Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I’ve spent the last couple of days ripping through Chris Anderson’s highly anticipated new book Free, The Future of a Radical Price. Free is about the “economics of free,” the idea that by giving away copies of creative works (like music, movies, or books), the creator of these things can still make money from other, related, and ancillary sources, and sometimes much more money that by just selling copies of the work itself. I read Free for free online at, and it’s also posted at Google Books, and for sale as real book everywhere else.

It’s a fabulous, provocative, illuminating book. A central tenet is that free “content”, be it music, or photographs, or whatever, is the inevitable result of the digital age. Forget about traditional concepts of copyright, of ownership, or the overheated arguments about stealing or piracy...once something is reduced to a digital file, it’s gone if it’s something people want. It’s a law-of-nature phenomenon, not a moral one. It’s inevitable. Like I tell clients, if you post something on the Internet, don’t be worried that people might download it. Be worried that people won’t.

This all became graphically real to me one snowy morning in 2000, when I first fooled around with the original Napster program. My first search was for recordings by my band Blotto, and as the little search button blinked I had the epiphonic realization: How the hell was I going to feel if we weren’t on there?

Anyway, starting with the assumption that good content is inevitably going to be free content, Anderson goes on to make the case that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for creators. Yes things may change: yes some business models are going to crumble; and yes some creators (or, more than likely, their corporate overlords) aren’t going to make as much money as before. But there are other ways to skin the cat, and if maybe the cat wasn’t as big as before, there will be most definitely be more cats to choose from. And more creators skinning them.

For me, one of Anderson’s more interesting points is that a lot of this isn’t particularly new, that enterpreneurs have been dealing with the economics of free for as long as there’s been the economics of anything. He starts the book using the example of how Jello broke through to commercial success, by the company printing millions of Jello cookbooks and giving them away door to door to create interest and demand in Jello. It worked. (Note: Next time you’re on the Thruway driving to Buffalo, get off in Le Roy, NY and visit the Jello Museum. Yup, the freakin’ Jello Museum.)

Did you know that RCA first started broadcasting radio programs for free as a way to sell more radios? Then they had a contest for people to suggest ways to pay for more radio broadcasts, and the winner was a tax on vacuum tubes? Then finally, somebody came up with an advertising model, so radio was free to the listeners and advertisers were the true “consumers” of radio, paying for listeners’ attention, and that was the model that stuck.

In part, this is what Anderson sees as happening now, a period of technological and entrepreneurial evolution. Case in point: right now there are at least 50 different models for internet advertising, some that work, some that don’t, some that are being tweaked, some that await an audience.

Of course the establishment reaction to Free has been unrestrained hysteria. There was the big plagiarism charge, that he’d nicked a bunch of things from Wikipedia. Truth was his publisher didn’t agree with the form of his submitted Wiki citations and took them out. In the version I read, Anderson cites Wikipedia constantly, as you’d expect he would. Wikipedia supports, if not proves, his premise. Free rocks.

Most criticisms of Free are like the gibberish in failed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen’s odious and intellectually dishonest book The Cult of the Amateur, in which the evil Internet is made out as the cause of the destruction of civilization. I imagine most of these critics haven’t bothered to read Free, and if they have, were so horrified by its truths and its challenges to their livelihoods that they decided the only effective response was to just yell stuff. Disappointingly, the New Yorker’s Macolm Gladwell, a thinkin’ feller if there ever was one, filed a remarkably tone-deaf diss last week, one I suspect he’ll eventually regret as his deadline and dread of change fade.

Despite being posted for free on the web, Free is right now the Amazon’s 75th best selling hardcover book overall and the 25th non-fiction title.


Next week’s CRUMBS night out music biz panel will be looking at gigs, featuring a bunch of folks whose job it is to hire musicians and pay them real money. We’ll have promoter Greg Bell, Valentine’s Howard Glassman, Revolution Hall’s Jared Kingsley and maybe a few more folks who are gonna talk about how you make the move from your basement to their stages. Thursday, July 23, at the Linda, Sumac plays a set at 7, Panel at 8.


At 10:17 AM, Blogger jamesl1960 said...

question 6:

remark from techdirt guy (who by the way is thanked in the acknowlegments section of this book for inspiring the author):

"I did want to bring up one separate issue, because I get the feeling it will be raised in the comments. There was a lot of attention paid recently to charges of plagiarism in the book. Chris has admitted to the basics of the charges, and explained it as sloppy editing in an effort to deal with concerns about how to cite online content. I have to admit that sloppy editing seems like a weak excuse here, and a bit disappointing. It seems a bit lazy."

With the caveat that Pinker got the whole 'music as epiphenomenon of language' thing exactly backwards (cf. The singing neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind, and body By Steven J. Mithen):

Not the brilliant JK


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