It’s pretty easy to download movies, music and e-books off the net. It’s pretty obvious none of the industries involved knows how to deal with this or which is the best way to proceed.
The problem is the established companies are not interested in just embracing the new. It still has to line their pockets. If the development of digital product results in cutting out the middlemen, then the middlemen aren’t going to like it very much.
Not only will they seek to dissuade people from choosing alternative methods that don’t line their pockets, they will actively try to fuck things up.
I’m particularly interested in how e-books will develop now that the age of the e-reader is upon us (this will probably be how Skynet gets started). Books are easy to pirate, there’s lots of demand, and they take seconds to download. What can you do? I think an interesting way to see what the future has in store is to look at the rise of the podcast.
What marks out podcasts from other parts of the entertainment industry is that they have no established business model. There is no one to fight for the preservation of traditional podcasting because there is no traditional podcasting.
Although it is an excellent way to disseminate information on any number of subjects, the most popular podcasts are basically people chatting in an amusing fashion, usually hosted by comedians. Most of these podcasts are free, with huge audiences and very cheap to make — the search for a way to monetise them has been something of a Holy Grail.
The first attempt at monetising podcasts was to approach it like cable. You pay us so much per month, we give you X amount of shows. The only major player to have successfully established a subscription service is Jimmy Pardo's Never Not Funny. This was an early hit in the podcast world and built up a big, loyal following.
They then switched to a season ticket model where you buy 30 or so one-hour plus episodes for about $20, which are uploaded over the course of a year. I don’t know of any other podcast that has managed this feat.
What most comedians have done is to use the podcast as a marketing tool. By listening to a one-hour show the comedian drives up demand for his live appearances and merch. This has worked very effectively for some minor comedians who were stuck in the middle of showbiz. WTF with Marc Maron (intimate interviews with comedians and actors) and Doug Loves Movies with Doug Benson (chatting about movies with his comedian friends) are two excellent examples of this.
Benson has stated he is a stand-up first and foremost and as long as he’s selling out performances he is happy to self-fund his podcast.
Maron uses a donation button to ask for support with his costs, but to be honest he is getting a huge payback for his investment anyway. He has gone from virtually unknown outside the comedy community, to leading light over the last few years. He used to not even be able to sell out his own CD recordings (and very amusingly makes note of this on the CDs). He now sells out clubs.
Both these comics were more or less ignored by the mainstream media. Limited slots and a preference for vanilla acts had seen all but the occasional token ‘alternative’ act pushed into the margins.
My conclusion is that what makes podcasting work (beyond all common sense) is goodwill. It is about building a relationship between product provider and recipient. Once the audience starts appreciating what is being offered to them for free they in turn will support the artist — but not necessarily in the way you want them too.
Sometimes it is in straightforward exchange of cash for services rendered, but more often it is a nebulous approach where the audience turns out to see the artist in public, raises awareness across the internets, forms communities based on a mutual appreciation, and generally pushes for the artist.
With the internet allowing distribution and access to the marketplace on a par with the major players, the obvious route to success would be to build up a following through a free exchange of ideas and interests. And it will be the audience who decide worth, not some predetermined estimation that a book should cost 9.99, or that a movie is worth more than a TV show. Patience, the nemesis of the business-minded, will be the commodity of greatest value.
In terms of book publishing, the big loser is most likely going to be the publishing companies. Writers can make money direct from the reader. Readers will have personal relationships with the writer, and so will be less likely to steal from them. The role of the middlemen, to provide investment for production, to facilitate distribution, and market the product, is reduced to roughly zero. Expect them to come out fighting. Dirty.