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Free or Die

February 28, 2010

There’s been a lot written and said these past few months on the subject of Free, Freemium, Freetards etc. And a hell of a lot of it has been crap.

First there’s Free, by Chris Anderson, perhaps the Freemium bible. Then there’s Lilly Allen, though the less said about her the better. Then there’s those who fell upon Allen like several tonnes of bricks. They took Anderson’s argument of releasing your recordings for free to suggest that Allen and her ilk should be compelled to do it. As if it was “how it always was”.

Bollocks.

As Free told us, Freemium is a business model, not a gods-given consumer right. It’s the artists’ prerogative.

I’ve spoken to band members who insist that they cannot sustain a business on gig tickets alone, or T-shirts or badges. As Jaron Lanier said in this week’s Guardian podcast, soon enough these gimmicks will cost next to nothing to produce at home, and again the rules of scarcity will run away from the bands.

Bands are just one part of the spectrum. I’m a writer (okay, an aspiring writer. A failed-to-get-published writer, whatever…). But if an author is to give all their work away, all their ‘recordings’, what are they left with? Live gigs? T-shirts?

No. Nothing.

Authors cannot survive by giving it all away. Some of it, yes. A lot of it, certainly. Publicity is publicity. Exposure is exposure. But it’s never mandatory to give the lot away, and never can be.

What this should suggest is that Free, Freemium etc is a business model, a strategy. There are as many variations on it as there are singers, writers, software engineers, journalists, philosophers…

By demanding that recordings be free, freetards are hastening the race to $zero of everything they’ve never before noticed cost so much. And those producers who give stuff away are veering close to spec-work. Spec-work has plenty of detractors, and for good reason. If you’re giving your best work away, you’re leading the charge to degrading the value of that work for everyone in your profession.

But I want to emphasise that I’m not saying scrap free music, free PDFs or any other free culture. I’m saying this:

If you’re an author/producer, and giving anything away anything, then make sure it’s part of a grander plan. Don’t do spec-work in competition with others. Value the work of your profession.If you’re an artist, then you’re not quite in competition. But don’t give so much away that it becomes expected of you. Otherwise you’ll be forever gifting your talent, and until money goes the way of the dodo, this is not something you should be after.

Whatever profession you’re in, there are plenty of outlets for your free contributions: help forums, advice blogs, short stories, samplers, digital versions of books, experimental or brand new pieces perhaps. But make sure this is part of your ecosystem, make sure there’s a reason for every free release. For Radiohead, In Rainbows can be seen as an experiment, as well as publicity. For Anderson’s free PDF version of Free it was to prove a point. In both cases it was publicity driving sales of a new product.

And note that in these cases both parties have other lucrative channels of income. The Free drives the salary. If this is how free culture manages to work in the years to come, then we’ll have properly achieved what I think we’ve set out to, and we’ll be having much stronger arguments about file sharing, copyright extensions and all the rest.

One last point (I promise!). If you’re on the other side of the fence (let’s call it the Allenside) then I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. We’re never going back to the old models, and what I’ve just said applies to you also. If your recordings are available for free, people will take them. It’s hopeless trying to rail against this. You’ve got to start incorporating the Free in your business models, whether you like it or not. It’s too late for any other way.

Whether for better or worse, Free is here to stay. It’s those people and companies who embrace Free, but place it at the heart of strong businesses (and that means money I’m afraid :)) who will survive the next generation of content distribution.