July 10, 2009 § 2 Comments
Last week, my dear friends Mark and Kirsten had us over for an authentic Brazilian feast. A dedicated Brazilophile, Kirsten ensured the ambience was authentic by treating us to an iPod playlist of favela-style rap and hip hop. If you’ve never heard favela-style hip hop, imagine Tone Loc-style sampling (the kind of sampling where nearly the entire instrumental portion of the song is borrowed wholesale) overlaid with Portegeuse vocals. We quickly got caught up in a game of name that (ripped off) tune.
The question around content ownership and the notion of “free” is certainly a prominent topic of debate in this time of accelerated creative destruction in the music, newspaper, and publishing industries. Take, for example, the lively exchange between Chris Anderson, author of the new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Ironically, the book is not free), Malcolm Gladwell, and Seth Godin. In Free, Chris Anderson argues that “in the digital marketplace, the most effective price is no price at all,” supporting this premise with examples of web brands that have successfully built business models on freemiums, cross-subsidies, crowd-sourcing and loss-leader approaches. In his review of Free, Gladwell presents a strong opposing argument, taking issue with several of Anderson’s examples. In particular, Gladwell strips apart Anderson’s YouTube example as a business which has followed the principles of Free while failing to turn a profit.
But for every YouTube, there’s a Vimeo, a smaller niche competitor that offers a seemingly more sound approach to turning a profit. And while newspapers fail en masse, The Economist and WSJ continue to attract subscribers.
Examples aside, I think that while Anderson’s argument has its merits, Gladwell smartly reminds us:
“The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.”
In other words, Free isn’t the only answer. The success of Free is relative to the product or service you offer, the sector in which you compete and the degree of competition you face. (This point is well stated in Matt Yglesias’ take on the debate.)
But let’s get back to the favela mash-ups. The undeniable truth behind this whole debate is that digital content is as ubiquitous as air and wants to be free. The value of digital content is, of course, context dependent: It can be remixed, re-purposed, and re-combined to take on new cultural meaning, then spread through socnets like a virus. This is the world we now live in, and younger generations know no different.
So when we think about business model innovation in the realm of digital content, it’s clear there’s no turning back. Listen to Girl Talk, Watch the brilliant documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto , and think about what lies ahead: