Steal Your Face! The Grateful Dead disproves the notion that sharing is destructive

Get a load of this. Sometimes, I actually enjoy these little screeds that turn up now and again about copyright and the great internet menace. I especially like the parts where the writers pretend like anybody on the industry side really gives a shit about artists. Does anyone really believe the RIAA, MPAA or publishers’ interest in stamping out what they call piracy has even the slightest thing to do with protecting artists? That line is the media conglomerate equivalent of the great political deflection “won’t somebody please think about the children?” These are, after all, entities that have done some amazing work creating innovative accounting tricks specifically to screw over the various artists they claim to want to protect. In reality, their position can be far more accurately described as, “How dare you steal from the people we’ve been stealing from!”

But that’s neither here nor there. Those folks are the real crooks in this debate and just about everyone who doesn’t have a direct financial interest in allowing the continuation of their money grabs from actual content creators knows it. What I’d like to discuss is the principle reason I simply don’t believe that sharing is piracy, and further, why I don’t believe it’s harmful but in fact can be beneficial. All I have to do is look at the wall of shelves filled with cassette tapes in my house, and I see right through the corporate bullshit that has defined sharing as a steeply punishable crime, and re-christened the activity with the much more ominous and deceptive term “piracy.”

Admittedly, cassette tapes are very much a technology of the past, but this is the past I’m talking about here, how casual sharing has always existed ever since there was a widely available means of reproduction accessible to regular people. Far from destroying legitimate markets for creative goods, sharing has been very likely the principle means of discovery for consumers, and I believe it has done more to create demand for artistic works, as well as putting money into the pockets of both artists and media companies, than all the marketing dollars in the world.

To begin, there is absolutely nothing illegal about any of the two thousand or so tapes in my home. Every one is a copy of a live concert recording of bands that explicitly allowed that activity. Every one was either given or acquired by me in a straight trade of other concert recordings with no money changing hands, a behavior also sanctioned by the bands in question. It’s a large and varied selection of some of the best musicians we’ve ever produced, and all indisputably the result of legal, sanctioned sharing. I say this to head off anyone throwing accusations of piracy at me for this collection. But sanctioned or not, I still don’t believe it’s piracy, and I know that it’s far from destructive to the artists.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had been turned on to the Grateful Dead by a good friend when he gave me a few copies of some bootleg tapes of their concerts. This set off a life-long interest in music for me that has directly led to my spending tens of thousands of dollars on CDs, concert tickets, books, tee shirts, even digital music, thus far. I’ve been so appreciative of that act that I’ve returned the favor many times over by giving copies of some of this music to many different people over the years, turning numerous people into fans (and paying customers) for a wide variety of bands.

A few years ago, I turned a friend of mine on to a bluegrass jam band called Yonder Mountain String Band by giving him a copy of a concert recording I had acquired. Yonder also allows taping and the free sharing of such recordings. Since then, he’s bought their CDs, bought tee shirts, hats and seen them perform live at least three dozen times at venues up and down the East Coast, tripling the amount of times I’ve seen them myself. And that’s just one instance with one person and one band. I’ve turned hundreds of people onto hundreds of bands over the years. None of it would have happened if not for that first person handing me that first Grateful Dead tape twenty years ago. I can’t even begin to estimate what the total dollar figure that resulted from my sharing of this material would be, but my best guess is well into six figures, possibly more. Without that first tape, without that sharing, none of that spending exists.

Let’s discuss the Grateful Dead for a moment because, above all else, they are a fascinating case for how open sharing can generate buzz and a paying fanbase, turning a band that the mainstream music industry had little use for into one of the most widely recognized, influential and highest grossing music acts to ever grace a stage anywhere.

The Dead released 22 total studio and contemporary live albums during their 30 years. By contemporary, I mean live albums released as they went along in their various incarnations at the time. They’ve since released over a hundred live recordings from their archives, but the 22 albums I’ve sited are the only ones fitting the standard music industry album release pattern. Of those, only one ever reached the top ten on the charts, that being the 1987 album In The Dark, which peaked at number seven. Only three others even hit the top twenty. As for singles, the Dead had a grand total of one Top 40 hit, Touch of Grey, from In the Dark, which peaked at number nine. Not exactly the kind of success you’d expect to see from a band that ended its run as one of the highest earning bands ever. And unlike the current top grossing bands who charge absurdly high ticket prices, the Dead’s concert tickets were always affordable. I still have my stub from the very last show they ever played at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1995. I had field seats, row 30 from the stage that day, generally pretty fantastic seats. The price printed on the ticket was $33.50. Today, those kind of seats for a major rock band would easily be ten times that, maybe even more.

So if mainstream commercial success was virtually non-existent, how were the Dead able to build the empire they did? They built a large, enthusiastic community of followers unmatched in music history. Name one other band that had a following of tens of thousands of fans who would tour the country with them. Every show. Every tour. Every year. A Grateful Dead show produced a literal village at every venue they stopped at. Bands like the Dead-inspired Phish from Vermont, managed to replicate some semblance of that, but no one has ever fully embraced the notion of community like Jerry Garcia and the boys. It was those bootleg tapes I referred to earlier that were instrumental in building that community. They ended up with a large group of fans who were virtual archivists. I, myself, have over 500 Dead concerts on tape spanning the late ’60s right up to their final show. Honestly, that collection is one of my prized possessions. I’ve since digitized many of them, and I very rarely listen directly to the tapes themselves anymore, but I still can’t bring myself to part with them, and I’m pretty sure I never will. At least not willingly.

