The Internet was supposed to move us into the “information economy” – but information is worth less than ever. Record labels can’t sell music, newspapers can’t sell ads, and the television, movie, and book businesses are starting to have similar problems.
In Free Ride, Robert Levine, business journalist and former Executive Editor of Billboard, details how Congress helped create this situation, how tech companies convinced politicians not to regulate the online world, and how the media business can save itself (in spite of itself).
Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back
Piracy? It’s only part of the problem. While piracy obviously has an economic cost in addition to its cultural consequences, the real problem is that an Internet without restrictions is an Internet without a functioning market. Some technology pundits see this as progress – but many of them have made valuable businesses out of information and entertainment funded by the media companies that have been devastated by their actions. In the long term, this can’t last: Google won’t be nearly as useful without newspaper journalism, and Spotify won’t work without major label music.
Levine presents some revolutionarily new, yet simple ideas that could reverse the current situation — demonstrating how European Internet regulations present some hope for the media business, especially since countries like France and Germany aren’t afraid to regulate Google. But, ultimately, the solution is both as simple and as complicated as the fact that we can’t have an online economy without some kind of property rights – and some way to enforce them.
Free markets and free information: an anatomy of an unsustainable economy
The Internet promised an “information economy,” but information is worth less than ever. While the companies that move information are thriving, those that actually create it – movie studios, record labels, newspaper companies – are struggling. Over the long term, this can’t last: Google won’t be nearly as valuable if there isn’t as much professional content to search for. Levine’s thesis is a simple but powerful one: We can’t have an working online economy without a market, we can’t have a market without property rights, and we can’t have property rights without some means of enforcing them. This isn’t just about protecting a few media businesses – it’s ultimately about preserving the value of the work that the prosperity of advanced economies depends on.
At what price success?
In 2010, when record companies raised the prices of the most popular songs on iTunes, most bloggers thought it would be a disaster, and sales declined more than 10 percent. But since the most popular songs were selling for about 30 percent more money, record companies made more revenue – and more profit. Although the digital world seems to demand lower prices, in order to hold back piracy, most of the evidence shows that this isn’t a good strategy. Instead, media companies need to adopt more flexible pricing and introduce different products aimed at different consumers – much as airlines do. Levine offers practical advice on how to maintain pricing power in the digital age.
Regulation in an age of free information (and free access)
Technology executives often say that the Internet can’t be regulated, that the spread of open communications technologies is inevitable. But that’s not exactly true: While technological advances are inevitable, the ways we use them are up to us – specifically, network designers and the governments that mandate what they can do. In the case of the Internet, we have an open system with no enforceable rules. Ultimately, that’s not nearly as good for users as it is for technology companies – which are running rampant over copyright, but also privacy, antitrust, and consumer protection laws. Levine takes audiences through the history of network regulation, and, more importantly, lays down a blueprint for what its future should look like.
Robert Levine has been covering pop culture, technology, and the awkward dance between them for 15 years. Most recently, he was the executive editor of Billboard, charged with running the influential music business trade magazine. He has also been a features editor at New York magazine and Wired. His first job was at HotWired.com, the Wired Web publication, where he was hired several months after it sold the first online banner ad.
His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Fortune, Rolling Stone, and the arts and business sections of the New York Times. He has offered commentary on the media business for CNN, CNBC, and VH-1, and spoken at the CMJ music conference and the World Copyright Summit in Brussels. He holds a B.A. in politics from Brandeis and an M.S.J. from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
His first book, Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back (Doubleday), was called “brilliant if depressing” by the Times (U.K.) and garnered praise from the Guardian and the Financial Times. He now covers the culture business from New York and Berlin.