The MPAA, the Dead and Web 2.0

Absolute truths have a way of getting less absolute when the distant worlds of art and business collide.

Which I why I read something this morning that I both agree with strongly and disagree with strongly. Add to that the fact that it was said by a man I generally disagree with to the man who wrote the song I named my oldest daughter after and who has been cool enough to email Cassidy now and again over the years just to see how she’s doing- and it gets very confusing.

Techdirt reports on and links to an exchange between Dan Glickman of the MPAA and John Perry Barlow, of EFF and Grateful Dead fame.

In what Mike at Techdirt accurately calls a bizarre exchange, Glickman and Barlow talked about the entertainment industry.

sand-794348Barlow starts out by saying, again correctly, that the movie industry will eventually adopt to the new information age (and the new distribution and pricing methods that are the backbone thereof). The only question is how long will it resist the inevitable and how much damage will it do to itself in the meantime.

Glickman responds with the same old line about paying the people to produce the work or you won’t ever get any work to watch, etc., etc.

Barlow points out that he made a lot of money writing songs for the Dead, who as we all know have always allowed people to record and share their shows.

What is lost on Glickman is the fact that if not for all those concert recordings, there would be a lot less Dead music to be had by new fans and the Dead would be less relevant today. By allowing recording and tape trading, the Dead made it easier to become a Dead fan, which made it easier to keep selling records, which made it easier to keep touring to packed houses. And on and on.

Glickman’s problem is that someone moved the movie industry’s cheese and they hired him to frantically search for it. All the futile searching prevents him from seeing that making those recordings available did as much or more for the Dead as it did for the fans.

Then it comes. Glickman makes a statement that I believe it totally wrong in the context of music and movies, yet it is one of my themes with respect to Web 2.0:

“It is ridiculous to believe that you can give product away for free and be more successful.”

So, either I am wrong about art or wrong about Web 2.0 or there is a way to distinguish the two. Let’s think about this for a minute.

Something Glickman said later keeps rolling around inside my head:

“[P]eople who create content for movies and television have to make a profit. If they don’t you won’t see all this wonderful stuff and listen to it.”

I think the difference is that in art, you can give away some of your art and make more money by selling more of your other art. John Perry makes money not only from royalties on record sales, but also on performance royalties, sheet music and other revenue generated from his songs. By allowing all of those concert recordings, the Dead managed to increase and maintain its fan base and mindshare- and to increase the sales of its records through traditional channels. It’s no coincidence that the Dead has released so many of their “from the vaults” recordings over the years. A lot of those records that “went platinum sooner or later,” would not have if not for tape trading.

It’s not unlike those “SE” (for Special Edition- which in computer lingo means watered down) versions of software you get when you buy a new computer or camera. They work fine, but the manufacturers know that if you like it, you’ll eventually buy the full version.

But what about Web 2.0?

I think what separates a lot of these Web 2.0 applications from music and movies and software is that they have nothing else to sell. Some of them, like, give away some stuff for free to attract users who may then buy more stuff. That is a tried and true business plan.

But many others give away everything they have to offer in a belief that if they can get enough eyeballs on their site, advertisers will pay to bombard those eyeballs with ads. It may work for the mega-sites like Digg and MySpace, but it takes a whole lot of eyeballs to generate enough revenue to run a company. Beer money, yes. Companies, no.

Not to mention the fact that I have never once clicked on an online ad on any site I didn’t own, and neither had any of the 10 or so people I asked in connection with a another post I wrote a few weeks ago.

The point that I would have made had I awoken to the nightmare of Glickman’s job is that unlike bands who all share in the revenue for all their projects, each movie is a one-off deal. The fact that the next movie makes a lot of money does nothing for the investors in this movie.

Regardless, the bottom line as far as movies go is that Barlow is right- the train has left the station and there are millions of young people out there who are going to force the movie industry to play it their way.

The only question is how long it will take Hollywood to face it.