Murdochology

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney orning Herald.

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney Morning Herald.

Over at the Sydney Review of Books, I’ve got a long-form review essay on two of the latest books out on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the British phone hacking scandal.

I won’t re-post here, but rather direct you over to the site, which is publishing some very fine work at the moment.

However, the guts of my argument can be summarised as follows:

Back in 2004, reviewing a previous wave of Murdochology that had washed ashore the sandy beaches of the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, following Frederic Jameson, argued that the man himself personified a kind of ‘cultural logic’ of postmodern capitalism. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world,’ Lanchester wrote, ‘he is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve.’

Lanchester wrote that Murdoch’s singular attribute is his flexibility: a ‘flakiness’ in which ‘the all-over-the-globe nature of the News Corp empire seems to be paralleled by a personal all-over-the-placeness in Murdoch.’ Like the ‘hot money’ of the international currency markets, his energies and attentions flow unpredictably and suddenly, to wherever the opportunity lies. He understands, in the end, perhaps only one lesson: that symbols are powerful, and that in a democracy, this power can be used. One of the things that Murdoch likes to do with his media power is, of course, to make money. But he also likes to acquire more power: for instance, by gaining the ear of prime ministers. You never know when you might need a regulator to sign off on your next deal.

Just like capital, Murdoch can be channelled and regulated, stymied here and divested there. But, like some protean force of nature, he can’t really be stopped. He is too powerful for that, too wealthy, too smart. This is why the common attribution of Murdoch as a ‘media baron’ is so apt. Unlike his deputies, or the CEOs of truly globalised media corporations like Vivendi or Time Warner, Murdoch’s power derives not just from his occupation of a top ‘command post of the social structure’. Like a feudal aristocrat, he also enjoys considerable privileges and resources that attach to his person and family. As long as he keeps hold of those special voting shares in his various corporations, the Bermuda bank accounts and the key trusts and holding companies, he will retain his over-mighty stature. When he dies, of course, all bets are off. The trusts will vest and his children and ex-wives will struggle for control. But for now he is unassailable. As Wolff wrote recently, ‘2014 is going to be a good year for Rupert Murdoch.’

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$7 billion of neoliberalism

The Stationers' Company mark

The Stationers’ Company: an early example of government cultural policy. Image: Wikipedia.

Australian economist Jason Potts has restarted an important debate about cultural policy in this country with an article entitled “You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?“. I just wish he hadn’t analysed Australian cultural policy from the sort of instrumentalist, neoliberal position we find so familiar in many other spheres of policy debate.

I’ll say right up the top that I’m a fan of Potts’ work, and think him a pretty clever fellow. His work on evolutionary economics is in its own way quite heterodox, and a far cry from the sort of automatic and reflexive market worship we often associate with both the RMIT Economics school, and the Institute for Public Affairs, which he is apparently doing some work with.

On the other hand, his op-ed in The Conversation on cultural policy  is not one of his more perspicacious efforts. Justin O’Connor has already written a useful response, but I thought I’d add a few points of my own, set forth below.

Let’s start by setting forward Potts’ argument. Then we’ll move on to a critique.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the maths – government spends about A$7 billion annually in Australia on arts and culture. The exact dollar figure varies depending on what we count, but it includes heritage, broadcasting and botanical gardens, along with all the usual suspects: performing arts, literature, film, visual arts, and so on.

This is apples, oranges and all sorts of random fruit.  “Heritage” funding, for instance, includes such things as war memorials, botanical gardens, zoos and some national parks expenditure. That’s a pretty different sort of thing to grants to game design companies or tax incentives to Hollywood movie studios. Does it actually make sense to treat all of these things as the same sort of expenditure?

Anyway, moving on:

To make this exercise fun, let’s suppose that no political horse-trading was involved in reaching this figure. Let’s assume this figure is the result of disinterested economic calculation of the size of the positive externality in the production of a public good, all wrapped in willingness-to-pay studies, and tied with a big bright cost-benefit ribbon.

So what’s next?

Do we put away our box of shiny economic tools and turn to grubby political compromise to allocate the exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding?

In Australia, as in Europe, this is more or less what we do. Economics to justify an economically efficient level of spending – and politics to implement it.

