Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Arts and the free loader problem

I will get around to writing about Cheers! in the coming days, but when framing up my thoughts on the show and some other media ideas bouncing around in my head, I realized that the current state of media is going to bring the free loader problem to the fore.

Basically put, the model for originating, distributing, and consuming new media has changed materially in recent years.  I'm going to write from my own perspective, but I suspect that my experience is generally common.

If I hear new music (meaning, newly created music, not new to me alone) it is via Pandora assigning something new that happens to match my perceived preferences.  Or possibly that I'm listening to the news on NPR and they review a new disc.  Contrast this scenario with the 1990s model, where most music delivery came via the radio and a DJ introducing new tracks that either sounded interesting or that the station was payed to play.  As a radio listening, I was implicitly paying for that distribution model by listening to ads.  There was a revenue channel that could be studied and manipulated, directly or indirectly leading back to the artists who were available to create new art.  Under the current system, I'm not sure how new artists are motivated.

Similarly, consider the TV media model for consumers such as I; I watched the Wire, but when the series was over, and on DVD from Netflix.  I watched the first two seasons of Parks and Recreation, but on Netflix Instant after those seasons were in the past.  I am, essentially, a free loader in this system.  I'm allowing other consumers to show the initial interest that gets the show created and on the air, and I allow other consumers to support the show through it's toddlerhood, and I wait around to pick off the choice bits of media that survive.

The problem I see on the horizon is when the balance of the consumer community shifts to match my behavior.  If most consumers are waiting around for others to vet the quality of new offerings, the supply of new offerings may dry up.  One possible, positive, outcome could be a new wave of experimentation in the area of origination and distribution.  YouTube and smaller cable channels definitely have the potential to try out concepts in a lower cost environment...maybe that model is roughly equivalent for an off-off-Broadway show finding a following and moving to the big stage.

Just thinking out loud over here.

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