the use of their tv clips on Youtube and set up their own online media instead.  You can watch basically any Comedy Central program for free now online at their official sites.  Some artists, like NIN and Radiohead, have adopted digitial distribution models, either giving their music away for free or simply selling it online.  Some have forgone record labels, others have signed contracts with concert promoters.

So let’s look at each industry individually.

Music

The music industry has probably been hit the hardest by all of this.  Freddie worries that the natural extension of all this free, illegal downloading will be the death of the music industry or at least a major blow that will lead to fewer good bands producing music for widespread distribution.  After all, how can these bands make a living if they don’t have any record sales?  And beyond that, how can they even produce the records if they don’t have someone to sign them (and who will sign them if the record companies are all gone)?

Okay, first of all, bands don’t really make that much money off of record sales.  Record companies do, but most band revenue comes from ticket sales.  Only really, really wildly successful musicians really profit from record sales.  So here’s how I see this going down.  I see the record companies as we know them going the way of the dinosaurs.  Smaller localized companies will fill their shoes and produce the records.  Music will be available for free download at the bands’ websites.  The music itself will no longer be what’s for sale–bands will move to a ticket-revenue model of business, making their money off of shows and merchandise.  Perhaps live-albums will be sold at the concerts – niche albums, if you will, to pad those ticket sales a bit.  But the record sales model will die off, as will any attempts at selling music online.  This will be gradual, of course, but it’s the direction I see this industry moving.  This will lead to a massive leveling of bands into a sort of musical middle class.

Technology and online distribution allow anyone to get their music out there.  If it’s good enough, people will come to their shows.  They’ll make money, but they won’t be fabulously rich.  Perhaps not being fabulously rich will force them to keep making good music – a net gain, I’d say.  Call this the great democritization of music.  It’s not going to kill the industry or the art, just change it in massive, and extremely good, ways.  Expect to see more localized talent, and at the same time, that local talent exposed to a much wider audience.  “The days of Big Music are over!” Bill Clinton might intone…

Film and TV

I don’t have a TV, but I do have a PC, and it’s been remarkable to me how things have changed over the past few years.  Freddie writes:

What in the end is more powerful in this equation than “free”? Here’s what people really like, when push comes to shove: they really like getting stuff for free that they once had to pay for. They like it more than owning the physical CD and packaging. They like it more than “the sense of legitimate ownership”. They like it more than supporting really cool bands on their way up, they like it more than supporting independent cinema, they like it more than the feeling of satisfaction you get by donating money for an artist you really like. People want to get stuff free, and they can, and as long as that’s the case I see ahead only armaggedon for the music industry, and very troubling times for other forms of digital media.

Ah, but Freddie leaves out another important thing – something people enjoy just as much as “free” – and that’s convenience.  Three years ago, you could download movies for free on the internet.  You could use a torrent program to download the latest South Park episode, or Braveheart or whatever you wanted to see.  It was all out there, along with hosts of files filled with viruses, and it was all easily gotten, but you had to wander to all too often questionable sites to find it.  Then, of course, you had to download the (large) files, which took time and ate up bandwidth and harddrive space.  Great for people who knew how to traverse the shadier regions of the internet and didn’t mind waiting for their downloads to end.  Not so good for your average Joe sixpack.  (That phrase just doesn’t work anymore, does it?)

Fast forward to 2009.  Now virtually everything can be streamed.  Much of it can be streamed for free if you don’t mind watching a few commercials.  Take shows like The Colbert Report or South Park. Both are available at their respective websites to stream for free.  No downloading necessary.  Each requires you to watch three commercials – not three commerical segments, just three 30 second commercials total.  The stream begins instantly, and when you’re done it’s not taking up space on your computer.  Other models have opted for subscription fees rather than ads.  For instance, I get Netflix.  Two videos come in the mail at a time.  But more importantly (and more frequently used by both my wife and myself) is the thousands of movies available at their website for instant streaming.  And while Freddie may be right that people like free things, what I really like about Netflix (which is $8.99 a month for my plan) is the convenience. This trumps free downloads in a big way.  The ability to just click play and have any of a few thousand movies start up instantly on your computer is way, way better than searching for them and downloading them.  And this is just the beginning.  Between ad-based free television (available at most network and cable websites now) and fee-based subscription services, our film and television industries will make a successful leap to the interent.  Most people are still going to get their fix on normal TV’s, after all.  The rest of us will no longer need to expend the effort it takes to pirate this stuff.