Really? Last time I looked, in most nation-states, including most democracies, politics is almost always the over-riding factor in the way  budget priorities are set. Sure, politicians and lobbyists and ordinary citizens use economic arguments to make the case for this spending increase or that tax cut. But the process is always and by definition political. On the really big picture stuff, economics arguably can’t really help us. For instance, how much should Australia invest in national defence, or climate change mitigation? The answer depends on inherently political judgments, such as whether you think global warming is real, or the likelihood of a major war.

Indeed, ‘economic efficiency’ is itself an inherently political argument, because it applies a very particular set of assumptions to public policy — namely that Pareto efficiency can actually hold in the first place. In markets in which there is imperfect information — and cultural markets are amongst the most opaque of all — Pareto efficiency may well be impossible. Potts knows this, which is why his quip about the “exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding” strikes me as disingenuous.

So let’s get to the guts of Potts’ argument:

… modern economics suggests that it would be better if we turned the process upside down. Let politicians determine the level of funding in a given area – and let economists determine the allocation.

Why? The political model of funding allocation is very bad at creating – or even recognising – new knowledge. In fact, political allocation mechanisms cause incentives that reward lobbying and punish experimental or innovative thinking.

Only by weakening those incentives can arts and cultural funding seek to be more than a rearguard preservation exercise or sinecure for vested interests.

I suppose it’s something of ad hominem attack to point this out, but it’s just a tad ironic that the person making this argument is a Federation Fellow of a publicly funded Australian university. A person writing for a website, by the way, also funded by universities and the government, using a medium — the internet — that was created almost exclusively by public investment in research.

“Political allocation mechanisms”, by which I think Potts means governments making budget decisions, certainly create incentives that reward lobbying. Then again, so do market mechanisms. Markets require the state to provide a level playing field via such basic institutions as property rights, police forces and courts of law. All of these create incentives for vested interests to plead their cause.

This is no trivial point, by the way: the cultural industries are completely dependent on intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents. The very fact that many cultural goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable creates huge incentives for content industries to lobby governments to create and strengthen IP regulations — as has been well documented by researchers such as Lessig. When property rights become unenforceable, digital goods become a whole lot less valuable. Anyway, Potts’ claim was that public spending creates lobbying, which is bad. On this analysis, many of the cherished market mechanisms of the cultural industries must also be bad, because they were created via lobbying.

This points to a further naievete: the implicit belief that cultural goods and services are just like any other industrial product.

Even a moment’s reflection shows us this isn’t true. The products of cultural industries are not like any old widget or commodity: they are not even really the same thing as an iPhone or an operating system. Cultural industries produce symbols, and symbols are powerful (or at least highly influential). An aluminium ingot or a wind turbine cannot affect the democratic judgment or voting intentions of millions of citizens. A newspaper empire or television network can.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think that the power of media companies to swing elections is illusory. The history of modern media policy tells us that governments certainly do think symbols are powerful. Media has generally often been heavily regulated, sometimes on the grounds of public interest, but more commonly for naked reasons of political expediency. Even in the US, with its famous First Amendment, successive Washington administrations have had no qualms about controlling spectrum, imposing stringent copyright regulations, and spying extensively on their citizens’ communications. Hosni Mubarak turned off the internet in Egypt for a reason. Whether it’s internet filters or the Stationers Company, the political nature of cultural industries means they can’t be divorced from questions of power.

This curious ignorance of the symbolic reality of culture is often found amongst unsophisticated approaches to cultural economics — much as economics as taught in the modern university tends to ignore key aspects of sociology. As a result, when economists issue prescriptions for cultural policy, they tend to propose cures that are far worse than the supposed disease.

Perhaps this is why Potts misconstrues key facts about real-life cultural policy. For instance, he seems to think arts funding is about “inputs, not outputs”, when in fact nearly all Australian government arts grants are legal contracts specifying outcomes, allowing the government to recoup the funding if not properly acquitted. He also equates prizes as some sort of gold standard of outcome, which is strange because prize committees show exactly the sort of “bullshit” he decries in grant panels.

Similarly, when he argues for “tax credits to anyone – private citizen, corporation, foundation or NGO alike – for spending on arts and culture”, he seems to imply these don’t currently exist. In fact, they do. An individual donating to a DGR-status cultural organisation already receives a tax credit, while a non-profit NGO or foundation already pays no tax beyond the GST.

