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Mar 24

What’s Wrong With Free, Anyway?

So I am at my LUG meeting the other night listening to a spirited discussion, which is pretty normal for us. We have a lot of very opinionated people there, and there is never a lack of discussion. The trick is getting a word in edgewise, and normally three people are all talking at once trying to grab the floor. In this case, it got to piracy, the music industry, bit torrent, etc. One person tried to make the argument that bit torrent promotes piracy and is harming the industry, and seemed genuinely surprised that no one in the room agreed with him. But we all agreed that the music business had changed irrevocably, and that there would never again be a group as big as The Beatles. But why is that? I tend to think a necessary precondition for anyone getting that big is that they would first have to be that good, and in my own curmudgeonly way I don’t think any of the current acts are that good. Now, if you like to discuss the current music scene and the music business, I always recommend you read The Lefsetz Letter, by Bob Lefsetz. He is constantly explaining that the music world is different now, that you can’t just go into the studio, cut an album, and let the riches roll in.

I think the new music business is about the relationship the artist has with the fans. And it does not rely on mass media in any way. One of the things the Internet has done is kill broadcasting, and bring us instead narrowcasting. By this I mean that instead of attracting a mass audience, you go after a niche audience that wants what you offer. And to get that audience you need to work on your relationships. A very eloquent explanation is given by Amanda Palmer in her TED talk. She frames the question beautifully by saying that the industry is focused on how to make people pay for music, while she focuses on how to let people pay for music. Notice how the language changes when you do this, and what it implies. When you talk about making people pay you are using the language of force, the language you use with enemies, the language on conflict and confrontation. Is it any wonder the industry is imploding? Any business that treats its customers like the enemy does not have a long future in front of it. But if you follow Amanda Palmer and talk about letting people help you, this is the language of trust, of mutual respect.

This has implications beyond the obvious one of treating your customers better. Amanda Palmer recorded an album on a traditional music label, sold 25,000 copies, and was considered a failure. Then she left the label, started a kickstarter campaign to fund her next recording project, and raised $1.2 million. From whom? About 25,000 fans. In other words, she has a hard-core audience of about 25,000 who love what she does and will support it. For record labels, that is not enough. And for certain rock stars with a sense of entitlement that is not enough since they want mansions and expensive sports cars. But it seems to be enough for someone who just wants to make an honest living. This is the niche audience you get in an environment of narrowcasting, not the mass audience we used to get from broadcasting.

I see this in my own music tastes. There are a half-down artists from whom I will buy any product they put out, and I bet you haven’t heard of them. They are not mass artists. One of them, Jonatha Brooke, just did a campaign on PledgeMusic to raise the money for her next album, and I was happy to make my own pledge on return for a CD when it is done and updates and photos while it is being done. And you can be sure I will buy a ticket to her show any time she is in town. That is not to say I don’t enjoy music from some of the “big” acts. About 7 years ago I bought tickets for The Who. What I got was 2 tickets the cost over $100 each, and was so far from the stage that I had trouble even seeing the JumboTron. When Jonatha comes to town, she will play a local club that seats about 400 max, the tickets will cost about $25, and I will be maybe 20′ away from her. And she will stay after the show to sell and sign CDs and talk to her fans. It is artists like this that I support with my money, because I feel some relationship with them. But by the same token, if they didn’t make enough money to keep going, these artists with stop doing what they do. So my feeling is that I support you, and you give me something I want. Amanda Palmer puts her music out on the Internet without DRM, But she asks people to pay her for it, and they do.

I think this is something we can learn from in the Free Software community. If you focus on getting something for nothing, that is not sustainable as a model. Not only do developers have to eat, I think they need to know that people value their work and are willing to support it. And I think that can happen with small-scale applications, and in the age of narrowcasting that is viable, but only if the support is there. All too many people are looking for something free of charge, and get outraged when they can’t get it. This showed up recently when Google decided to end the Google Reader. This free-of-charge application was cancelled because the market was not large enough to make it viable. And that explanation does make sense. Google is one of the world’s largest corporations, and they operate at a very large scale. They simply cannot afford to put resources into small projects. I have heard that the usage for Reader was in the neighborhood of 10-20 million. A petition to keep it gathered 150,000 signatures. And while those may sound like large numbers, for Google they are tiny. They need 100 million to make it worth their while.

But, for a smaller developer, a market of  1-2 million might be plenty. Imagine this developer could provide a “cloud” service, similar to what Google offered, that would cost $2 per month. That would be $24 per year, and form 1 million customers it be $24 million. That is quite enough to run a good RSS Reader service, and it is completely sustainable. The service would have sufficient predictable income to maintain and develop the product. And they could develop a community of users who are passionate about the product. And the same reasoning would apply to downloadable software, even “free software”, if you use that term like I do, to denote software that gives you the Four Freedoms the Free Software Foundation has published. But the key is to understand that you need to support software that you rely on. If you only want “free-of-charge” software, you will probably pay for it with your your personal information or by watching ads. And you will be at the mercy of companies that will drop the product any time it suits them. I think you will find that this rarely happens in the free software community as long as a project has a passionate community that supports it, the way Amanda Palmer’s fans support her.

So what software are you passionate about? And how do you support it?

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio< !

2 comments

  1. Epicanis

    “So what software are you passionate about? And how do you support it?”
    As for me, I think my zeal is hovering around Opus. When I get around to doing a followup to HPR#1103 I’ll probably spend a lot of time raving about it (and talking about how to use it).

    One of these days I need to do something with the opuscast.com domain while I’m at it…

  2. Kevin

    I’m looking forward to it. Your shows are always interesting.

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