Just before Thanksgiving, Jaron Lanier published an op-ed piece in the NY Times titled "Pay Me for My Content." Part mea culpa, part advocacy, Jaron is tired of waiting for the Internet revolution to provide a living for artists and other content creators. The Hollywood writer's strike may have occasioned it, but the piece reveals a deeper level of frustration and idealism that would not be satisfied by an incrementally better royalty deal with the studios or record labels.
Jaron is a friend with whom I have shared both musical and social time. We've argued and discussed some of these issues before, so I wrote him this:
Re your recent NYTimes Op-Ed:
As you know, we've been getting paid — and paying creators — for our online content since 2001. Practical mechanisms to secure payment were available even then. We used a simple, relatively insecure, but effective one created by the "adult" industry for the first version of our service from 2001 to 2005.
By 2005, things were getting more sophisticated. We built a 2nd generation site around a service whose slogan at the time was "resources for media monetization," since changed to "powering new media." As you may also know, there are now a number of companies in this field who provide various services to authenticate, authorize and charge users for content. Most of them use the much-reviled Microsoft DRM, but there are others who secure and charge for streams and use non-DRM methods to secure downloads.
Thus I'm not sure what you mean when you say "We could design information systems so that people can pay for content." The tools are already there; what is lacking is the will, which I gather is the area your piece was intended to stimulate, and the entrepreneurial culture that goes along with it among creatives.
The entrepreneurial class online is dominated by venture capitalists and technologists, and the predilection for free content is based on a barely concealed quest for "scale" which requires elimination of "friction." Ironically, it's mass media in drag with free content as bait. In some cases aggregation makes up for value lacking in the content itself. Thus the natural evolution of advertising as a business model.
In your piece you did not mention the inhibiting effect of existing copyright regimes in the creation of new business models that might benefit creators. It is now obvious that many of the entrenched media interests have shot themselves in the head in their effort to maintain their old business models, pricing and market share. They never seem to learn from history.
For example, we still cannot legally sell downloads of our programs due to copyright and licensing restrictions on music, despite the fact that we are ready, willing and able to pay creators and publishers directly if necessary for these sales. They are more interested in maintaining control than effectively monetizing their existing catalogs.
Despite all this, there are numerous examples of niche media publishers and service providers online who are succeeding to one degree or another in supporting their enterprises with paid content instead of advertising, or some combination of both. Hearts of Space is one of them.
As a class I liken them to niche magazines and periodicals of the 20th century. Optimally, if they get the cost of production and delivery vs. benefit for the reader/user equation right, they can sustain themselves for a long time. No one gets rich. In the end it's a "satisfaction" economy.
I agree with you that advertising as the exclusive revenue model is not only culturally depressing — the bigger problem is that there are many niche artists, publishers and service providers who due to their size or the nature of their content, could simply never make an advertising model sustainable. They can, and do, get some incremental income from wide angle opt-in services like Google Ads, but this is just beer money. When you say "earn a living online" I assume you are looking for a sustainable income model for creatives.
In the early days of Jim Griffin and John Parres's Pho List discussion group, these questions were debated interminably without any clear resolution. As a niche content provider, I took the same side you do, which is sometimes called enabling "a (musician's) middle class." The only difference is that I would extend it to all creatives, as well as niche publishers and other value-added packagers, editors and resellers (like HOS).
I believe if you look more carefully you'll conclude that the real impediments are not technical, but (with some exceptions) because most creatives are not comfortable becoming entrepreneurs. Even among my colleagues in Public Broadcasting, the entrepreneur gene is very thin on the ground and major opportunities to charge "appropriately" for their high quality content have been left on the table.
For various reasons, these creative people lack the technical skills, the culture, and the internal motivation to build new businesses without clear models and established services to build upon. They like the limited responsibility that comes with a job or the pure artist paradigm; and from what I can see, many of them enjoy their victim status rather too much to give it up.
I think Mark Andreessen is onto something in his post on Rebuilding Hollywood in Silicon Valley's Image when he says that online favors the independent actor-writer-director-entrepreneur (backed by independent capital) over the old studio system:
The creators of the content are the owners of the company. The writers, actors, directors -- they are the owners. They have a direct, equity-based economic stake in the company's success. They get paid like owners, and they act like owners.
So to paraphrase Jaron's conclusion, we need to step up as well as grow up if we want to make a living online.