The minefield of cultural measurement

First published at artsHub, 14 August 2013

Arts strategist Julianne Schultz says we need to start measuring the value of culture, an important but risky venture.

In a speech as part of the Currency House Art and Public Life series in Sydney today, Professor Schulz called on the arts sector to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsic value of the work produced by artists.

Schultz, who chaired the Reference Group on the National Cultural Policy, said the arts should take advantage of new measuring tools.

For very good reasons we have been diffident about measuring the value of culture. It feels wrong in many ways. We have accepted as a mantra that there are some things that are so intrinsically valuable that they defy quantification. I am not unsympathetic to that view. Robert Kennedy expressed it with great eloquence many years ago, when he decried that we know measure the value of everything except that which is most valuable. In the intervening years new ways of measuring some of these things of value have been created – and that is important. In the arts and culture sector we have opted for a proxy measurement of value, the number of tickets sold, the number of visitors and their multipliers, the profitability of organisations and so on. These are important tools, but not sufficient to capture the public value that accrues from engagement in cultural activities. Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured, now it is. We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it. We have to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsi’c value of the work produced by artists and the costs that fall disproportionately on them and their families because their work is not properly valued; the institutional in terms of a national ethos which draws visitors or inspires productive innovation; the instrumental value, like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives, and the commercial value which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors.

 

It’s not easy being an arts policy nerd. As policy fields go, the area is a lot smaller and less influential than key political battlegrounds like economics, climate change or asylum seekers. Public intellectuals with clout in the field are few in number, and there is no high profile think-tank with easy access to media outlets, like a Climate Institute or an Institute for Public Affairs. Even the vested interests are not particularly organized: industry bodies such as APRA or SPAA don’t strike quite the same fear into a minister’s heart as the Minerals Council of Australia, the Pharmacy Guild or the AI Group.

The thin and patchy nature of cultural policy debate has a number of consequences. One is that discussion tends to languish for long periods. The fitful progress of the national cultural policy towards its eventual outcome in Creative Australia is a good example. First mooted by Peter Garrett as opposition Arts spokesman in 2006, the policy was finally delivered this year.

But the threadbare nature of the cultural policy discussion can have positive consequences too. One is that prominent artists and intellectuals have an unusually strong influence. While the big debates about economic policy are fiercely contested by powerful players, and correspondingly crowded with talking heads, cultural policy is comparatively empty. The few players of significance that do take the field have unusual freedom to move.

Amongst this small coterie, one figure has reached an unquestionable position of influence: Julianne Schultz. From her seemingly peripheral position as the editor of a small but respected magazine, Schultz has spun a web of influence that places her firmly at the centre of the Australian artistic and cultural debate. A key consultant to a succession of Labor arts ministers, Schultz co-chaired the creative stream of the 2020 Summit and went on to lead the reference group for the Creative Australia policy. She’s on the board of the ABC and the Grattan Institute, chairs the Australian Film Television and Radio School, as well as wearing a haberdashery of other hats. When The Australian’s Matt Westwood profiled her last year, she described her intellectual background as ‘broadly cultural, but … from a journalism-media background.’

This breadth of interests and networks makes Schultz a voice worth listening to, especially when, as she did this morning, she advances a bold new policy agenda to build on Creative Australia.

The take-home message of Schultz’ speech this morning concerns the need for an expanded Ministry of Culture. This new super-department would bring together existing federal programs and agencies in a cabinet-level Department. The precedents are strong for such a body overseas: France’s Socialist government of the 1980s was famous for its swashbuckling culture minister, Jack Lang. As Schultz observed today:

At the moment not even all the national collecting institutions answer to the same minister, heritage is in environment, cultural diplomacy and UNESCO are in DFAT, industry assistance for the creative industries is in innovation and climate change, tourism and sport are elsewhere, trade is not linked in any consistent way, broadcasting is in broadband and the digital economy, there are programs in education and health, and regional affairs funds the building facilities and gives prizes for regional arts.

[…]

Such a department would be able to address the cultural sector as a whole, bring a fresh and critical perspective to the sustainability of the component parts with rigorous economic analysis by taking the lead on developing the tools to measure public value.  Its ethos would be sympathetic to cultural potential. It would complement not replicate agencies, like the Australia Council and Screen Australia that allocate funds – so that the arm’s length relationship between cultural production and government, which is so highly valued would be maintained.

