This is part seven in an ongoing series of posts on 7 Trends for the Future of the Arts. Originally published (and partially reprinted here with permission of the publisher) in the book: 20 Under 40: Reinventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. I'm presenting selections from each trend, and you can follow the whole post series from here. If you are interested in these arguments, check out and think about purchasing the book here.
Trend 6: In a world of Free, the Future Lies in Find
In a digital world, a copy is just zeros and ones and thus—copies are free. This makes piracy of content much easier, but it also allows for the legal dissemination of content. Many companies are finding that they can use free as one aspect of their business model, often through advertising and sponsorship support or through the use of free content to attract people to pay for an upgraded “freemium” version.
It is important to note that this does not mean that free itself is a business model—that wouldn’t be sustainable, but rather that free access can be one part of a multi-tiered business strategy. Raise enough sponsorship and it could be mutually beneficial to you, your audience, and Target to make museum entrance free one night a week (which is not a novel concept).
Of course, at the end of the day, there truly is nothing for free. Someone pays to produce the content, or to host the video of the performance and deliver it over the Internet. Every arts administrator knows the costs of artistic production well, and a quick criticism of the free model is to point out that artists need to be paid. While this is true, perhaps there might be new models to be explored that take advantage of the economics of free. In fact, many artists have begun experimenting already, and some are finding success.
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Zoe Keating, an avant-garde cellist, was able to join the top ranks of Twitter with more than 1.3 million followers, and can now ask her fans to donate money directly to her so she can make and record her music. Many give just to support her work, some “pre-buy” a download, ensuring quick, often advanced access to her music. Keating is now able to sustain a career, even though one can listen to all of her songs for free on her website and find all of them on pirate networks.
She isn’t alone; thousands of others use online tools such as Kickstarter to go directly to their fans and raise money to make their work. Others have found that free music access increases their fan base, allowing them to make more money from live shows and appearances than from album sales. Or they make money from merchandise. Artists are moving (back again?) to a patronage model—but this time, one where their fans and audiences help fund their work. Not just through purchases, but through donations and other support to help create works of art.
Arts organizations would do well to participate in the free movement soon. Luckily, the answers to the dilemmas of free content seem to be very much in the favor of arts organizations. Digital has changed the nature of value. In the past, value came from scarcity—it was expensive to make a film, or to buy a Matisse—but in a world of ubiquitous copies, the audience is overwhelmed with choice. Attention becomes the scarce resource, and as the amount of content online multiplies daily, audiences increasingly need, and will pay for, someone or something to help them wade through the digital mountains of garbage to find what they actually want.
If the history of the Internet thus far has been defined by search, its future resides in find. Online, as in the offline world, audiences turn to a trusted source to help them find what they want. This means that guides, librarians, and curators are more important than ever before. Organizations must add value to this connection, so they aren’t viewed as just another middle-man. This nicely dovetails with most arts organization’s positions as a nexus of the art and the audience and as a curator helping audiences find the best work. This is an area where traditional arts organizations have historically excelled. Contemporary arts organizations who focus their energies on being curatorial in a more participatory, communally-minded way should likewise be poised to excel in the digital (even free) economy.
Next Up: Trend 7, The New, New Media Literacy – Electracy