Over the last couple of days a minor drama has played out. On one side, we had Apple launching its new Apple Music subscription service with the lure of a free three-month trial for all prospective customers. On the other were artists, whose public face was Taylor Swift, crying foul over not being paid for the use of their music over the trial period.
For starters, I have to side with the artists on this one. Producing music (and it doesn’t matter whether it’s to your taste or not) is a skill and requires many people from sound recorders to acoustic engineers, software developers (autotune isn’t magic – it’s software) and many other people. If they aren’t paid for their effort, we don’t get new music as they’ll leave the business.
The good news is Apple listened to Swift’s plea, posted via Tumblr, and will be paying artists during the Apple Music free trial period.
So, it looks like it’s all been tied off with a pretty ribbon and everyone goes home happily ever after right?
The biggest threat to independent journalism, art and other creative endeavours isn’t how the internet has changed business models. It’s that content owners and publishers have completely devalued the content we read, watch and listen to.
Accessing content used to require an investment by the consumer. Think of the news. We used to either get a delivery or visit the local newsagent to buy a paper. We took time to leaf through the pages, settling on stories to read and immerse ourselves in.
We valued long-form stories just as much, perhaps more, than short snippets as we invested time in understanding issues deeply.
So, we invested money, time and energy into the news.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet shifted from academia and nerds to the mainstream. And the content publishers, thinking they were seeing a new advertising channel gave the content up for free. The net result – journalism is devalued as we see news as a free, disposable service.
Those in the entertainment industry were faced with a similar challenge, but they took a different route, clinging like desperate limpets to the rock of their distribution models. The result – first it was Napster, then LimeWire and a host of other ‘music sharing’ services that made us think music should be free.
We were given a distribution system, through the internet, that made it easy to share files. Almost every other move made by the music industry has been a desperate game of whack-a-mole trying to stop free sharing sites.
Fortunately, that bleeding is slowly being stemmed by the likes of Spotify, Pandora and now Apple Music.
The only reason the movie and TV industries were able to avoid the massive impact suffered by the music business was the sizes of the files and speed of internet connections. However, the development of the BitTorrent protocol solved that problem.
There’s another word for free. That word is ‘worthless’.
What did we learn?
For a while there, we discovered that Apple was one of us. As it was giving away a product, it was prepared to take it for free. If it wasn’t making any money from it, why should anyone else?
I liken this to those free promotional toys or pens you get from a conference. Even though you were given the pen, the person who gave it to you was paid.
Apple’s initial instinct was to give the promotional items away for free, but not pay the creators.
We’ve also learned artists have discovered their power. By using a public platform (Tumblr) and withholding product (her album, 1989), Swift was able to change the equation with Apple making a very quick about-face.
We’ve also learned something about Apple. During the Steve Jobs era, once Apple locked into a course of action it held fast. There were very few apologies ever given by Apple when a product hit the market that didn’t deliver on the promise or expectation.
But Apple 3.0, under Tim Cooks’ leadership, has already shown its capacity to listen and react to the market.
I would hope, collectively, we have all had an important lesson made more concrete. The music, stories, movies, photos and other art we enjoy and learn from may come to us for free, but it has a value and a cost.
When presented with a free option for a service or a paid option, think carefully about the value you receive from the service and decide whether the creator should be paid.