Schultz’s proposal is both bold and sensible, and echoes my thinking on the subject; in 2010, I proposed a similarly structured portfolio.

Other aspects of Schultz’ speech are just as interesting, though they will perhaps receive less attention. One argument she makes that could potentially be a game-changer is the need for a much broader and deeper set of cultural statistics and indicators.

‘Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured,’ she points out. ‘Now it is.’

‘We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it.’

There’s no doubt that measurement drives public policy, as the long-running evidence-based policy debate inside the public service amply demonstrates. The ‘poor cousin’ status of the arts and culture within government agencies stems, in part, from the fact that it remains very hard to measure the community value of a beautiful artwork or a provocative documentary. As former top bureaucrats like Leigh Tabrett have told us, the all-powerful central agencies of government – especially Treasury and Finance – are still highly skeptical of the value of the arts and culture, seeing it as warm and fuzzy window-dressing compared to the serious stuff of roads, schools and hospitals.

Echoing an important stream of the academic debate about measuring culture, Schultz says there should be much more effort devoted to measuring the so-called ‘intrinsic’ value of the arts, for instance by using sophisticated tools from economics to measure the ‘contingent valuation’ of the arts by ordinary citizens. So, for instance, the public could be polled and asked what they would be willing to pay for a new art gallery in a regional city, or whether they’d like to spend more on public broadcasting than the ABC’s famous “eight cents a day’. When such exercises have been tried I other countries, they have consistently yielded answers in excess of current government funding levels.

Schultz also says there are a range of other measurements that could better capture the value of the arts, including instrumental value, ‘like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives,’ as well as economic factors, ‘which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors’.

It all sounds very useful, and arts advocates would no doubt love extra arguments with which to persuade skeptical razor gangs in Finance and Treasury. But by stepping into the minefield of cultural measurement, Schultz – and Australian culture in general – will need to tread carefully. The most recent attempt to develop such measures in the UK, for instance, developed detailed proposals to measure the value of the arts in Britain using contingent valuation [pdf]. Sadly, they were little help when faced with George Osborne’s austerity drive.

Not all metrics are created equal. Just yesterday, for instance, Essential Research released an opinion poll in which those surveyed said they were unhappy about Australia’s ongoing budget deficit, and would like to see cuts to arts funding to help pay for it. And if there’s one measurement every politician understands, it’s a poll.

Australian federal budget 2011: wrap-up of arts and cultural funding

The following article appeared in Crikey on Friday May 13th 2011. 

The 2011 federal budget contained some modest announcements for the arts and culture.

In the Arts portfolio, the government delivered on its 2010 election promise for $10 million over five years in new grants for artists to create work. The funding will support “up to 150 additional artistic works, presentations and fellowships over the next five years through the New Support for the Arts program.”

As well, $400,000 has been found for the federal government’s Contemporary Music Touring Program, a successful program which supports popular mid-level contemporary music acts to tour regional areas.

In broadcasting, $12.5 million has been provided for the proverbially penurious community radio sector, an increase of 25% for a critical area of broadcasting that generally receives very little government support

There was also a package for the screen industry, with a headline figure of $66 million (as we will see, it is actually less than this). Much of the extra money goes to production subsidies through the tax system in the form of lower qualifying thresholds for the Screen Production Incentive. According to Screen Australia, the changes include:

  • Lowering the threshold for Producer Offset eligibility from $1 million to $500,000, for features, TV and online programs

  • Replacing the Producer Offset for low-budget docos with a Producer Equity payment

  • Converting the 65 episode cap to 65 commercial hours for TV

  • Exempting documentaries from the 20% above-the-line cap

  • A reduction in qualifying Australian production expenditure thresholds, and allowances for a broader range of expenses to be eligible for QAPE.

Some really good news is the restoration of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ screen industry survey, which provided gold-standard data on the state of the industry and which hasn’t been performed since 2007-08 (shortly before the Rudd government slashed funding to the ABS in its first budget).

But how much new money for screen is really here? Go to Budget Paper 2 and you will find that the total extra funding is only $8 million. This is because, quoting from the budget papers, “these changes will be partly offset by $48 million in savings over four years from 2011-12 by removing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) amounts from [qualifying production expenditure] for the film tax offsets and increasing the minimum expenditure thresholds for documentaries to $500,000 in production (from the current threshold of $250,000).”

