It’s come to my attention that many online outlets are feeling their share (and maybe more) of the financial crisis. Before getting into all of that, let’s take an unscientific yet completely random poll: how many people out there enjoy web content for free? Music, videos, ebooks, reviews, articles, news, how-to blogs, and whatever else? The follow-up question is, would you watch or participate if you could only do so by paying to get it?
With the exception of The Guild, Ask a Ninja, or perhaps videos made by Key of Awesome, how many of you think the makers of that content make money? Enough to live on? If you go to a night club to see a local band, a cover charge is expected, or at least a two-drink minimum. Web content, however, is so plentiful that people expect it to be free; if they have to pay, they can always go someplace else. The counterpoint to this, however, is “What is being sold?” If the content is being created to gain eyeballs, how does that translate in making money for time spent and the creativity that went into it? We’re not even talking about the material costs of props, photography or video equipment, or travel expense; the people who create these things have experience and give their time, so shouldn’t that be worth something?
I’ve been told that I’m lucky; I break even. In other words, the things I do online manage to pay for what it takes to get it there. Film critiques, Reaper Rant videos, ebooks, and so forth. I am not, however, rich beyond my wildest dreams. I still have a day job which covers insurance. Many of the skills that some creators don’t have and must rely on from others are things I have taught myself to do through trial and error (and often ends up being wrong before being right). Non-creative types, those who go home to watch television or go drinking at a sports bar often say, “Well, if you love doing it so much, you’d do it for free anyway, right?” That’s like going up to a comedian in a restaurant and asking them to say something funny; what are you going to do for them?
I know many people who enjoy writing and making web content, too many of which often live very poorly to do so or fund themselves with other jobs they’d prefer not to do (no one likes to go to a job they hate, especially when they have marketable skills they could be getting paid for doing something they love). So what’s the answer? Refuse to make any content until someone pays for it? There’s two reasons why that won’t work: most creative types can’t sit still long enough to wait for the cash, and they also would rather be doing something they’re not getting paid for than doing nothing at all. Above all, creative types are driven to be creative, and that’s our collective downfall.
So, is there a better solution? Maybe. Back in the old days when television was creeping up on radio, the incentive to buy a television when you already had a perfectly good radio was hard to justify; to a poor family, it was like buying a major appliance or a new car. Once you had the means to view content, however, you could watch the content over the airwaves, but who paid to make those shows if no one is paying a cable or satellite bill? Sponsors, that’s who. In those days, one advertiser bought the whole show. “Super Sudsy Soap Powder presents ‘As Our Stomach Turns!'”
This is a two-way street, to be sure. Ask any of those comic book creators like Jim Lee who left Marvel and DC comics in the late eighties to start their own “creator-owned” comic groups. When asked, Mr. Lee didn’t want to be a business manager or even a CEO; he just wanted to make comics, but he couldn’t trust a non-creative type to give him or those he represented a fair business deal when they only saw money, not the creativity.
Bottom line: to make money, something has to be sold. If you’re not selling tickets, books, recorded media, or anything with tangible cash value, then you’re not going to make money creating something for free unless it happens to sell for someone else. Online ad revenue is only lucrative for the very biggest sites out there (which also get hit for bandwidth charges, so there’s a downside to success, too). The old adage for creating lucrative websites used to be “Every website is a failure until it’s a success… then it may fail because of it.” And you’re not going to get rich or likely break even selling your own merchandise when no one can afford your Cafepress merchandise and the shipping costs (or worse if they have no idea you exist).
There’s a third problem: expectation. When someone hears “it’s on the web,” if it isn’t being produced by a major studio or someone a prospective audience has already heard of, the expectation is like those old country music videos that was simply a band’s song played over their family reunion (man, did that get old quick). There must be a degree of professionalism involved, but like any good Indie film maker, you can’t blow the budget on professionalism and expect to make it all back later with promises and IOUs (unless you’re bartering skills for skills, which is a great way to get around the cash issue).
The oldest moguls in Hollywood used to have a saying: never make a movie with your own money. If you have everything you need and volunteers to make it happen (owned or borrowed equipment, wrote it yourself, not-so ugly friends to read or play the parts), that’s one thing (and a great idea), but if you’re maxing out signature credit cards and holding off creditors waiting until you make a profit so you can start making payments, you may be in for a big disappointment (no matter what Kevin Smith tells you, bless his big fat heart).
Get a sponsor. Create whatever you can as well as you can but within your budget. Don’t starve yourself. Make friends to share and cross promote whatever you have. Network and socialize on every platform out there to find your audience. All those beautiful waiters and waitress in Los Angeles may be waiting for their big break, but at least they have a warm meal waiting in the kitchen. We can’t all be Felicia Day, turning her geekdom and fandom online into a more “real” paid gigs on corporate-programmed and sponsored shows.
What doesn’t yet seem to exist is a company or organization to pool all the resources of these creators together in one place, pair them up with a sponsor to get content made, and scrutinize the incoming content to ensure the quality people expect when they do pay for something. It’s already happening but not on a collective level. Look at Isaiah Mustafa in dozens of online-only Old Spice commercials, or “The Inside Experience” advertising a Toshiba Satellite P775 in a socially networked online thriller as a real-time web event (the online equivalent of a summer blockbuster).
The web is still very new and television/movie studios are keenly afraid of it (and, in the words of Lucille Ball, they damn well better be). They are also sabotaging as much as they dare, but they can’t hold it back forever. The pay-for-play entertainment model works only when other options are limited, and cash is tight everywhere. Giving up was never an option, but neither was throwing money blindly at a problem; it certainly doesn’t work for governments, so why would you think you’re so special? Now, go make something cool; you were just about to, anyway.