Good Enough To Pay For

Entertainment has always been available for free. The street corner musician. The traveling actors troupe. The [*shudder*] the mime. The “digital revolution” doesn’t represent a change so much as a return to the way things used to be.

You know, where your only entertainment options were what was directly in front of you and you had little to no control over how good it was.

There are many file sharing sites today where musicians—struggling or no—can post their works where the understanding is people can download them for free, and have an option to pay what they wish if they think it worthy.  This used to be called “passing the hat,” where a performer’s hat was literally passed through the crowd and people could contribute what they wished. Or not. You were interested enough to stay through to the end, and this is probably how they’re going to pay for their next meal, so you throw in a couple coins. Perhaps out of guilt. You see, they’re standing right there.

Fortunately you’re spared that guilt hiding behind your keyboard.

But what if they’re not any good? What if they’re more annoying than anything else? What if they’re just a couple of guys who can acceptably carry a tune (and it’s always the same tune, isn’t it?) as stroll through the subway car with their hands out? It’s certainly better than the ones who simply walk through with their hands out with nothing besides guilt to offer in return.

What if you want to hear something enjoyable? What if there’s no cello player at your train stop? No saxophonist near your car park? No one playing guitar outside your office? Of course you’d be willing to pay for it, but again, only for the good ones. How much effort are you willing to put in searching for it? How much crap are you willing to sift through to find something you like? So you need a middle man—someone to match your need to be entertained with an entertainer. A good one. You need a curator. And they expect to be compensated.

You pay the guy who owns the space for performers to perform because he’s done the work of getting performers that people will pay to see. The record company determines which musicians people will pay to listen to. The record store decides which albums go the shelves. The radio station picks which songs people will sit through advertising to hear. It’s worth their while to curate—to find the good stuff—because you’ll take your money elsewhere if you don’t get what you like.

And so we have the commercialization of Art. It’s now a Thing You Can Sell™.

Unfortunately there’s power in being the one who collects the box office receipts. Hence the stereotype of the cheap theater owner paying a pittance to performers; the ruthless record producer entrapping musicians with crippling contracts; the sleazy studio executive ripping off writers. Even the sanctimonious publisher, self-appointed arbiter of quality.

Walk into a book store (the ones that are left) and look at the staggering number of books. Then just try to imagine the even more staggering number of submitted manuscripts for every one that eventually gets published. There’s a running gag in Hollywood that you can walk up to virtually any random stranger and ask, “how’s your screenplay coming?” and they’ll tell you. Even the best-written screenplay needs teams of people to produce into a film. Now, thanks to the internet and the democratization power of technology, anyone can “publish.”

You want something to read? Oh, there is no shortage of things to read, no matter what your tastes are. But how much of it is any good? And how much crap do you want to wade through to find it?

Oh, I’m sure there are just as many people who enjoy Twilight fan fiction as there are who enjoy checking out whatever bands happen to be playing locally. OK, maybe not that many. But I know people who prefer independent film to major studio releases; people who’d much rather sit and listen to who ever is playing at a local jazz club than the homogeneous drone of pop radio; people who’d rather crack open Charles Dickens again than read about Swedish girls getting tattoos and playing with things.

Amazon.com, a retailer, has decided to get into the publishing game. Personally I find that laughable. They had better do a damned good job of curating talent if they want to be taken seriously. You can find good books on Amazon, but going to Amazon doesn’t mean you’ll find a good book. Anyone can publish anything on Amazon. I can publish a book on Amazon. I can publish this on Amazon. But Amazon isn’t betting they’ll make any money selling my inane ramblings. No, if I want to be published on Amazon I have to pay them.

But what happens when it’s no longer a Thing You Can Sell™? Look at porn. OK, let me rephrase that—let’s use the Adult Entertainment industry as an example. How do you continue to charge for your wares when you’re competing with every third co-ed with a web cam, coupled with everything you’ve ever produced—everything you’ve paid to produce, paying models, camera and lighting people, lawyers, et al.—repeated endlessly across Tumblr, for free? When you figure it out, tell someone who works in porn. You’ll make millions.

Playboy, the long time gold standard of the Naked Chick™ industry, has decimated its staff over the past few years. Hemorrhaging cash, they exist for the sake of nostalgia. Like the music industry found out, it’s a lot harder to charge for something that’s available for free almost everywhere.

Turns out, it’s the producers, the manufacturers, that end up hurting—the theater owners, record companies, publishers—and it’s those producers from whom people feel most comfortable and rationalize it’s OK stealing. The creators? Well, it’s not like too many of them were terribly well off any way. You’ve at least heard of them, which is better than the obscurity they were plucked from.

If those companies want to survive they have to shift gears from producing talent to curating it. I don’t mind paying a cover charge if I know the band’s going to be good.

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