PC Games

Freddie’s right that PC game companies have found no way to effectively prevent piracy of their products – at least the single-player variety.  However, what this industry has done is something remarkably clever.  The consoles have not fallen prey to piracy as it is much, much more difficult to copy console games.  I certainly have no idea how.  PC games are another story, and pirated copies are easy to come by.  So what has the industry done?

A few things.  First, more and more PC games have either moved to multi-player online experiences a la Counterstrike, which are not free, but do require a legitimate license to be played online (something much harder to get around by hackers).  The only way to really enjoy these games is to play them online, so people end up paying for them.  Single player games may be just as fun on an illegal copy, but online games require the real deal.  Since most people are online now, this is a very natural business model which takes into account the basic advantage of the PC.

The second solution has also relied on online pay, but of the subscription variety, a la World of Warcraft, one of the most successful games of all time.  Again, you have to pay to play.  Hacking just doesn’t work when you need to pay a monthly fee to keep playing.  The fee also has an addicting quality to it.  You keep paying every month which motivates you to keep playing so as to get your money’s worth which in turn causes  you to keep paying and so on and so forth.  Very clever.

And yet, out of this has been born the free-online game market.  You have WoW immitators now that don’t cost a monthly subscription at all.  Instead, these companies allow you to buy expansions, items, and the like.  The basic, free versions of the game are fine, but if you want to really get into it, you have to pay.  In other words, they hook you with the free stuff, but then, once you’re hopelessly addicted, you have to fork over the cash.

Does this mean the death of single player games on the PC?  It’s possible.  Or it simply means that companies will have to integrate the online experience with all their games, or give them away but charge for luxuries.  I’m not sure, but it hardly spells disaster for the industry.

So in sum, I’m optimistic about all of this.  I like being able to watch a show online for free, and I’ll take the ads and the convenience of the legal stream over the illegal download.  I listen to the very convenient, free, and legal Pandora radio as opposed to downloading music.  I watch movies on Netflix, and pay an extremely small sum of money for that convenience.  Free is all well and good, and it certainly has been the driving force behind the quick shift in digital distribution methods, but I believe the industries and artists are up to the task–innovative, industrious, and at risk makes for a good solution cocktail: good for consumers and good for business.

Economic oblivion?  The death of art?  Hardly…

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3 thoughts on “The Death of Art?

  1. Time will tell. But I’ll bet you a doughnut that the music industry and the PC games industry will have effectively collapsed within the next five years. And it’s already happening in music. I don’t think that the record companies are entirely honest on this issue. But I also don’t think that they are lying when they say that professionally recorded and distributed music is in great peril.

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  2. I’ll take that bet. Hopefully inflation isn’t such that said doughnut ruins me five years from now. But I’ll add, the death of the music industry as we know it may be a very real thing, however I doubt that means the same thing as the death of professionally recorded music. There will still be a demand and a supply for that…

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  3. Just as a note on the death of professionally recorded music, a relative of mine used to work as a recording engineer for a major record label. He has since left them, along with droves of other recording techs, for a smaller break-off studio. From what I’ve seen, the larger studios have already begun breaking apart into smaller independent operations. Soon you’ll be able to get your album recorded in Columbus, Ohio that same way you used to have to travel to New York to get it recorded. I think you are pretty much correct in the directions things are heading with music. The days of the roving minstrel are back.

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