Is the Age of Free Content Over?


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She poked a finger at me through the haze of cigarette smoke, looking me dead in the eye:

Information should be free,” she said firmly.

It was 2012, and while I wish we were having a prescient discussion about the ultimate fate of free content in the marketing world over the boom of deep house coming from inside that Brooklyn club, we were actually debating… the merits of music piracy.

As I was finally making “grown up money” (read: $30k/year), I’d long abandoned my days of risking my half-broken Acer PC by downloading illegal torrents of albums and movies from The Pirate Bay, instead choosing to purchase music directly through iTunes.

Robin Hood: Technically a Pirate

The media-hoarding youths of that particular age – of which I was certainly one – were divided into two camps:

The first decided that with all the work that goes into creating music, artists deserve to be paid (even if most of every dollar went to labels).

The second took a more Robin Hood approach — that pirating music, movies, and TV shows was our way of sticking it to the man and keeping greedy corporations from profiting off our enjoyment.

Philosophically I agreed with my friend because… I wanted to.

But then, how do Creators get paid?

In an ideal world, art and pleasurable/informative creations of any kind should be free for everyone to enjoy.

And yet, I told her, there was a human on the other end of all of it. A human who poured blood, sweat, and tears into bringing those ideas to life. A human who deserved to get paid.

And so I replied: “Then what happens to the creator? How do they make money?”

She had a quick-fire list of answers that, as I continued to grow and learn about business, I’d realize had some truth to them, but not enough to be totally right: artists should make money off live shows and merch and streaming services, they should ditch the labels and sell to fans directly because social media gives them that power, etc. etc.

The Tightrope of Content Creation Vs. Getting Paid

It’s a conversation I think about again and again in my mind as I talk to students and clients and colleagues about the role content plays in their business models.

Because to this day, all of us as business owners striving to be ~~thought leaders~~ are required to play by rules that honor both sides of that argument:

First, we must give away content for free. Lots of content (hard). Good content people will value (harder). And use that content to build trust (hardest).

Second, we must build enough trust that some consumers of that content actually want to pay us for what we do.

Third, we must sell to those customers things that they want based on what they know about our content, without making them feel super sold-to.

Sh! Don’t Spook the Customer!

That’s the unwritten maker’s law: unless we’re very lucky or very rich, we have to give, give, and give before we even consider monetizing content or asking our audience for anything – because if we ask too fast?

We’re out of step with the dance. We’re rushing to the chapter of the story they’re not ready for yet. Wow, we just want their money, huh?

That’s the tightrope we all walk.

But what about people who don’t have anything to sell beyond their art? What about creators who just… create? Who make podcasts, or run extremely silly Youtube marketing talk shows?

Cue Mad Men

The solve for that particular problem is currently, of course, paid advertising.

Advertisers hand over the cash to reach our audiences, who in turn get that (expensive to create) content for free. While this puts a limit on the kind of things we can discuss — “We don’t wanna piss off advertisers,” is a common quip in writer’s rooms — right now it’s largely considered a necessary evil.

And yet, we’re growing more and more culturally averse to that as consumers too. “Ugh, so many ads.”

One way creative industries have tried to combat this demand for quality “no ads” content is through subscription and streaming services – but model’s rife with flaws too, putting even giants like Netflix $8.3 billion dollars in debt, and forcing platforms like Spotify to struggle to make streaming money worthwhile for artists as they wage their own war to become profitable.

Are Patrons a Better Way to Go?

But what if… this tornado of expectations and aversions could open up to blue sky? What if the rules as we understand them could finally be broken?

That’s what Tim Ferriss decided to attempt with what he called a “fan supported podcast experiment”, in which he decided to test out forgoing selling ads to fund his podcast, and instead turned to… his audience to essentially become patrons of the ‘cast.

And, as you can imagine, soon as Margo and I heard that, our ears perked up.

We also see this model working fairly well right now for Instagram artists and Youtubers via the platform Patreon, which gives fans of every manner of creative a chance to support their faves monetarily.

Creators like Sam Harris and Amanda Palmer (known for her famous TED Talk the Art of the Ask) are also crushing this model in their own ways.

