Sunday, September 16, 2012

Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now

Give it away give it away give it away now
Give it away give it away give it away now
Give it away give it away give it away now
Ooh... Ooh yeah
Give it away give it away give it away now
Give it away give it away give it away now
Give it away give it away give it away now
I can't tell if I'm a king pin or a pauper

That’s my advice. Give it away, give it away, give it away now. I’m talking to you web entrepreneurs.  Music industry, publishing industry, entertainment industry, you gotta listen. Give it away, give it away, give it away now.

Start with the early web. A needed tool to explore this early phenomenon was indexes. No-one paid for the search engine, it was given away free.

In the web's early days, the first indexes to this uncharted territory were written by students and given away. The indexes helped humans focus their attention on a few sites out of thousands and helped draw attention to the sites, so webmasters aided the indexers' efforts. By being available free, indexes became ubiquitous. Their ubiquity quickly led to explosive stock values for the indexers and enabled other Web services to flourish. Let me say one word: Google!

Now consider Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube. Give it away, give it away, give it away now. (And end up driving a Ferrari.)

Think of it in terms of attention. The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention. Each human has an absolute limit of only 24 hours per day to provide attention to the millions of innovations and opportunities thrown up by the economy. Giving stuff away garners human attention, or mind share, which then leads to market share.

Wealth feeds off ubiquity, and ubiquity usually mandates some level of sharing. The early internet and early web sported amazingly robust gift economies; goods and services were swapped, shared generously, or donated outright — actually, this was the sole way to acquire things online. Idealistic as this attitude was, it was the only sane way to launch a commercial economy in the emerging space. The flaw that science fiction ace William Gibson found in the web — its capacity to waste tremendous amounts of time — was in fact, as Gibson further noted, its saving grace. In a web economy, innovations must first be seeded into the inefficiencies of the gift economy to later sprout in the commercial economy's efficiencies.

Consider “freeware,” free apps, open source operating systems.

Sometimes I feel
Like I'm almost gone, yeah
A long, long, long
Way from my home, yeah

Clap your hands
Clap your hands

It's a rare (and foolish) software outfit these days that does not introduce its wares into the free economy as a beta version in some fashion. Fifty years ago, the notion of releasing a product unfinished — with the intention that the public would help complete it — would have been considered either cowardly, cheap, or inept. But in the new regime, this pre-commercial stage is brave, prudent, and vital.

Let the customer try before they buy. Build up a following. Garner good reviews. It is all there in the give it away, give it away, give it away now mantra.

That leads us to the music business. No other modern, and “hip” industry has had such a tough time understanding the freedom concept. Copyrights and bootlegs have always been part of the business since the first tape recorders were sold — and don’t think the music publishers didn’t try from the get-go to make it impossible for tape recorders to record off the radio — they did try.

And who can blame them? People were stealing their merchandise. Right? It's a reasonable assumption that theft equals loss of income. After all, if somebody has stolen the thing you're selling, why would they turn around a buy it? But there's an increasingly contentious debate on that assumption, and its impact on physical products, digital content, and intellectual property.

Recent studies on Japanese anime DVDs, academic publishing, and even designer handbags have shown little impact on sales, and sometimes an increase in sales, where piracy occurs. The logic is that when something is accessible, people can find it and sample it more easily. Then they are more likely to want more, or better. In the case of the designer handbags, the knock-offs seemed to serve as gateways to the real thing.

One researcher immersed herself in the counterfeit "purse parties" of upper-middle-class women. She found that her subjects formed attachments to their phony Vuittons and came to crave the real thing when, inevitably, they found the stitches falling apart on their cheap knockoffs. Within a couple of years, more than half of the women — many of whom had never fancied themselves consumers of $1,300 purses — abandoned their counterfeits for authentic items.

As arts and culture and all forms of creative expression struggle with copyright protection and theft, it will be a rather essential issue to understand the implications with some nuance. Some artists have already changed their minds about rigidly defending their copyright. Others are wondering how much effort the battle is worth. Book publishers don’t want to talk to Amazon or to Apple. Is their nose lying on the floor to get even with their face? How do you monitize a free novel? There is more to think about here, but start from the premise you will give it away, give it away, give it away now.

The younger generation would wholeheartedly agree. In fact, giving away the music for free via download (but still selling CD's and related "merchandise," while drawing crowds for performances) is the entire business model of a whole new wave of musicians.

I sometimes think that once these folks have babies or need root canals, they'll have more monetary demands, but meanwhile, building a reputation by spreading the information and the product around will definitely create demand for whatever you want to sell. Think of all the "one-hit-wonder" bands out there still making a living off the air play on oldies stations and nostalgia concerts.

And think how easy it is to bypass the music publisher entirely. Post a tease on YouTube, then sell it on iTunes. You can make a comfortable living. No agent, no percentage to corporation, just cool checks each month.  You can turn that fifteen minutes of fame into a business, a career, a fortune.

The logic is that when something is accessible, people can find it and sample it more easily. Then they are more likely to want more... think of the record labels and bands that allow you to stream a full album before purchasing. Think of free music Tuesday on iTunes. By directly offering consumers some of the benefits of acquiring an illegal copy, artists are back in the drivers' seat and actually deterring piracy. With new music especially, I am significantly more likely to buy an album if I can listen to it first. They make it exceptionally easy to do that.

So take the advice of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and “give it away, give it away, give it away now.” We need Richie’s “Freedom, freedom ...
Hey, yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah-yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yea

Originally written July 13, 2011.

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