Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's all about the Hamiltons, bay-bee...

This post by Sister Diane has had me giving serious thought lately to what I am, and what I am not, willing to pay for, online or otherwise. My favorite contributors at Craft Stylish were notified recently that their contracts would not be renewed, and I was left stunned. That's what happens when revenue is down... expenses are cut. I get that. I couldn't help thinking, "This was content I would have been willing to pay for!" Now the website is a ghost of its former self. There's still an interesting project every now and then, but the "WOW!" factor is gone. I may drop in once or twice a week now, but Craft Stylish is no longer a daily must. That makes me sad.

I started thinking about my inspiration sources and favorite reads. Which ones could I live without? Which would I be devastated to lose?

You cannot sneeze lately without hearing about the demise of the newspaper industry. Longtime stalwarts in print media are going under left and right. The blame is being placed more often than not on free internet content. While I do not doubt that the plethora of online news options is making a significant impact on papers who rely on paying subscribers, there was more to it than that for me. I have been DEEPLY disappointed by our local paper for quite some time, yet we continued to subscribe because my husband and I both grew up in households where you always got the local paper. In this case we were paying for content as a force of habit. With the current publication, if it was not the lack of usable content, it was the poor editing or bad writing. Maybe it was the we-are-not-ashamed-to-be-ridiculously-biased viewpoint that finally turned me off for good. It was about a year ago that I first wondered out loud why we paid for a daily newspaper that did little more than regularly piss us off. Shortly after that conversation our next bill arrived, and the decision was made we would no longer support the Times-Union. I cannot say I miss picking the paper up from the driveway and immediately depositing it in the recycle bin. I can live without it.

Conversely, I just subscribed to Cloth Paper Scissors. It is a publication that gives me a great amount of pleasure and insane inspiration. I started reading with the inaugural issue and have made many trips to the local book store since then just to pick up the latest release. I have loved pretty much everything they have produced from the get-go. It was an easy decision to become an official subscriber, just one I have put off. They deserve to know that for at least the next six issues I can be counted on to tune in. I need what they are selling.

Sister Diane focused on advertising in her post, and rightfully so. Advertising dollars are directly responsible for the free content we have enjoyed for so long. Diane points out that if we, as end users, are not willing to support the advertisers paying for our "free" information, we should be willing to cough up our own moolah to compensate those who work so hard to bring us fresh ideas and cool stuff. Fair enough.

I echo her sentiment to subscribe to your favorite periodicals and websites. I would add to support your favorite sites and artists ethically. If you pay for a website subscription and share your user name and password with 15 of your closest friends, you're missing the point. If you buy a collage sheet and make copies of it for all of your art group members, you're missing the point. Downloading pay content without paying for it? You're missing the point.

Why is the temptation to "acquire" pay content without paying so overwhelming, and so widely acceptable? Is it because we feel we're entitled to free content on the internet? Are we falling victim to an everyone-else-does-it-why-shouldn't-I ideology? Is it simply too easy to do? Why do people who would never even consider shoplifting or pickpocketing feel perfectly comfortable illegally downloading or sharing digital content? The truth of the matter is we devalue the efforts of content creators every time we take stuff we know we should be paying for. Where does the answer lie? Do we need black and white lines here? Either pay for everything or pay for nothing?

Many artists have tried to strike a balance between free content and pay content and have profited immensely because of it. We saw this firsthand with Radiohead's 2007 album, In Rainbows. Initially released digitally, the band simply asked people to pay what they thought it was worth, if anything. While not the first band to give away their labor of love (Harvey Danger did something similar in 2005, releasing their album Little by Little via Bit Torrent for free one week after it dropped), Radiohead did it up right. Two months later they released a standard CD of the album that included bonus material not available elsewhere. People couldn't get enough. After its retail release, In Rainbows debuted at number one on both the British and US charts. Who says there's no value to "free"?!

Is this kind of success limited to music artists, or could visual artists see similar results? Lisa Vollrath has carved out an amazing niche for herself in the altered art world. Her site, Ten Two Studios, sells great stuff for folks who like to create. More than that, though, Lisa has created a place to learn. For free. She has tons of tutorials, all with photos and easy to follow directions. There are weekly challenges and even free printables, including her fantastic "Holiday Countdown" image giveaways. She works hard to keep fresh content streaming into her site and sends a weekly email to let you know what's new. Lisa leaves you feeling more like a member of a community than a customer. While she is the first to remind visitors that stealing her art is stealing from her, she also expresses heartfelt gratitude for those who keep her fed and stocked in dog chow. Give some... get some. She gets it.

Who else gets it? Lee Meredith (who rocks, by the way) TOTALLY gets it. She designs killer patterns of all sorts... some she gives away, and some she sells. I love to knit, but unfortunately I am NOT-never-have-been-probably-never-will-be a "pattern knitter". I have downloaded some of her free patterns, hoping that one day patience and an understanding of stitch markers will find me... but I really couldn't justify the purchase of her awesome patterns (until THIS!). However, I couldn't click "BUY" fast enough when she released her Bad Movie Bingo set! Why? Because I want to support Lee when I can. She gives me stuff!

Cathe Holden CRAZY gets it! She gives away all kinds of freebies on an almost daily basis and asks for nothing in return. I'll tell you this much... when the day comes that I need a fancy website, you can bet I'll call on Cathe to design it. Is it because she asks me every time I visit her blog to hire her as a graphic designer? Nope. She hardly even mentions that. Instead, she builds value among her readers through her generosity. When someone gives and gives and gives, people tend to remember that. I suspect Cathe's banking on it!

There really is something to the "build it and they will come" theory. You may have to give away your foundation, but something beautiful and amazing will emerge from it. Lisa, Lee and Cathe are certainly not the only artists out there giving stuff away. In fact, the artistic community as a whole is incredibly generous. We live in a day and age where there is a whole new thought process to "free". What should be? What shouldn't be? Start paying attention to what you're being given. What value does it add to your world? Are you giving for what you're getting? Are you expecting (and allowing) others to do the same?

Feeding your muse is not an easy thing. Maybe it costs you time... maybe it costs you travel... maybe it just costs you the subscription rate of your favorite magazine or website. Whatever the price, feed well, feed often and eat right.

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