How We See the Future of Content

So we wanted to ask the question on everyone’s mind: Could this be the future of content?

Will certain creators be able to design fan-supported patron models that can effectively replace advertising, and give them their freedom back… while keeping content free for non-patrons?

And if so, who will it happen for first? What requirements are there? How viable is the model long term and short term?

We ask ourselves all these questions and more on the latest episode of #HAMYAW.

Catch today’s episode, “Will People Pay for Content?” to find out:

0:43 When Your Readers Become Your Patrons

1:58 What Listener Support Allows You To Do As a Creator (Vs Ads)

3:57 Is User Supported Content A Feasible Model?

5:30 The Most Important Thing You Need For This Model To Work

8:51 At What Point Will People Be Like, “Your Work Is Worth My Money”?

12:38 Hill Makes a Real Good Point About The Limitations of Asking Your Audience For $$$

14:40 Hold Up, Are We Making The Fake News Problem WORSE?

Over to You, Dear Readers

As always, we want to know what YOU think.

Is this the future?

Or are we so deep in the “people demand content, but don’t value free content either” swamp that we’ll never find our way out?

As for Tim Ferriss’ little experiment… it, um, failed shortly after we filmed this episode.

But the good news is: I don’t believe that’s the end of the story for the rest of us.

Do you?

Write on,

H

Episode Transcript

Okay. For real. (laughs) 

Welcome back guys and Margo Aaron’s giant zit for another episode. (both laughing) But I won’t say that. 

(upbeat music)  

Welcome back guys for another episode of HAMYAW, and today Margo and I actually want to talk about a kind of exciting trend that’s happening in the industry, this idea and pivoting of focus to having actually your audience become not just your customers, but your patrons. And I think a lot of you are probably familiar with this sort of idea already.

A really popular platform for this for supporting artists, cartoonists, YouTubers all manner of kind of creatives is this platform Patreon. Where you can essentially donate for perks, like personal interactions or exclusive art and all that stuff.

But often I find I just love donating to Patreons because I just want to support the artist. And they can have my 15 or $30 every month. But there are some really interesting developments on this going on in our world, and I will actually turn the microphone over to Margo here because she has some interesting insights for you guys that I found fascinating and I think you will too. Margo?  

Thank you, thank you. Let’s lower the bar there for me. (both laughing) 

No so, this is a trend we’ve been seeing now for some time. A couple years ago I wrote an observer piece on how Sam Harris made an announcement to his fan base. He had started a podcast and he decided he wanted to move away from ads, because he didn’t believe in the ad model, and made an eight minute long, no joke, call to action.

I broke it down, it’s beautiful. About why he was moving away from the ad model and why he was looking for listener support, and what the benefits of that were. And the pros and cons of it, and what it allowed him to do as a creator. Like not being held back by ethical and moral issues about what you can and can’t cover because you don’t want to piss off advertisers. Not having misaligned incentives. 

So for people who don’t know, like if you’re seeing content or reading content, or consuming content in what you think is for free, it’s not actually free. It’s being supported by advertisers. And so the businesses are incentivized to get you to click more or view more, which is where we get clickbait.

So it’s all the business model. If I can tell Pepsi that takes out ads on my site that their ad is gonna be seen by 10 million people instead of one million people, I have to figure out a way for it to be 10 million people. 

And the way you do that is sensationalism and clickbait and lying and all of the things that we hate about advertising. And so, what you’re starting to see is user-supported content come up. Where you’re seeing either content gates, where you can’t see more unless you subscribe.

Or you’re seeing something like what Sam Harris was doing. And the reason we’re bringing it up today is Tim Ferriss just announced that he is going to do a six month trial of taking ads off of his podcast. He has won, I think it’s the top three podcast in his category. Don’t quote me on that, maybe top five but like it’s big.  

Quote her on that.  

Like people love him. And so it’s a really, really big deal because he is making a lot of money on ads. I know he has said on the record, I think how much it costs to get on there. I don’t remember, I should have done my research. But it’s something like a $100,000 buy-in.

So it’s a lot of money, right? It’s a lot of money. So the fact that he is turning this around to say users, support us so I can keep this free, is a really, really big deal for what it means for the future of content. And so a part of what I want to talk about today is, is this a feasible model?

