The Paradox of Free

Free didn’t work for music.

In the mid and late 90s, people flocked to the web to get music for free with Napster and LimeWire. However, when Apple came along and launched the iTunes music store in 2001, the model changed. Apple wanted to charge people 99c for something they were already getting for free. How could it possibly work?

The problem with the pre-iTunes model is that it was underground, peer-to-peer, seedy file sharing. The quality was dodgy as the files were user produced. When you downloaded a file over Napster, you were never sure how reliable the bitrate or recording was or even if the file was labelled and sorted correctly. You had to spend a lot of time hunting and pecking for your music. We did it because we eventually found something that was free and in the digital format that we craved. Remember, there really wasn’t a reliable digital music store before iTunes.

When iTunes came along, for 99 cents and a simple set of clicks you knew you were getting a reliable product at a high quality sample rate and it would be very easy to get the music on to your portable device of choice, the iPod. Some argue the true price of digital music should be closer to a nickel, but the market has accepted the price point as a reasonable trade off for the benefits given.

When you look at news content and how Rupert Murdoch is wanting to charge people for access to his news services, that’s not going to work – because we already get it for free.

Compare the music for free of the past with the news that is free today. The free music was of dodgy quality and content. The news for free today is from reliable professional sources. We have access to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (one of the properties Murdoch wants to put behind a paywall), CNN, the BBC, CBC and others – for free.

To take this content away and put it behind a walled garden will just drive the user base to the equally quality content that is not behind a pay wall. If the New York Times were to start charging for news, users will just gravitate to the CBC, or BBC, or Washington Post.

Murdoch, and others in this scheme, need to realize that we are not relying on underground bloggers with questionable ethics and spelling mistakes conjuring up our online news, the way we relied on them to rip and upload our music to the peer-to-peer networks. We are reading professional news from professional journalists for free. If sites starts to charge, we will still read professional news from professional journalists for free, we just do it somewhere else.


Free doesn’t work for music. It does work for information.

Some recent related articles from around the web:
What If Craigslist cost $1? [link]
London Evening Standard to Become Free [link]
The Audacity of Free [link]
Running The Numbers On Charging For News Online [link]

Photo from kalandrakas on Flickr

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Comments

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Buzz Bishop

Dad. Broadcaster. Writer. Media Disruptor. Two time Guinness World Record Holder. I run marathons for Team Diabetes.

9 Comments

  1. I disagree with your theory because it is an oversimplified analogy.

    When iTunes first launched, artists and record labels didn’t really know what platform would best suit their needs. iTunes was simply another option and music was still freely available on underground networks. What I’m trying to say is that it took time for iTunes has become the “norm” and as more and more artists started putting there music on their, more and more of their fans followed.

  2. The same will happen with newspapers. Someone (like Apple) has to lead the charge. It looks like it will be Murdoch. In the short term, his newspapers will lose readers which, like you say, will go to other sources. But in the long run, even the CBC and WSJ will trend towards a paid model. At that point their will be segregation…bloggers vs. real journalists. The latter being free (and of lower quality) and the former being paid (more thorough, and of higher quality). People are always willing to pay for a premium product. This case is no exception.

  3. Perhaps. But with more reliable distribution channels for free information vs free music, it’s a much taller mountain for the paid model to climb.

    The model is being broken in terms of iPhone apps. ESPN is charging for theirs, the WSJ is charging $2 a week for theirs. Since the pay model is the starting point on the mobile front, perhaps there’s a way for it to evolve into the web. But it’s going to be a much longer, slower shift than what we saw with music.

  4. Free can work very well for music. It still does in some places like myspace. The internet has brought people together in a marketplace that only the consumer seems to understand. iTunes works because the perceived value and quality are in line in the consumer's eyes. I see this model being the basis for many future content delivery systems. People who see value in the New York Times don't see the value in the paper stock. They see the value in the content. I don't see that changing.

  5. Free can work very well for music. It still does in some places like myspace. The internet has brought people together in a marketplace that only the consumer seems to understand. iTunes works because the perceived value and quality are in line in the consumer’s eyes. I see this model being the basis for many future content delivery systems. People who see value in the New York Times don’t see the value in the paper stock. They see the value in the content. I don’t see that changing.nn

  6. Free can work very well for music. It still does in some places like myspace. The internet has brought people together in a marketplace that only the consumer seems to understand. iTunes works because the perceived value and quality are in line in the consumer’s eyes. I see this model being the basis for many future content delivery systems. People who see value in the New York Times don’t see the value in the paper stock. They see the value in the content. I don’t see that changing.nn

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