Robert Levine’s “Free Ride”

I wrote this review of Robert Levine’s new book Free Ride for the New Statesman. Now that their print issue is off news-stands, here’s the pre-edited text.

The subtitle of Robert Levine’s Free Ride leaves little room for ambiguity: “how the internet is destroying the culture business and how the culture business can fight back.” Levine – an editor and widely-published technology writer – may or may not have provided this line himself. Its bluntness, though, is of a piece with his book, which pulls few punches. “It’s time to ask seriously”, he argues in his Introduction, “whether the culture business as we know it can survive the digital age.” In case you haven’t guessed, the answer the next 250 pages provide is largely an extended, exasperated “no”.

Free Ride’s bruising style – and its occasional cheap shots at the expense of Web 2.0’s lesser totems – seems likely to change few minds either within new media corporations or among their more proselytising consumers. This is a shame. Not because Levine offers an entirely persuasive account of the digital present, but because he dares to challenge one of its most deforming orthodoxies: the assumption that the dinosaurs of an older media order deserve every meteoric catastrophe that has descended upon them – and that the only route to a better future lies via the unqualified embrace of a service-oriented, ad-supported, metric-led digital “logic”.

As Levine rightly points out, the evangelical embrace of this idea takes a form that’s often closer to faith than reason. Words like “open” and “free” are hard to argue with in principal. What they can mean in practice, however, is the privileging of infrastructure at the expense of allowing creators any control over what they make – let alone the possibility of profit. Google, Levine notes, “has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline.” And it has lobbied extremely effectively to help maintain the status quo.

Behind this lies a simple commercial truth: the flat, open structure of the internet has helped a small number of companies make vast amounts of money by controlling navigation and distribution, while hollowing out the capacity of those creating original media content to make any profits at all. “Traditional media companies aren’t in trouble because they’re not giving consumers what they want,” Levine observes. “They’re in trouble because they can’t collect money for it.” He marshals plenty of numbers to support this case: from the halving of the value of recorded music in America over a decade to the decimation of the newspaper industry in the developed world, the beginnings of a collapse in DVD sales, and the relentless downward pressure on prices exerted by online merchants.

It’s possible to split hairs and dispute details, especially when it comes to the impact of piracy on sales. Yet to do so is to miss the bigger picture. No one seriously disputes that massive damage has been done to old media business models, both by disruptive technology and corporate cack-handedness. The real question is how much this matters.

We’re not, after all, in the business of mourning the monastic scriptora made redundant by the birth of printing – or, for that matter, the thousands of performers whom recorded music and television put out of work less than a century ago. As Levine himself points out, the monetization of media has never stood still: since the 1980s, home viewing has risen from nothing to become one of the most crucial avenues for a film’s profits in the form of DVDs and Blu-ray. Film companies have come to rely on this money, but who’s to say this situation is either inevitable or desirable?

Levine’s thesis on this front is at its most persuasive when he invokes the philosopher and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, and the arguments of his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget. “If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money,” Lanier argued. “If money is flowing to advertisers instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty.” Once the ethos has been swallowed that content itself is worthless and that quantifiable audience attention is all that matters, creative activity risks becoming little more than self-promotion.

Above all, though, Levine’s concern is market failure – and whether old media organisations may yet build successful new models. Reform copyright, he suggests, and make infringement a minor, relatively cheap offence, like a traffic fine; build a “better than free” system of digital rights management and cloud-based movie viewing; give Internet Service Providers a legal incentive to care more about piracy taking place on their services; use blanket licensing to compensate creators from a common pool.

There are good points among these, especially when it comes to reforming copyright. In the end, though, I find it difficult to see the power of the new giants – Amazon, Apple, Google – doing anything other than extending; and with it, the disaggregation of the old media order gathering pace. Most professional creatives, by definition, follow the money. And if this money leads to the doors of new media and its models of ad-supported service and metrics-led marketing, it’s likely that most will migrate, breeding the next generation of hits, bestsellers and wannabes in a whole new context. For all of its author’s passionate conviction, Free Ride reads more like an obituary than a plan of attack.