Money is also being clawed back from cultural agencies through the increased efficiency dividend. Rising to 1.5% in future years, the efficiency dividend hits smaller agencies much harder than big ones. And everything in the arts is small.

The efficiency dividend measures mean the Australia Council is being asked to save $3.3 million over the forward estimates, the Australian Film Television and Radio School will have to find $1 million, the National Film and Sound Archive $1.1 million, the National Gallery $1.4 million, the National Library $2.1 million, the National Museum $1.7, and Screen Australia $759,000. That’s more than $12 million in funding cuts for cultural agencies over the forward estimates.

If we look a little closer at the portfolio budget statements, for instance from the Australia Council, we can see the effects of the efficiency dividend in falling support for artists and cultural organisations. This year there will be “a decrease of approximately $2.5 million in forecast grants expenses compared with 2010-11.” Australia Council grants funding will be only 2% above 2010 levels in 2014-15. But CPI is forecast to run at 3% annually, meaning Australia Council support for artists and organisations will fall in real terms — by perhaps as much as 10%.

In other words, the “New Funding for the Arts” money announced in this budget will be almost completely clawed back by the effects of static funding and the increased efficiency dividend on the Australia Council.

The one really big-ticket spending item in culture was of dubious policy value: the $376 million spend on helping pensioners and senior Australians to make the switch to digital TV. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has already pilloried the program as “Building the Entertainment Revolution”, while our own Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer have pointed out “the political imperative of ensuring pensioners aren’t left without television as analog signals switch off”.

Personally, I’m sympathetic to the argument that television represents an important human service that allows older Australians to stay connected with the broader community. But the spending program should also be seen in the context of the broader budget, in which $211 million in spending is being “saved” from aged care itself. The government appears to be prioritising access to daytime television over places in aged-care facilities.

Money for art and culture is often spuriously disparaged by critics as diverting resources away from the critical services that governments provide. In reality, of course, the numbers are tiny compared to the investments annually in roads, schools and hospitals. But in this case it really does seem as though the owners of television networks are getting a subsidy at the expense of much-needed investment in aged care infrastructure.


Why AFACT’s piracy statistics are junk

Yesterday, the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (let’s call them AFACT or perhaps ‘Big Content’ for short) lost their appeal in the long-running and important copyright infringement suit against Australian ISP iiNet. As usual, some of the best commentary can be found by Stilgherrian (who really does need a second name, don’t you think?):

If you came in after intermission, you’ll pick up the plot quick enough. AFACT said iiNet’s customers were illegally copying movies, which they were, but iiNet hadn’t acted on AFACT’s infringement notices to stop them. AFACT reckoned that made iiNet guilty of “authorising” the copyright infringement, as the legal jargon goes. iiNet disagreed, refusing to act on what they saw as mere allegations. AFACT sued.

In the Federal Court a year ago, Justice Dennis Cowdroy found comprehensively in favour of iiNet. It was a slapdown for AFACT. AFACT appealed, and yesterday lost. Headlines with inevitable sporting metaphors described it as  two-nil win for iiNet.

But read the full decision and things aren’t so clear-cut.

One of the three appeals judges was in favour of AFACT’s appeal being dismissed. Another was also in favour of dismissal, but reasoned things differently from Justice Cowdroy’s original ruling. But the third judge, Justice Jayne Jagot, supported the appeal, disagreeing with Justice Cowdroy’s reasoning on the two core elements — whether iiNet authorised the infringements and whether, even if they had so authorised them, they were then protected by the safe harbour provisions of the Copyright Act.

There’s plenty of meat for an appeal to the High Court, and that’s exactly where this will end up going. Wake me when we get there.

As I argued today, also in Crikey, it’s ironic that Big Content seems to be about the only business lobby group in the country arguing for more regulation and red tape.

But the copyright case also comes in the wake of an interesting little micro-controversy about piracy statistics, released by AFACT late last week. Aided by an economics consultancy and a market research firm, AFACT released an impressive-seeming report that claimed that movie piracy was costing Australia $1.4 billion and 6,100 jobs a year.

