There is no free lunch (I just had to pay for mine)


Contemporary Photographers, General Culture

You might have heard of Chris Anderson’s new book ‘Free’, which, if what I hear is correct (I haven’t read it, yet), is all about how “free” is the new black. It certainly sounds great, right? After “always low prices” there’s now “free”! Of course, just like “always low prices” comes at a price (a new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, explores this), “free” does, too. Malcolm Gladwell took ‘Free’ apart, and this review from the New York Times also notes quite a few problems.

I have wanted to write about this for a while now, and I am still trying to wrap my head around things. But since I just found this post over at the blog Resolve about “free” and photography I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts (as incomplete as they might be).

The Resolve post already indicates a very simple fact, namely that once you ignore the hype and look for the meat (or tofu should you be a vegetarian) if you really treat “free” at face value you run into tremendous problems. “Free” isn’t really free everything - it means that while you give away some things for free, others need to generate some income.

That’s because if you go to the supermarket and tell them to give you the groceries for free you will not be very successful. Mind you, they will give you free coupons for your groceries (coupons being a good example of “free” btw).

As Rob wrote, “Free is not a business model”. If you are a photographer and you need to feed at least one mouth (your own) if not several more (your family), you will have to generate income in some form. The “free” enters as your own version of those supermarket coupons. To give one of the examples from that Resolve post, if you go to Italy to supervise the printing of your book you might as well put a few posts with photos about it online. People will still have to pay for the book.

The problem with “free” in photography is that it can literally destroy whole businesses; just look at the implosion of the stock-photography industry. Who wants to pay much - if anything - for a stock photograph any longer? If you can download images for free, why pay, right? But then, if nobody wants to pay anything for stock photography, the photographers who made their living from producing those photographs will be out of business. It’s as simple as that. Of course, you could channel your inner Milton Friedman here and say “Tough luck, if you don’t have a good business model,” but I’m not so sure that’s really the best and most productive way to look at things (those stock photographers won’t be amused, either)

It’s interesting - and ironic - that both the so-called old and new media - newspapers and blogs alike - now have the same problem, in both cases resulting from “free”: How do you make money to run your operation? I haven’t seen anyone pointing this out, yet. Of course, the difference is that while newspapers are trying to figure out how to adapt/maintain their already existing business, blogs need to figure out what business model to run on.

Something else I haven’t seen address is what happens if both end up being not successful. Newspapers are already failing left and right (even though I think that part of their trouble does not only stem from a bad business model, but especially from not fulfilling their roles as newspapers). Now imagine blogs (or similar sites) also not being able to make money: The media landscape would then look like all those small American towns where there is a single Walmart, every other business boarded up, and all jobs to be had are minimum wage, no benefits. I know this might sound like a hyperbolic, bleak way to look at things, but in the media landscape, this is the worst possible outcome (you just would have to replace “Walmart” with “TMZ”).

What is particularly important about this topic is that while it sounds as if it’s really only about some group (photographers, bloggers, whoever…) struggling with “free”, at the end of the day it is everybody having to live with the consequences. If newspapers all go out of business because we’re not buying them, and if we only want a real free, so that bloggers online journalists won’t be able to survive from their business, who is going to provide us with the information we need?

If photographers are run out of business, because for example, magazines are cutting back (to save costs), and lots of things are “free”, who is going to take the photographs that we now enjoy so much? Well, there’s one problem that unites fine-art and commercial photographers, editorial and stock!

And this all is not about keeping the old status quo - quite on the contrary. But somehow, this idea of “free” has distorted what really is at stake here. What is at stake is us potentially enjoying a world where we have access to things we would not even have dreamed of a couple of decades ago. If we’re smart about it this will turn into our new media world. But we will not be able to get everything for free. We simply won’t.

PS: There really is no free lunch - I just had to pay for mine. Seems like $6.50 for a soup and water is the new free?

PPS: If you email me with comments about this, I’m happy to add your comments or more thoughts to what will then be an updated version of this post.