Tim Kreider writes in today's Times
about all the people who write him asking him to contribute writing to their website for free. (He probably got paid a little for the article.)
In the Middle Ages, writing was not something you did for a living. Writers were noblemen or clerics; someone was already feeding them. They wrote for fame, or to scratch an itch, or to praise God, or to argue that someone else was praising God the wrong way.
Then the printing press came along and you could actually sell books. (I have no idea if it's accurate that Gutenberg had a side business in pornography, but I hope so.) And copyright laws eventually made it possible to protect your content.
The internet has the lowest imaginable threshold for entry. So lots of people with paying jobs are also creating content (essays, short stories, YouTubes) in their spare time and throwing it up there for all to see. Twenty years ago it was difficult and expensive to make a short film, even a badly made one. Now it's easy to make something
And many of the somethings go viral. And people make money off them. Get a million hits on YouTube, and they'll send you a check.
Suddenly professional writers and filmmakers are competing with myriads of amateur writers and filmmakers.
They're also competing with promoters. A lot of viral content has funding behind it. Lonelygirl15 turned out not to be a lonely girl in a room but a group of people who wanted to sell a series.
The paradigm has changed. You're now expected to give it away, in the hopes that this will vault you to a position where you can now sell your stuff for a whack of dough. Of course, for most people, the second part never triggers. There's no "path to Colonel," as they say in the Army.
To be sure, there never was a path to Colonel in content creation. Aspiring TV and feature writers always had to write spec scripts. And Stephen King wrote a lot of unpublished novels before Carrie
got bought. J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter
on the dole. Aspiring game writers are expected to program up something in Unity or Twine, so have a portfolio to show when Rockstar posts an opening.
But it does feel like what used to be a pyramid has shrunk its middle, so its base is impossibly wide, and the top quite pointy. The middle seems to be disappearing. There's room for star journalists, and free Huffington post contributors, but no room for journeymen. Right out of college, my Mom got a job at a local paper. "There were a lot of cars parked outside the Murphy's last night," the editor would tell her. "Find out what happened." That is no longer a job.
(I realize how ironic it is that I'm writing all of this on my blog, which I write for free. Though people keep offering to buy ads on it.)
The middle is disappearing in features, too. There are so many $100,000 features and $1M features out there that you can no longer sell a $3M feature, I am told. $2M to $8M is a no-go area.
Nobody makes a living making hundred thousand dollar features, or even million dollar ones. I have one friend who works as a P.A. to support her directing addiction, and another who works as a production manager. Of course they'd like to break out of the low budget ghetto. But the next few rungs on the ladder are missing. How do you jump from $100,000 to $10,000,000?
You win something at Sundance, of course. If you can become a star, you can vault. Until then, you have to keep giving it away.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing. The new paradigm has mobilized a lot of talent. Annoying Orange
is way funnier than Two and a Half Men.
It had to be. It had to promote itself.
(Though the lingering death of journalism does create public policy issues. Democracy becomes corrupt in the absence of muckrakers, and no one can afford to do a three month investigation on the if-come.)
This process has been going on for a long time. Before recorded music, if you were semi-good, you could become a traveling musician. You could make a living, of a sorts, playing to crowds of 40. Or, at least, you could eat.
That living hasn't existed for a long time. Instead you play to crowds of 40 to get exposure (and learn your chops) so you can play to crowds of 10,000 for money.
But it does feel like the change has accelerated. There are some pockets where you can still make a living without making a fortune. Games, for example. While the indie game world is full of opportunities to make a game for nothing in the hopes you'll have a hit on Steam, no one asks a writer to contribute barks to a AAA game for free. TV, too, is a process where professionalism is too important to give up. You can make a living as a TV writer because TV is a beast that eats scripts. A TV show doesn't depend on one viral episode. It depends on consistency, both creatively and in production.
But if you're thinking of getting into the rest of the content business, there's the old joke about the jazz musician whose doctor tells him he's only got a year to live. "That's cool, man," says the jazz musician, "but what do I live on till then
You need a plan for how you're going to live.
That can be a day job in
the biz. For years as an aspiring writer my day job was development executive (another job that I think the industry has shed).
Bartender works, but there's the risk of waking up 50 and realizing you're a career bartender. (So then you write a blog about it, and it goes viral, so you get to adapt it into a bestselling book...)
"Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" is good advice, but it becomes a problem if you are the cow.
The center cannot hold you. What you gonna do?