Electronic Frontiers Australia made some pretty valid criticisms of the research, including the following:

1. The assumption that 45% of downloads equal lost sales is unproven and insufficient evidence is provided to support it. The survey method cited is better than assuming 100% of downloads are lost sales, but there is better analysis in other studies – for example this piece by Lawrence Lessig. If the study was correct, sales of DVDs and attendance at cinemas would be much more reduced than the reported industry figures. In fact, the movie industry is making record profits.

2. It can’t be ignored that downloads have an advertising effect both on the product downloaded and future releases. To the extent sales may be lost, these must be offset against other gains from advertising.

3. Gross revenue is not the relevant metric, due to variables such as investment in capital, distribution and costs of sales. Many of the movies downloaded may not have been available to view or buy in Australia. Profit is the metric of importance, but this is never studied.

4. Flow-on effects to other industries are wholly speculative, and lost tax on profits assumes the entities pay Australian company tax on sales pro-rata to revenue, which is not intuitive or evidenced. It also assumes that money not spent on movies is lost to the economy, instead of helping to create jobs in other sectors.

5. Peer to peer file sharing is merely the latest in a sequence of technologies since the 19th century which have been claimed to be the ruin of the creative arts. See chapter 15 “Piracy” by Adrian Johns (University of Chicago Press 2009) – the copyright owners said the same thing about copies of sheet music, tape recorders, every iteration of personal recording system and indeed public radio. However, “home piracy” acts not only as a loss to industry but also as a boon to distribution, bypassing censorship and limitations on sales by official outlets.

6. The report suffers, as have other industry-funded studies, from “GIGO”. With an assumption that “downloads = losses” unproven, all conclusions estimating the size of the loss are equally unproven. What if a vibrant sharing culture increases total sales for media respected as quality by consumers, but reduces sales of hyped media? (Research has shown that the biggest downloaders in fact spend more on entertainment than non-downloaders.)

7. The call-to-action of this report is obviously to “crack down on piracy”, shifting the cost of file-sharing from the industry to the taxpayer via increased law-enforcement. No industry, let alone the foreign-dominated entertainment industry, deserves a free ride for its business model. If instead, the industry noted that the report says 55% of downloads created a market for sales, much of which is unsatisfied due to current restrictive trade practices, then its future profitability would be in its own hands.

8. Repeated studies have demonstrated that the entertainment industry vies for money and commitment of time with all other forms of entertainment. The Internet, computer games and mobile telecommunication applications take “eyeballs and dollars” away from DVD and CD sales, but also sports arenas, sales of board games and printed works. Magazines are also suffering from a reduced value proposition with the Internet, and some forms of entertainment and some businesses in the industry will no doubt find it difficult to remain vibrant. Change is consumer-driven, and it’s futile for the industry to try to hold fast to a business model and methods of content distribution which are dying with or without fierce law enforcement of copyrights.

Unsurprisingly, AFACT  have responded, attacking EFA’s arguments.

Notably, AFACT replies that:

“The study does not assume that ‘downloads = losses’. As stated above, some 32 per cent of respondents said that they viewed an authorised version of a movie after watching the pirated version. As a result, 32 per cent of ‘all pirate views’ were removed from the ‘lost revenue’ calculations and were treated as ‘sampling’.”

This is a valid argument. AFACT has indeed removed these later viewings from their lost revenue calculations. But, as I’ll explore below, this doesn’t mean that AFACT’s methodology is sound.

AFACT’s other replies are far less persuasive. Take this line:

“It should be clearly noted that in almost all of these cases government or technology provided a barrier to prevent continued rampant infringement. In the case of public radio, legislation provided statutory copyright royalties. VHS and cassette tape may have been efficient technologies for recording, but in terms of cost and quality (analog degrades with time) they proved not to be efficient for distribution at that time. Laws were also designed to prevent mass distribution of pirated VHS tapes. Solutions, whether legislative, technological or otherwise are currently required to prevent or deter the unfettered digital distribution of pirated versions of copyrighted content.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a rubbish argument. Statutory copyright royalties for broadcasters were not barriers to listeners – they were income streams to publishers. And, in fact, as EFA point out, radio proved to be such a powerful marketing tool for music labels that record companies regularly resorted to payola and other measures to get their songs on high-rating radio stations. This argument is a classic tautology: because AFACT believe that regulatory barriers are necessary to prevent infringement, they argue that the reason previous technologies didn’t lead to “rampant infrignement” was because they were strictly regulated. You don’t need a degree in logic to spot the flaw in this argument.

