A lot has already been said and written about Wired editor, Chris Anderson’s new book, Free. In particular Malcolm Gladwell reviewed it for The New Yorker in a not completely complementary fashion. This in turn has been refuted elsewhere.
Books like Free aren’t the most demanding of fare. Essentially it’s 250 pages devoted to a single idea, illustrated by lots of examples. Sometimes the examples are a little underwhelming. Both Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Prince’s Planet Earth examples are analysed: Radiohead’s pay what you like, and Prince’s deal with the Mail on Sunday. But both are major artists who are already famous and popular. Both deals worked for them (although it cost the Mail on Sunday money, and hasn’t been fully repeated since), but there’s no real proof that they’d work for “average” artists.
But there are still some lessons to be learnt – if not as many as you’d perhaps like.
Sitting behind all this is the newspaper industry – or perhaps that should be “journalism” industry. Rupert Murdoch has recently indicated that he hates the free model, and wants to start putting paywalls up around his journalism (we’ll leave to one side, alleged voicemail hacking shall we). So there are rumours that perhaps The Sunday Times might go pay only. And across the pond, The New York Times is said to be having high level discussions about whether or not to put back a paywall. Anderson’s book includes a quote from the Times’ Andrew Rosenthal about his dislike of giving away journalism free. It has to be paid for.
While Anderson has some great answers for many of the hurdles put in place, it’s clear that unless the free model can pay for journalism, then even more newspapers are going to go out of business. Anderson pretty much acknowledges that a full free platform has not been found. Probably because of the sheer number of pages out there, internet revenues are not high – and the lack of scarcity means that costs are driven in one direction. And it’s not up.
Newspapers are just one area of this of course. Free does work in many places, and Anderson highlights some excellent ones. Building something on a global scale, and perhaps delivering bits rather than something physical, makes finding that model easier than ever.
But it’s disingenuous to think that free works across the board. In a coda to the book, Anderson admits that himself.
So overall, this is a worthwhile read – even if a few too many of the examples are a little well known – but free is only part of the solution. And in some cases, it’s hard to see that it’s a solution at all.