I Heard S/he Sang a Good Song

Ten million Americans “earn at least some money from their performances, songs, paintings. videos, sculptures, photos or creative writing.” I used that factoid to close yesterday’s blog about The Long Tail — the article in which Wired editor Chris Anderson suggests that publishers slash prices on their backlist to allow this languishing content to find its niche audience.

That’s classic economics. Drop price, boost sales, sacrifice margin, make it up in volume. But the Web is more than a distribution channel and it may enable a new economics. What if we could use the Web to drop the cost of producing and marketing amateur content? Could we double the ranks of money-making artists, providing lots of new content and growing many niche markets in the process?

Those questions guided me as I read the Pew Internet report on Artists, Musicians and the Internet, which provided the estimates cited above. The report had a lot to say about artists views on digital file sharing and copyright issues. But I focused on the numbers.

The 10 million people who earn some money from their creative works (for most it’s a sideline) are a subset of the 32 million who consider themselves artists or musicians but relegate creativity to a hobby.

That suggests to me that if a Web business could provide the tools or platforms to make money from art, this would induce some of those 22 million pure hobbyists to become creative moonlighters.

How exactly might that be done? Alas, I have more questions than answers, but here’s another market-friendly number for those in search of business models — roughly 40 percent of artists order supplies or equipment online (a nice close to an ad sales pitch!).

There are other encouraging hints in the report that many artists, and even more musicians, already use the Web to chat with each other, reach out to fans, sell their works — and that they want to use it more. The report quotes one musician lamenting the absence of a site to facilitate easy distribution of MP3 downloads: “If there were a site where I could post and charge others for downloads, I’d use it.”

Interesting given Anderson’s observation in The Long Tail about the failure of the amateur-music download site MP3.com (I added a link to Goodnoise). Perhaps they were ahead of their time or perhaps these sites had the wrong marketing and sales expectations.

Here’s what I mean. Say you’re one of the 22 million artists and musicians who now makes not one red cent from his or her art. And someone enabled you to invest, say, $100 to buy into a do-it-yourself art production venue on the Web. And in the first year, the person sold $400 worth of stuff — probably to friends, associates and family members, who would buy the content for the same reason that our office mates and neighbors buy Girl Scout cookies and fund-raising gimmicks.

It’s not the dollars that matter to the artist involved. They have moved into a new status of deriving at least some income from their hobby. The better and more ambitious folks will grow their cottage content businesses. And if enough of these folks could be assembled, there might even be a business model in making all this happen.

Tom Abate
January 6, 2005