Chris Anderson, the Editor of Wired Magazine, who has made a mint stating the obvious (The Long Tail), has a new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, which will cost you $27 bucks to absorb his faux-wisdom. Fortunately, you can save yourself some money and time by reading Malcolm Gladwell’s biting review in The New Yorker.
“Free” is essentially an extended elaboration of Stewart Brand’s famous declaration that “information wants to be free.” The digital age, Anderson argues, is exerting an inexorable downward pressure on the prices of all things “made of ideas.” Anderson does not consider this a passing trend. Rather, he seems to think of it as an iron law: “In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.” To musicians who believe that their music is being pirated, Anderson is blunt. They should stop complaining, and capitalize on the added exposure that piracy provides by making money through touring, merchandise sales, and “yes, the sale of some of [their] music to people who still want CDs or prefer to buy their music online.”
As I have said before, I know a great many musicians in their 60’s and 70’s with a lifetime of recorded music that is being devalued by Anderson’s ethos and attitude. While he’s out giving $30,000 lectures on “Free” , they are facing bankruptcy because of health costs. It is little comfort that this smart-ass tells them to go out and tour. Obviously we have been trying to counter this nonsense on this blog for a while, but Gladwell has a great platform to debunk Anderson’s hypocritical claims (he sells his books and doesn’t give away Wired Magazine).
It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for “non-monetary rewards.” Does he mean that the New York Timesshould be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels? Anderson’s reference to people who “prefer to buy their music online” carries the faint suggestion that refraining from theft should be considered a mere preference. And then there is his insistence that the relentless downward pressure on prices represents an iron law of the digital economy. Why is it a law? Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power. “Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?
The “Free Economy” has certainly benefited Google and a few other powerful corporations. I’d be hard put to find a single artist it has helped. Maybe Anderson should donate all his book royalties to The Blues Foundation.