Happy days for Creative Commons and NIN! Trent Reznor managed to make a huge profit selling his bands 2008 album Ghosts I-IV online, topping Amazon’s best selling list for 2008. Strange enough, the album was legally available for free at the same time (even on the same website). This nice article over at Ars Technica gives one possible reason for this phenomenon (next to obviously the much heralded ease of using Amazon, and might I note the lack of awareness of many law abiding citizens of the existence or workings of sites like The Pirate Bay, where the album could also be downloaded legally for free). According to the article in Ars Technica, the music lovers bought the album on Amazon because ‘fans understood that purchasing MP3s would directly support the music and career of a musician they liked’. (One wonders though, wouldn’t the ‘fans’ buy the album from NIN’s website rather than from Amazon?). It’s like the Radiohead model all over again (didn’t NIN invent that basic model anyway?) but now even better! The same article makes the suggestion that small indie record labels could probably profit from this model too: use that dedicated fan base that does not mind to pay a little extra money to support their favorite artists.
It looks like we might be slowly returning to the old Maecenas system, or Maecenate, when it comes to culture, flourishing as it did in the old Rome of Virgil and Horace, and still visible today in many a countries’ subsidy system, stimulating (historically) mostly the so called ‘high arts’ which in some cases and some countries have known some kind of patronage or state subsidy for ages (the Dutch system is a good example in this respect).
What seems clear however is that this new digital Maecenic culture will be quite different in many respects from so called subsidy systems. It will be way more ‘democratic’ for one, no longer favoring art picked out by committees of wise experts but directly benefiting those chosen by the public to merit their money. It will also not be a ‘traditional’ Maecenic culture in which a few rich people out of philanthropy and the goodness of their hearth give their money to the arts or the projects they endorse. This new Maecenic culture will probably be upheld by large communities of people of all income classes, all offering a little money to support their favorite band, artist or cultural entrepreneur (think of those small labels again).
Now is this a bad development? Does this mean that, might such a system in the future prevail, all art should be foremost about marketing, about creating a sustainable community and those with the most fans get the most money? Not necessarily. Sure there will be large communities supporting crappy artists, but as NIN shows (which although definitely a big band you will find harder to categorize as ‘mainstream’ like you might do with for instance Radiohead, and by the way, both bands have been credited with making qualitatively high and good music according to ‘artistic standards’, whatever they are), ‘alternative’ bands can also make an income this way, maybe supplementing this new kind of business model with added value products, merchandising and intensive touring, so it does surely also offer possibilities for those small little indie pearls out there.
Finally, and I will go in to this some more in the future for sure: could this model work for books? Why not? Some have tried already: Cory Doctorow is one of the most successful examples of this model. He has given his books away for free for years already and has made a lot of money with this scheme. The difference between music and books in this day and age of course being that the made the profit from his printed books, whilst the digital versions are available for free online. And a lot of these print sales can be explained by the by some felt ‘awful screen reading experience’. But with the rise of digital books and with Kindle editions being available of a growing amount of various book titles, competition will begin to rise between free digital books and paid for digital content in this segment of the media market too. And why not help out good old Cory and his mates by sponsoring them in the good old Roman way, thanking them for their generous sharing of their cultural creations in an alternative way? I know some artists who would like such a model…. Interesting times, interesting developments….