Like is this something that we can do? ‘Cause I know, like, I feel the same way as you do. That we should support creators, that we should not be reliant on the ad model, and I can’t even bring myself to pay $3 for something ’cause I’m like, no, I should be getting that for free, like it’s visceral and it’s so stupid and it doesn’t make sense. But still I have been trained to not do it.  

And this is so interesting ’cause I remember we actually had this argument, I think I was 20 or 21, and I was talking to a friend of mine about this. She’s like very much an idealist around the internet and that basically her insistence was like, I remember hearing her say emphatically like “information should be free”.

And I think that is an understandable sentiment, but at the same time it doesn’t account for the hours of labor, the team needed behind to make these kind of engines run. Like the amount of effort on behalf of the creators. All this stuff. So I think this sort of patron model is really interesting and may be the next wave. 

But what is also interesting is that right now it’s not a method, I don’t think, that’s accessible immediately to the average Joe to the internet world. This is in a sense figuring out how to monetize celebrity outside of the confines of like getting paid to be on a cover, are people paid to be on covers?

I actually have no idea.

But basically are we getting paid for appearances and all that stuff. But I do think it’s interesting because also we are in an interesting impasse where we expect free information and yet don’t necessarily value free information.

Like think of all the free information floating into our inboxes every single day. And I think it’s gonna be a slow shift, but I do think that it’s going to happen in that people return to the subscription model in the same way people still subscribe to magazines.

Because we value that content more, it’s an experience to go through it and most importantly we want to support the people behind it. 

And I think that is the piece that differentiates this from any subscription or membership model previously, is that we in the age of personal branding, feel a really close relationship to creators. So it’s not only the desire for information, but the loyalty to the artist and creator.

That I think is going to inspire people to take up this patron model, but I think it’s gonna be a slow shift, ’cause again, we have been trained to expect information for free.

Like if there is an article and the sites like, excuse me would you please turn ad blocker off, so that you can read? And I’m like fuck you no, and I just leave go find a mirror of it, and I think that is as you say like the great untraining…

And I’m not a hundred percent sure what has to happen except time in order to help people see that, pay $3 a month to get stuff that you really want or pay like a dollar here, $5 there, $10 there, is actually a better way to get the info you want, than having to sift through a mile of pounds and pounds of free content matter.  

Totally. And that’s why I think it’s a really big deal that these big names are finally doing it and putting it in the mainstream.

I do think it’s a question of positioning though, because I don’t actually think that we’re gonna evolve to a place, I wish we would, but I think it’s too ingrained in the TV industrial complex that we expect to get our media for free.

We don’t see the cost of free, we don’t see what we are actually paying for in terms of time, attention, mental health, quality of life, misinformation. We are not seeing the costs. But I do think that, for example, why I say it’s a positioning thing. 

Think about Netflix, so everyone said like TV is never gonna away and in fairness it hasn’t. But if Netflix had come out and said we’re gonna put all of our stuff out there for free, but you have to user support us, it probably wouldn’t work.

But the way they went about it is we have exclusive content that all your friends are also watching and you’re gonna want. And so you want to pay monthly for access to this and drop out of watching TV. That has been the consequence of that.

Seeing it happen with television, ’cause now most people, not most people, in our circles are like Roku people or Apple TV people, like they don’t have traditional TV anymore. And so you’ve seen that sort of disappear. We have Hulu, you have Amazon Prime, you have Netflix, you’re seeing new crops that come up that are membership based. 

But I do think where it gets interesting, is there’s two different things happening here. One is gated content. So that’s where you’re seeing a membership model where it’s like you don’t have access to it unless you’re a member.

And then the other one is, patron. So we’re all as a collective gonna support you creating and keeping this for the masses. And that’s the one that I think keeps “information is for everyone”.

So like if anyone actually believes that information is for everyone, then you need to put skin in the game. Like keep it free, like it’s not free to produce. It’s like what Amanda Palmer was doing, if you guys haven’t seen her TED Talk, The Art of the Ask, I think that’s what it’s called.  