Dead fans were a unique group, most possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the band and its music. All of that stemmed from the enormous community they cultivated. And that community, in turn, grew out of the free and open sharing of their material. The Dead became immortalized not by selling records, not by an association with a giant record company, and not by any massive marketing effort. They did it by cultivating a community of fans based very much on the concept of sharing.

While it’s very true that times were different then, and that there are some very real issues with downloading that need to be addressed, I’ve always believed that their approach held many lessons that directly apply to today’s artists, musicians and writers. For instance, the Dead would allow the free distribution of concert bootlegs under one condition–no one tried to make money from them. I saw nearly twenty Dead shows in my time. Only twice did I ever see anyone trying to sell tapes in the parking lot. In both instances, the seller was essentially shamed into shutting down by the fans themselves. The band built such a strong community that they didn’t even have to police the distribution of those tapes, the community did it for them. How many of today’s artists have that kind of mutually beneficial relationship with their fans? I can’t think of one.

Sharing isn’t piracy, and it doesn’t have to be destructive. The Grateful Dead have proved that. Completely outside of the recording industry machine, they built a stunningly successful commercial entity. They did it by building a community with their fans, encouraging the free and open non-commercial sharing of their work, keeping the prices for their material affordable and by retaining all the rights to their recording masters and publishing rights. Seems to me like there’s a lesson or two in there that might apply these days, don’t you think?

Self Publishing and Market Disruption

Yesterday morning in my Twitter feed, I ran across this piece by self-published author Catherine Howard.  In it, she asks the hypothetical question “do ebooks sell simply because they’re cheap?”  I say hypothetical because low price is certainly a factor but not the only one.

Price point is something I, as a self published author, have considered quite a bit.  I have reached the same conclusion Howard has.  My books are cheap enough that people can be enticed to give them a shot for the cost of a cup of coffee.  If they don’t like it, they don’t really lose anything.  If my price was $12 or $15 and the buyer thinks the book sucks, they’re far more likely to feel ripped off.  My thinking on this is keep the cost low enough to encourage exploratory reading by buyers with as little downside to them as possible.

Plus, my expenses in producing a book are basically limited to my time and little else.  Howard makes a good point that traditional publishers cost structure, even for inexpensive to produce ebooks, are infinitely higher.  They’re not simply making a profit on the book in a vacuum, they’re supporting an entire corporate infrastructure.  Where $2.99 works great for me, and Howard as well, apparently, a large traditional publisher with many mouths to feed has to set a price point much higher, sometimes five times higher.

This echoes some of my recent sentiments on the state of large publishers.  What we’ve seen across the spectrum of information and entertainment, be it books, news, music and even movies and television shows, is a democratization of opportunity.  Large prohibitive production expenses in the past have effectively limited competition to a relative few players, creating a manufactured scarcity that drove higher prices.  Add to that the controls over distribution and marketing, largely supported by previously high costs for both, and you can see the forces pushing higher consumer pricing.

All these costs, that were once significant barriers for entry, are no longer any such thing.  Howard mentions easily covering her expenses for copy editing, proof reading and cover design in her piece.  But for someone like me, with a background as an editor and publisher with production and design skills, I don’t even have those modest costs.  Therefore, I can produce and sell an ebook for $2.99 very comfortably and profitably.  A traditional publisher, however, cannot.  They need much higher prices to support their infrastructures.

This is a very real problem for them as it’s a trend that isn’t going to turn.  If anything, as print book sales decline in the coming years, as they no doubt will, traditional publishers are in serious jeopardy of suffocating under their own weight.  The need for publishers to adapt is paramount.  They simply must alter their business models in such a way as to bring down prices, not drive them higher.

I watched first hand as the print news and periodical business failed to adapt to the changing reality, and that segment of the industry is in virtual ruins, having lost at least half of their once ample business in less than half a decade.  The music industry followed much the same course, sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling “Nah, Nah, Nah” as their cost-heavy infrastructures quickly became an anchor around their neck. 

Instead of adapting, the music industry tried the litigation route, trying to stifle technological innovation as well as threatening and suing their own customers.  The news business tried to slap the same content in the paper online thinking they could simply sell ads against it just like they’ve always done to great success in print.  Neither tack worked as both businesses have suffered massive financial losses as well as a steep drop in relevance.

The book publishing industry is only now entering the period of its disruption. The ebook boom has barely even gotten off the ground.  Publishers would be wise to heed the lessons taught by the music and news business.  Don’t be fooled by the fact that you’re legacy business still sports large libraries of maketable material and controls the vast majority of the most popular writers.  That is little more than carryover from your dominant positions of yesterday.

Competition has and will continue to explode.  You’ve almost completely lost control of your once dominant distribution channels.  The created scarcity you benefitted so much from simply doesn’t exist any longer.  The cost structure for the new leaner, more efficient competitors you’ll face transforms your vast infrastructure from a strength to a weakness.  And, as more and more writers see the potential upside of publishing themselves, you’ll undoubtedly lose ground on your stable of popular writers.

Adapt and do it now.  Certainly, there is still money to be made in your traditional ways at this moment, but unless you want to find yourself in five years sitting back nearly helpless and behind the curve while your business continues to dwindle, changes must be made.  Of course, if publishers fail to do so, they’ll have lots of company.  Music companies, news companies, and soon, film companies who are following in the failed footsteps of their music brethren, will be there with you to share stories about the good old days.

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 11:15 am  Comments (2)  
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