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The squeezed midlist

Updated Thursday, 24th March 2011

Andrew Keen worries that while blockbusters and cottage publishers will be unharmed by the march to digital, interesting stuff in the middle might struggle to make itself pay.

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Gareth Mitchell: Hello. I’m Gareth Mitchell, Presenter of Digital Planet and this is a special extended interview from the South by South West Interactive Festival in Texas.

Andrew Keen: The central point I’m coming to South by South West to make is that we still haven’t figured out how to get people to pay on the internet for good quality content. So there’s still very little evidence that the talented filmmaker or musician or writer is going to be able to make a living by selling their content on the internet.

Gareth Mitchell: What are the solutions to that as you see them?

Andrew Keen: Well I think there are two problems. The first is piracy, so we’ve got to figure out how to stop people stealing stuff, and the second is how to get online consumers who are willing to pay for content to do it in a way that will enable people to live off their work, because at the moment the pricing on the internet still tends to be very low, so consumers are being remarkably spoilt. They want more, you know, consumers are insatiable, they can never get enough and we have to discipline them.

Gareth Mitchell: How are you going to calm my insatiable appetite then Andrew?

Andrew Keen: How am I going to calm your insatiable appetite? I’m going to pour water on you, cold water. I’m going to remind you that when it comes to online consumption and if you like good movies, if you like high quality writing and music that firstly of course you can’t steal it, because you’re really stealing from the artist, and secondly just as when you get a good meal or you’re happy to pay for it or a nice car or a nice house we’re always happy to pay for it, we’ve got to figure out a way to convince most consumers that they’re happy to pay a decent for online content, because otherwise it’s just going to go away.

Gareth Mitchell: But I suppose the genie’s out of the bottle now, the consumer is insatiable, is used to just getting stuff for free. I guess it’s about changing the mindset and I suppose it’s all very well to say that, but how does that come about then? Do we just have to keep banging the table until they do?

Andrew Keen: Well I don’t think banging the table helps. I think we’ve found that when you bang the table people don’t take you very seriously. I’m not sure what the solution is. I think we may have to get in a much worse situation before we come to a solution, because I still think at the moment people are not really willing to confront the realities of the lack of feasibility of this economy that it doesn’t work, the numbers don’t add up, but they do add up, but they’re not big enough.

Gareth Mitchell: But we hear many people and creators of content saying it actually suits them very well if people help themselves to it if they don’t pay for it, because it’s a way of spreading that content around, it reaches a wider and wider audience, and once that audience has been built there are other ways of leveraging that, to turn that into much needed cash to pay the bills.

Andrew Keen: Well what you’re putting forward is the idea of content as the giveaway, and if that’s what you want content to degenerate into then I think we’re all in trouble, because content shouldn’t be the free thing that you give away and the thing you give at the bottom of the cereal box, it should be the cereal.

Gareth Mitchell: Is there a way that the content can become the cereal? Maybe you give a little bit of the cereal away, you know, so not the kind of giving it away model, but the giving away a little bit of a free sample, maybe if you’re writer you give away the first chapter for free and then people want to come back and pay for the rest of the book that kind of model.

Andrew Keen: Well, those are marketing strategies I don’t have any problem with that, but I still think that we’re avoiding the painful question that hasn’t gone away and never’s been resolved over the last twenty years which is how to support a viable content business in the digital era. There’s no evidence that it’s been solved. The newspaper, The Times experiment doesn’t seem to be working very well. So at a certain point we will get a reality check, at a certain point like in the banking crisis these things get resolved. We used to talk about how the house prices in America would go up and up and up and up and after a while people started to believe it and then the thing crashed. And the same is true with the content economy that at a certain point there will be a reality check, you won’t have any more movies at a certain point, there won’t be any more high quality books or music unless people start paying for it, unless we confront the issue particularly of piracy, which is still as they said the big gorilla in the room that no-one’s really willing to talk about.

