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Last Updated: Friday, 5 October 2007, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
The value of free
Graphic

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

Artists and companies are queuing up to hand out free CDs, DVDs and books. But with so much stuff being given away, is culture becoming devalued?

Prince has done it. Most of the national newspapers seem to do it every day.

Give stuff away for free, that is. And not just any old thing. Quality stuff you'd pay good money for in a shop.

Prince
Prince gave away his last CD

The latest cultural philanthropists are Radiohead, who will release their next album as a digital download. In an unusual move for a major band, fans are being allowed to pay what they like. Even bids as low as a single penny - plus a 45p transaction fee - are accepted.

Other popular artists - like Prince and the Charlatans - are giving away their albums.

Outside the music industry, rival media groups are slugging it out for a share of the growing free newspaper market. Londoners can avail themselves of a free weekly sport magazine and the latest venture in this vein is a free men's magazine, distributed nationally to commuters.

Publicity value

Items being given away is the result of changing economics. The stratospheric rise in internet advertising as well as old-media phenomena like newspaper circulation battles, means "content" is increasingly seen as a tool to be used in a battle to obtain money for other things rather than just as an object for sale.

Terrestrial television stations in the UK - such as the BBC and Channel 4 - are even getting in on the act. Downloads of selected TV programmes are offered free after broadcast, although of course in the BBC's case the downloader has already paid for them in the form of the licence fee.

THE FREEBIE REVOLUTION
78.3 million CDs were given away with newspapers and magazines in 2006
It's estimated that during the first quarter of 2006 as many DVDs were given away as sold through official channels.
Free books can be downloaded online - Google offers 10,000 of them

Along with the rise of illegal filesharing over the last decade, the growth of free content raises the possibility that there has been a sea change in the attitude of the consumer to the items of culture they hold in their hands.

Go back a few hundred years and the typical book was an object of extraordinary cost and rarity, where the value of the book itself was bound up with the importance of the information. Now Google gives them away for nothing.

Those who are behind the give-aways paint a picture of a win-win situation. Artists reach a wider audience, newspaper and magazine sales rise and the public gets something for nothing. But when the cost of an item is taken away is its cultural significance affected?

Power of commitment

Some commentators are pointing to a deeper potential malaise and saying there has been a change in the relationship between consumers and culture.

Philosopher Julian Baggini says it all comes down to one thing - commitment.

"When we pay for something we are showing commitment in a very practical way. We put something of ourselves - in this case money - into whatever it is we want. And by paying for it, we are proving to ourselves that we value it."

Good music is like a diamond - and if diamonds were everywhere and free they'd be worth less
Matt Phillips, BPI spokesman

That goes for events, as well as music, art and literature. At the Festival of Ideas earlier this year a lot of free-entry events were more sparsely attended, compared to the events you had to pay for says Mr Baggini.

"People thought because a particular event was free, it wasn't worth putting themselves out for. In the same way, people who do consultancy work are always advised to charge a lot. The thinking is that having a high financial value creates the perception that something has real value."

The same principle applies to music, he says.

"We'd like to think that a piece of music has value in itself, that we like it because of what it is. But in reality economic factors do influence how we perceive things. The danger is that having not put the commitment in, you run the risk that you don't get as much out."

Unhappy choices

Other experts warn of an associated danger - that as cheap-and-available culture floods the market people will literally be spoilt for choice.

A thousand years ago you could only have listened to the minstrels that played in your valley, 50 years ago you could only listen to the records that were marketed in your country. Now, with 160GB MP3 players and digital downloading technology improving, you can own vast selections of music in your pocket.

The Charlatans
The Charlatans say new album will be a free download

"Research shows that when you choose from a very large set of alternatives, whatever you choose will be less valuable to you - even if you choose well," says Professor Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: why more is less.

"This is partly because even if you have chosen x, so you'll be thinking about y - did I make the right choice? This makes you unhappy."

Professor Schwartz shares the fears about the lack of consumer commitment.

"With so much cheap and free music out there I don't believe people are listening as seriously as they used to. There is some music that you have to learn to like: it takes repeated listening. In the future I can't see that happening any more."

For the proselytisers, the digital age is taking culture back to its roots - something controlled by people rather than big corporations.

Google logo
Google now offers free literature downloads

But for those representing UK record companies free music is a problem.

"When you are competing with free there are inevitably going to be problems. The revenue from recording is now considerably smaller than it was," Matt Phillips of the BPI says.

And he said too many freebies inevitably diminished the sentimental value of music.

"Good music is like a diamond - and if diamonds were everywhere and free they'd be worth less."

But the cult of the giveaway seems unlikely to abate, and the cheerleaders of cheap and the foes of free seem set to be locked in battle for the foreseeable future.


Below is a selection of your comments.

What a load of rubbish. A fair bet says the same camp of people that feature here have bemoaned the 'destruction' of culture due to money and the profit motive. Some people will never be satisfied, is the moral.
Sam Coleman, London, England

Inevitably it takes time to produce any creation worthy of merit - the more works (whether they be music, film, tv, books, etc) that are produced by artists having to do something other than their 'art' for a day job in order to make ends meet, the less time is spent on honing and improving the quality of their works. If all we as consumers are prepared to do is take free or pirated stuff, then in the end most of the works will be pretty shoddy. Basically, you get what you pay for...
Ian Vale, London

For me, this is neither an issue nor a problem. I think I value things for what they are irrespective of whether they cost me a pound or a penny. But then I have passed my sixtieth year and that may mean a massive mentality difference when compared with today's youth and the consumer/media society in which they are spending their formative years.
Bill Gregory, Naval, Biliran, Philippines

The artist(s) has created the piece of work so should be free to choose the means by which it is marketed/distributed to the world.. If they want to give it away free or for a small charge then let them do it! Artists are becoming increasingly aware that for the consumer the future of music lies in the live experience, gigs/festivals etc..
Adam, Southampton, UK

No it doesn't devalue anything. People are still making a choice to buy the publication because they would have chosen the give away anyway. Must everything be over analyzed these days?
Linda MacKenzie, Feltham

Historically, recorded music was scarce because making records needed an expensive machine. The written word and music was scarce because few people had printing presses. Copyright laws sat alongside an intrinsic scarcity, and safeguarded rights holders from commercial copying. Digital music and text has completely changed that. It is *only* copyrights now which make recorded music scarce, and gives it a financial value. This works against successful artists and record companies, but very much in favour of musicians who want to have a direct relationship with their listeners. Ultimately the disintermediation of the relationship between artists and listeners has to be A Good Thing.
Dunstan Vavasour, Rugby, England



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