What Is It That You Do, and Where Can I Download It For Free?

It's time to acknowledge that we really are in a brave new world when it comes to online media.

As I drove into work this morning, Weekend Edition was discussing "pay to play" on online content, specifically Slate's new "Slate Plus" subscription model. It's remarkably like a public radio membership, right down to the free mug. What really struck me was the honesty of the NPR commentator, that Slate had risen to be a very real "competitor" in a sense to NPR.

Then, I headed in to the IFP Minnesota Filmmaker Conference, where the keynote speech was by James Belfer of Dogfish Accelerator, discussing production financing models for indie films (a great keynote, by the way, because "Where is the money coming from?" is kind of crucial to any project.) James is a kind of scruffy, indie guy himself, and the conceit of his talk was about myths and realities in film production — and he was very clear that he had learned many of these lessons the very, very hard way. In the hour I was there I took away eleven great points, so expect some more blog posts about them soon. But one of his key points was about the myth of access, and how giving things away can actually, counter-intuitively, increase your sales.

I didn't need to be converted on that point. It's been a point of discussion between Patrick and myself for a long time. I love coupons, and will happily buy any toothpaste that's on sale; a free tube of it will not convert me to  lifetime of preference. But give me a sense of what you are doing artistically, and nine times out of ten I'll be back. Let me download the first book in your series for free and I'll get hooked and buy the rest (heck, Kindle, this even works with sample chapters!); comp me to your best play and I bet I'll be back for the the next one; give me a free song download and I've purchased the whole album on iTunes before you know it. Even better, this more basic, accessible platform allows me to try out new artists I had not heard of before, and allows those artists to reach out to me in new ways. I know I'm only one data point, but I know I'm not alone.

The interesting thing is that, as I was tweeting conference remarks, and a tweet from Rainbow Rowell comes up in my stream (full disclosure, I think Rowell is an incredible author). The tweet reads:
When people complain about having to pay for art or content, I think, "What do you do for a living? Where can I download that for free?"
And just like that, I'm realizing that this whole thing is not so simple. I'm a fervent advocate of artists being paid for their work. But I'm also a believer in empowering them to reach out to their own audiences, behind the Oz-like curtain that distributors and other publicity can become. I think artists are all the stronger when they take their relationships into their own hands — yet I understand that not all want to do so, or have that as their skill set.

How to reconcile the two?

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