There is no moral defense against piracy. I am certainly not going to argue that. (And did not in this conversation.) But then we talked about Spotify. Musicians, like film studios, seem to have trouble understanding the consumer perspective: Netflix is preferable on almost every level to 1) going to the movies weekly 2) owning dozens of DVDs 3) renting them a la carte from Blockbuster. For the cost of, oh, 67 nights at the movies (22 with popcorn), I am the owner of a beautiful flatscreen TV that I use almost every day. Movies look incredible on it: the best they ever have in all of human history, in fact. In HD or Blu-Ray, they look as good or better as they will in a theater.
This is why Netflix has millions of subscribers. More, by the way, than the amount of people who reportedly pirated last year’s most-traded film. (I think it’s safe to assume if you’re the kind of person who pirates movies regularly, you probably downloaded that Fast and Furious movie, which had a reported 10 million downloads. The previous year’s top film had 16 million. That feels like a reasonable estimate of the chronic film pirate numbers.)
But Netflix is a third-party and they take their cut for providing the service. They have blanket contracts with studios, etc., not per-film ones as far as I know. So perhaps Netflix subscribers spend less money on specific films and television and those products don’t make as much, despite the same pool of viewership.
I still go to the movies. When I was a kid not so long ago, it cost $7 and you wouldn’t pay $4 for a tiny bag of candy packaged inside another box. But I still go. It’s fun. It’s an experience you can’t duplicate on your couch. But 9 times out of 10? The couch is pretty great.
So what can the studios do? Theaters are in a fix: rents are high and the business has never been one of remarkable profit margins for them anyway. They could try lowering prices and boosting volume, but reaching that equilibrium point must feel like a gamble. From the studio’s end, they could better compete with Netflix: offering rentals online, done on Amazon and iTunes in a reasonable way, and at prices some are happy to pay. But an Amazon or PS3 store rental usually costs $3.99, $5.99 for a PS3 HD rental, and that’s nearly the cost of my Netflix subscription. I’d rather be patient and wait for the film to arrive in my queue than spend extra money. They’ve launched a new service, Ultraviolet, which lets you “own” a movie in the cloud, but who wants to do that? Isn’t that what Netflix already does?
People aren’t stupid. They don’t want to break the law. They want to support art. But if the easiest, most enjoyable way to do that is Netflix, that’s what they’re going to pick.
I don’t think any of this is an unreasonable mindset. I think it’s quite common. The recession has caused people, my generation in particular, to realize you can’t live on credit cards and a sense of privilege. Netflix has no commercials. No trailers. It isn’t exorbitantly expensive. It looks pretty good, often great. You can watch it on anything. For the average person, there is no reason not to use it.
It makes it hard to feel like there’s reason to cry for the movie industry over it. Films still make hundreds of millions of dollars. Actors and directors and screenwriters still get rich over apparent flops. If profit margins begin to shrink and movie-making becomes a business where people get to build fewer pools at their summer homes, it is a consequence of the times. If indie films have a hard time making a go of it, they always have.
In fact, it’s never been cheaper to make a movie. You can do it on a Canon 7D (approx. $1500) with a couple of decent lenses (approx. $800-2000), a MacBook Pro and a copy of FinalCut. (Which you probably pirated. Jerk.) Kevin Smith made Clerks for $27,000. Today, he could probably do it for $5,000, plus the time commitment. (Musicians can do this for less, particularly if they use Ableton, which is why electronic music has supplanted lo-fi rock as independent music’s widespread model.)
In a recent blog comment, Steve Albini (allegedly) remarked that no one was crying for the whale blubber industry. Technology moved on to bigger and better things. This is the way of the world. Appetites change. $800 for a television feels fair. So does $1300 for a MacBook Air, or $250 for an iPod, or even $60 for a video game that one plans to spend dozens of hours with. I own all of these things. It’s money I could’ve spent on films or albums. But I only have so many funds.
Spotify, more so than Netflix, appears to give musicians a raw deal. But it’s young, and surely musicians can see the appeal: a few bucks a month to hear nearly every recording ever made. For consumers — the people who artists are making commercial art for and should be attentive to servicing — it’s a fantasy. (In its support of artists, it may be a nightmare.) Perhaps Spotify (and Rdio, etc.) will increase its payouts as its subscriber base grows. But if that subscriber base isn’t larger yet, it’s because many people are still buying albums instead! In order for Spotify to pay artists more, they’ll probably have sacrifice sales, which will be at best a rocky transition.
The journalism industry, likewise, has been obliterated by the Internet. Not by the proliferation of blogs and news options, oh no. There are two simple reasons: Craigslist ruined classified ads, previously a third of most papers’ revenues, and as print costs have risen as revenues decline, many papers have been unable to capitalize on their web traffic with online advertising. The amount of money most papers make online in contrast to their impressive numbers is embarrassing. It’s a failure mostly of marketing/sales departments, which can’t seem to convince anyone to spend money on the Internet even in 2012 and make Alfred E. Neuman faces as editorial staffers get laid off instead, as well as the advertising industry as a whole. They don’t want to waste their money, either. It’s a scary time and I don’t blame them — ad revenue is a shitty, unsustainable business model, anyway.
But imagine if journalists were still whining about Craigslist. This is musicians whining about piracy; it is filmmakers complaining about Netflix. It’s crying over spilled milk. You have less milk now, for dozens of different reasons. All our industries are shrinking. The fact of the matter is, not everyone will get to be a professional musician, or an actor, or a writer. No one is entitled to be these things. Many still will. You just have to be talented, and lucky and likable enough for people to want to support you.
It comes down to this: you have to make something that people care about. Not only that, they have to care enough to want to give you money to support you, specifically, instead of feeding that money into a new computer or Spotify or a million other options. If you’re not making a living doing this, you need more fans. Or better fans. And maybe, just maybe, it’s time to realize nobody can make that happen but you.
An addendum: We all share responsibility for the continued creation and survival of great art, whether it’s by buying an album, going to a show, paying for Spotify, etc. If the market continues to dwindle, it will become the domain of hobbyists and art will suffer for it. Both creators and consumers of commercial art have obligations to each other that should be recognized and respected — otherwise, all is lost.
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