Gareth Mitchell: As for creativity in a wider sense and maybe a perception amongst some that it isn’t as good as it used to be, quality isn’t as high, is part of the problem that content creators have to spend so much time trying to sell their work, they’re not middlemen to help them do it anymore, that they’re putting so much time into that sales process that that’s denting into their creative time and we’re getting I suppose lower quality output as a result.

Andrew Keen: I would agree with that. I think one of the problems with doing away with the middleman is that one of the critical aspects of selling talent and building talent and developing talent is the marketing arm. That’s what the old media companies used to do really well. When the media companies go away then the artist is responsible for self-promotion and unfortunately it’s a very important piece of the business, so the artists who tend to be successful are the ones who are best at self-promoting and very often the artists whose work is of a high quality, but are uncomfortable self-promoting or don’t understand it are the ones who are unknown. So I’m not against the internet, but I am against the idea that the internet solves the age old problem of injustice when it comes to talent. If anything I think it creates new worse kinds of injustice than the old mass media oligarchy used to do.

Gareth Mitchell: And if we’re finding a space where you still have some very high quality content, but the vast majority of it is yeah maybe lower quality, let’s use the word mediocre. Some would say well does that matter? I mean after all with football people get a lot of out the premiership football, but at the same time, you know, the lower leagues, Sunday leagues as we call them in the UK, they can be just as enjoyable for many.

Andrew Keen: You say that people can have the premier league soccer, football and the lower leagues, which is true, but in the lower leagues you don’t pay. And I just went to a game at Spurs on Wednesday night, the Milan game and I paid £80 for a ticket. Now I was willing to do that, because firstly it was a massive game and secondly the quality of the players on display were so high that I’m willing to do that. I’m not willing to pay to watch park football. That doesn’t mean I won’t watch park football, it doesn’t mean that park football isn’t in its own way as legitimate and interesting and credible as professional football, but again it comes down to monetisation. Those players at Spurs wouldn’t be willing to pay for free. They have to be supported, they’re professional footballers. The guys in the park aren’t and they enjoy running out on a Sunday afternoon and having some fun. I’ve got nothing against that, just as I have nothing against people expressing themselves on the internet, putting their photos and their videos and their music, that’s fine. But if we want to maintain and support a professional class of artists whose work is thought of very different from the typical person who puts up a Facebook page or puts out a tweet then we have to again convince people to pay for the stuff.

Gareth Mitchell: And maybe in some sense we end up with the best of both worlds, because there always will be the top talent whether it’s in sport or art or what have you and then you have just standard Joes like me who might dabble around with a bit of photography, I put that up and maybe I appreciate professional photography, because I can now participate in photography or painting whatever it is myself very easily and share that. So in other words you appreciate it more when you’re creating it yourself and then you really appreciate what the true talented professionals are doing.

Andrew Keen: I think that we are losing is the middlest; there are always going to be stars and if anything the digital economy creates bigger more immediate and more familiar stars, global stars, they’re not going away, and I think that side of the business isn’t going away. There’s always going to be huge hits coming out of Hollywood, there are always going to be bestselling books, there are always going to be bands who are famous, there’s always going to be a Lady Gaga of one kind or another and you’re right there’s this massive self-expression, which exists below that, Facebook and Twitters and the bloggers fit, but what’s being lost is everything in between, what’s called the middlest is going away, it’s not viable anymore, publishers aren’t signing up writers, record labels are not supporting that kind of artist. In the film business, the middlest is going away, the Tarantinos and the Sofia Coppolas who got their start creating movies in the $10-15 million range are finding it harder and harder to raise money and their business model isn’t viable anymore because of piracy. So I do fear the disappearance of the middlest both as a place for people to express their talent, who may not become major global stars, but also as the first step in terms of the development of a mature artist. You’ve always got to start somewhere, not everyone starts as stars.

In an extended interview recorded at SXSWi 2011, Andrew Keen tells Gareth Mitchell that "consumers are insatiable - and we must discipline them". He worries that in an era where unlimited replication of digital products is possible, a lot of interesting, mid-market ideas will struggle to find an economic model to make themselves pay.

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