Saturday, 21 January 2012

It's not over (or A new world order)

The debate over SOPA and PIPA (and the eventual shelving of those bills) has been framed in various terms from its inception. According to the supporters of the bill it's about Freetards vs Creators. According to a lot of the pundits (mainly in the mainstream media) it's about The Internet Geeks vs Hollywood.
But both of these positions are false.
Sure there are people out there who will happily take content for free without a thought for the creators, but there are a great many more who will happily pay a reasonable price for unrestricted content; especially if they know that most of what they've paid is going to the creator. That's why so many artists, musicians, actors, and programmers have come out against the bill.
And sure the MPAA have been driving this bill and it has been internet-based agitators who have orchestrated the challenge to it. But it's not just the geeks who've been overloading the congressional switchboards and filling up the senate's inboxes. After all, everyone who reads this is an internet user, but would you describe yourself as an online activist or a geek?
To ascribe to one of these positions is to miss a wider affect that has the potential for much greater change.

What really happened over the last few days was Lobbying vs The People.

That it came about over a bill to regulate the internet is perhaps fitting as it's this same medium that has enabled everyday people to see exactly how the legislative process in the US works. When these bills first started being discovered and discussed there were many in the online world who thought that their protesting was ultimately going to be fruitless. The internet wasn't a big issue to a national audience and the millions of dollars at the lobbyist's disposal (in an election year) meant that most of those early protesters thought that this would be a forlorn hope.
I am so incredibly proud of everyone who took a moment to contact their senator and congressman to stop this happening and provide a rare victory for the people over the vested interests of a few companies.
Make no mistake, it is a rare victory and it is not over.
Those bills (and doubtless others like them) have been shelved not scrapped, they will be back, in one form or another and we'll be relying on the same group of activists to keep us aware.
The lobbyists haven't changed their tactics, they still think that they can buy new legislation and, if necessary, new legislators.
But they have failed to recognise that, in their hubris, they have woken a slumbering beast.
Now it may be that the american people will roll over and go back to sleep and, if so, a great opportunity will have been lost. But it may be that the american people will wake up and start looking at how their rights have been eroded by lobbyist dollars and vested interests and how far from their purpose that their elected representatives have strayed.
We can hope.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

SOPA so bad

I feel I should be posting something about SOPA/PIPA here being as it's such a crock of shit and seriously fucks up this wonderful little thing I like to call the web.
But in truth, everything that needs to be said is being said and collated by those far more intelligent than me, so I'll just point you here:
The other reason that I'm trying to avoid writing anything about is that the outright lies and bullshit that is being spouted by the likes of the MPAA and RIAA makes me so angry I'm almost unable to write a coherent sentence.
So all I'll say is, get out there and make a noise.

Maybe it's while we still can.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

A Manifesto for the Content Industry – 5. Add Value.

Add value. What are you doing that your customers can’t do with 20 minutes and the internet? What are you doing that a creator can’t do for themselves? If you’re not adding value, why would someone pay you?
Now you’d think that this would be a pretty redundant article, after all, why would you be involved in a process if you weren’t adding value to it? Sadly large parts of the content industry have drifted a long way from this position.
At this stage it’s probably important to take a look at the content industry and the difference between middlemen and gatekeepers because, I think, you have fundamental difference in what they add to the artist-customer relationship. At least, this is the terminology I’m using so I’ll set out the distinction here:
A middleman is someone* who facilitates either the production of the work or the interaction between customers and creators.
A gatekeeper is someone* who restricts access to content until some kind of fee is paid.
Frequently a company can be both of these things. A record label may provide the upfront fees for a producer or session musicians, but then block the release of material via a non-traditional medium.
Frequently a company or organisation is supposed to be the former but ends up being the latter.
With the rapid improvement of consumer electronics and multitude of distribution options now available to anyone it might seem like the opportunities for a middleman to add value have disappeared. I’d argue that this is fundamentally untrue and there is still massive value that can be provided by the major players. A few obvious areas and examples are:
            Publishing: In a market that is still dominated by physical objects, distribution is key, and once your product is in the shop it needs to be visible on the shelf. You could try doing that as a self-published artist but good luck...
            Music: The difference that a good producer can make to a recording is probably analogous to the value that a good editor adds to an author, and it’s no real surprise that almost every novel you read will have the editor listed for thanks in the opening pages.
            Movies: unlike either writing or music, making movies is expensive. There’s no getting round the fact that even a budget production will probably cost you tens of thousands of dollars. And then you’ve got to find somewhere to show your film…
I could go on and talk about publicity and opinion makers and all kinds of other things, but however you look at it there is still a huge part that the established industries can play.
Unfortunately a lot of these companies seem to have decided that every interaction should also be a transaction and the only value that matters is shareholder value.

Hence they have become gatekeepers.
Where a middleman adds value to both the customer and the creator, a gatekeeper does the opposite by trying to drive a fee out of every interaction between the two. This might appear by way of a simple restriction of content (separating the customer from the creator) on you-tube “This video is not available to view in your country” – Sorry what? I’ve googled the official video for the new single and I can’t watch it for another 6 weeks because I don’t live in the US? Or by putting DRM on a video game (reducing the value) so that you can only play it if you’re connected to the web – Sorry what? I bought a single player game that I want to play on my laptop as I do my daily train commute, now I discover I can’t do that? Or a combination of the two, for example, by delaying the release of a series box-set on DVD so that advertising can be maximised via re-runs on a secondary channel – Sorry what? This was released in the US 6 months ago but I still can’t buy the box set and watch it at my convenience because you have a re-run on Sky-Atlantic.**

So to go back to our opening paragraph, one of the biggest challenges to any creator is getting their product seen/heard/read, and there’s so much good stuff out there it’s hard for the customer to find the great stuff. Connecting those two dots is value add.
Looking at the same situation from a different perspective, there’s a lot of good stuff out there that just needs a little bit of polish to really stand out. The aspiring film-maker in Spielberg’s Super 8 keeps going on about production values as a means to make his film standout in the upcoming competition and the principle holds in other fields as well***. Taking something from a “gifted-amateur” feel to a “professional-product” feel is value add.

Essentially it comes down to the title point; if you’re in the supply chain you should be adding value.

* Or a company
** Interestingly in almost all of these cases you'll be able to find an unauthorised copy for free with none of the restrictions. But try telling the respective industries that their behaviour is driving piracy...
*** Having recently listened to the first album by The National it sounds like a demo-tape for their later stuff; the talent and skill are there but the production values are in the “gifted-amateur” range compared to their more recent output.