Yeah of course, I think that’s it.  

It’s like one of the main top ones. But she has built this music empire by not being in a traditional label because she had so many fans, that they have supported her music creation. Then everybody can get the songs.

But here’s a question I’m interested in for our audience is, at what inflection point in audience creation does it make sense to start relying on these models? Because it doesn’t make sense to me that you can be a creator, let’s say you’re a cartoonist, and you’re like I want to create cartoons, support me.

If you don’t have an audience, people don’t know what you are, who you stand for. What’s the right point to start doing this? Do you have to create the audience first? Do you have to create for free for a really long time? What does this look like?  

I mean right now, yeah. I think that’s just the truth of it, and I think if we were to put out a HAMYAW Patreon now, like I think maybe we’d have like three supporters, and there would be like our moms and like maybe Paul Dreyfus. Which would be awesome, we love you Paul.

But I think it’s about, I think the bar to where people say your work is worth my money in terms of content is incredibly high. Because we’re so used to so much of it and because content marketing is a key sort of phase of the online promotional space, building your platform and all that.

That’s also one of those instances where it’s like, if you’re not showing up for me, why should I show up for you? But I do think the bar, hopefully like as this model kind of continues to gain popularity, I’m wondering if the bar is gonna get lower and lower. 

Or people feel like they could take a gamble of five bucks a month on somebody versus saying you have finally earned my $5 a month. But I think there is gonna be a long stretch of time, and a long stretch of normalizing being the engine of financial and support of favorite content in order for that to be possible.

That sort of space there is just like, it’s the difference between going from being like a super popular YouTuber with a Patreon versus somebody with like a 1,000 people on your email list who starts a Patreon, tries to do that paid model.

The trust just isn’t there and you have to build it up.  And as annoying as it is, yeah, that’s about continuing to create and create for free until you are able to kind of invite people to, not just pay you in that way, but be excited to do so, build that community. Not just the content.  

Is this where the Kevin Kelly 1,000 comes in, where like maybe that’s the magic number? But you really need to get to that 1,000 true fans, and like that’s when you start it? And like you don’t talk about monetization and you don’t even ask about it, until you get there?

‘Cause then I think also how you make the ask really matters. I think it’s not like, pay me so I can make more content. I think you have to position it, like what was so powerful about the way Sam Harris did it and why I spend so much time on this is, it was a rally cry to his tribe.

It wasn’t like, pay me so I can keep doing this, it was like, do you believe in the future of media? Do you care about having civil dialogue? Do you care about having conversations and conflict in a place that’s safe?

If that’s something that you care about and you enjoy long form content that’s two hours frickin’ long, then like let’s do this together. Let’s build it. That’s a rally cry. Like that’s not just a, “hey I’d like to keep making podcasts”. You know, like it’s a different kind of ask and it’s a really important one.  

Yeah a hundred percent.  

You’re building a movement.  

Yeah, and that’s something that people wanna buy into and also I think this is a differentiation, I don’t know if it’s necessary to point this out. But I think, also, these earning potentials, like this approach, is not necessarily anybody’s sole source of income. And that’s the other thing, like you can’t build a business around it maybe right now unless you’re feeling super daring.

But what’s been interesting also, I think it’s been valuable for someone like us, so for example I am a Patreon of the YouTuber Contrapoints. And I pay like $15 a month whatever, she’s amazing, and she actually makes really great money from that. I think in between like, she has like 8,000 supporters or something like that, which is thousands and thousands of dollars, but it goes into creating her videos and all that. 

And she’s able to create a life there, but I don’t think she set out to do that. She has also been making videos for years. So I think that, where we don’t want to tell people to do, is that like, oh there’s this exciting new model that you can kind of hang your hat on. Right now it can only be supplemental in many ways, unless you’re extremely fortunate. 

And extremely popular. 

But I do think it is something that entrepreneurs should be paying attention to and something you should be thinking about.

Not only as you continue to put out your free content and build your platform, but to envision and start creating the kind of community that you want. That would want to support you, and creating the experiences that are gonna make people want to be a part of your world and as part of an engine backing you.  

Yes, I think that’s such a good point, because you do want to brag about the things you support. You know like, you want to say, like oh yeah I’m a part of that.

Which is very different from, oh I paid for something. Like I was thinking about that with Wait But Why. 

They have a really great, I don’t know if they’re still on Patreon, but like there was pressure for transparency and I think it’s really hard to profit off of that when everyone is judging how you’re spending your cash, you get kind of into the non-profit problem.

Because like, you do need profit ’cause you want to eat and live and like have a life and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but when you’re asking people to support your art, then they want it to go exclusively to their art and to them.

So I think it’s a slippery slope there, and that the offering needs to be less about my production costs and more about being part of the tribe or thing that builds this and even some exclusive content. I know people are doing AMA’s or 

A lot of live streams. A lot of exclusive, like I also support Sarah Scribbles, who’s a cartoonist, and she, there’s exclusive wallpapers every month. But it’s like small things and also I think what’s interesting is the people, like the perks are there, but I don’t know if many people become patrons for the perks?

You become patrons ’cause you want to support the individual. And I think that’s what’s a really interesting differentiator because we’ve been taught that we have to dangle this carrot in front of people’s faces.

But in this model, I mean this reality where people know how much work content takes because we are all in some ways content creators now. I think it’s an interesting sort of shift, that I think can have actually widespread social implications as well.  

I totally agree.  

Taking causes out of government subsidy’s hands and learning how to fund them, you know?  

Yeah and I also think on the flip side, I worry about this, that will it cause further segmentation? So we only subscribe to the thing that we agree with, and want to hear more from, and so the stratification that we’re seeing in the media anyway, are we gonna be creating it on our own now and self-funding it?  

Whoa. Dun dun dun. Well that’s something to be mindful of, but at the same time, was that ever not the reality? Were people ever not centered in content they wanted? So it’s sort of like a matter of, the problem was already there, is it gonna make it worse?  

Yeah, yeah what’s his name? The founder of Twitter was talking about this, about why they, something they talk about a lot as to the algorithm right now shows you more of what you would like. And he has been attacked and told why don’t you show people things they would disagree with? And there is a whole awesome debate, you guys should Google, just like watch him disagree with other people, I forget his name. I’m blanking on it.  

Yeah, Jack.  

Jack Dorsey, thank you.  

Jack Dorsey, yeah.  

He’s very open about where they are in this process, so it’s worth talking about. But I think about it all the time. So, I purposely follow people I disagree with because I want to see what ads I’m gonna get.

But I often get really embarrassed as a result when I take my phone out on the subway, I’m like oh god, I don’t want you to think this is real, like I’m not actually a neo Nazi. I just want to see what they’re saying. It’s very socially uncomfortable but I’m doing my civic duty.  

Good for you, I’m proud of you.  

Thank you.  

Anyways, this is also where platforms, by the way, this is a plug for a platform I actually really like called AllSides, allsides.com, and it shows left, centrist, and right news sources for key issues. It’s actually really cool.  

Allsides?  

Plug for All Sides, not a sponsor of HAMYAW, but should be probably. Yes, allsides.com. And that’s been interesting because I was raised by a relatively Republican conservative family, and like I left my family, but boy is it really hard to talk to them about issues now.

So that’s why I try to read and try to like figure out where people are coming from. But a lot of folks don’t have the impetus or necessity or even inclination to do that.

So are are we risking creating more of an echo chamber or we giving people a reason to amplify the voices that they agree with so that they can in turn lead the charge against whatever they agree or disagree with? 

Alright, this is going to be a really fun one to watch, fun for us to watch play out. I am genuinely curious.  

No skin in the game.  

All of our skin in the game. We’re content creators, what are you talking about?  

Alright, I stand corrected.  

But I think this is something that’s gonna be building out over the next 10, 20 years. And y’all, we’re innovators so let’s pay attention. Tim if you’re watching, we are watching you closely, we want to see what happens with the six month experiment. So you know, let us know. This has been HAMYAW, I’m Margo Aaron.  

And I’m Hillary Weiss.  

If you like this episode please like it below, leave a comment below and share it with your friends. We will see you in two weeks. Bye.  

Bye guys. 

Photo by Juliet Clare Warren

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