So who’s right?

On the whole, EFA has the better of the exchange. Indeed, there are plenty more holes you can pick in AFACT’s methodology if you wish. To start with, let’s examine their laughable “Annex 1” in the full report. This purports to explain how ABS input-output tables are used to generate a final figure for total piracy impact in terms of lost sales and job losses.

I’d like to say I carefully checked their methodology for its econometric accuracy. Unfortunately, I can’t – because the authors at Oxford Economics and Ipsos don’t publish their equations; nor do they publish their raw data.

Just as an exercise, I downloaded the ABS input-output tables and attempted to match the ABS data to the AFACT report. It’s impossible. The data tables in the AFACT report which might allow that kind of scrutiny are missing.

What Annex 1 does tell us is that Oxford Economics and Ipsos have made all sorts of behind-the-scenes calculations to do with the exact value of the multipliers they use and the precise allocation of various ABS industry data to various categories of their assumptions. But they don’t tell us how these figures were arrived at. To get a flavour of the opacity of the modelling, here’s their full explanation of two of the the multipliers they use:

Type II multipliers of 2.5 (Gross Output) and 1.1 (GDP) were estimated. This covers activity in the Australian motion picture exhibition, production and distribution industries as well as TV VOD, internet VOD, downloads of motion pictures and the retailing of these motion pictures

There is no further explanation of how the numbers of 2.5 and 1.1 were “estimated” and no equation which shows us what they multiply. Hence, it is literally impossible to verify, cross-check or otherwise scrutinise these figures. Indeed, the full report contains no true methods section. In other words, the academic credibility of these figures should be zero.

This rubbish is just another example of how lobby groups use consultants-for-hire to create vocal scare campaigns based on fictitious figures. It’s junk modelling, ordered up for the express purpose of industry rent-seeking.

Crikey’s Bernard Keane explained it helpfully for us in relation to climate lobbying in 2010:

This what you do:

  1. Commission a report from one of the many of economics consultancies that have broken out like a plague of boils in the past decade.  This should feature modelling demonstrating the near-apocalyptic consequences of even minor reform.  Even if your industry is growing strongly, you should refer to any lower rates of future growth as costing X thousands of jobs, without letting on that those jobs don’t actually exist yet, and might never exist due to a variety of other factors.
  2. Dress up the report as “independent”, slap a media-friendly press release on the top and circulate it to journalists before release, with the offer of an interview of the relevant industry or company head.
  3. Hire a well-connected lobbyist to press your case in Canberra.  When the stakes are high, commission some polling to demonstrate that a crucial number of voters in crucial marginal seats are ready to change their vote on this very issue.

The diffusion of the printing press in Europe, 1450-1500

These maps are just too pretty not to re-post. They come from Jeremiah Dittmar’s fascinating new paper, Information Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press.

The diffusion of the printing press, 1450-1500. Source: Jeremiah Dittmar.

There’s a good summary of the paper at Vox, but the take-home message is probably in two parts. Firstly:

  • First, the printing press was an urban technology, producing for urban consumers.
  • Second, cities were seedbeds for economic ideas and social groups that drove the emergence of modern growth.
  • Third, city sizes were historically important indicators of economic prosperity, and broad-based city growth was associated with macroeconomic growth (Bairoch 1988, Acemoglu et al. 2005).

And secondly:

I find that cities in which printing presses were established 1450-1500 had no prior growth advantage, but subsequently grew far faster than similar cities without printing presses. My work uses a difference-in-differences estimation strategy to document the association between printing and city growth. The estimates suggest early adoption of the printing press was associated with a population growth advantage of 21 percentage points 1500-1600, when mean city growth was 30 percentage points. The difference-in-differences model shows that cities that adopted the printing press in the late 1400s had no prior growth advantage, but grew at least 35 percentage points more than similar non-adopting cities from 1500 to 1600.

The worsening woes of the (recorded) music industry

From the Guardian‘s inestimable Charles Arthur comes a must-read post on the gloomy future of the record industry. Because it’s so good, I’ve re-posted here in full:

Bad news for the music industry. And it comes in threes.

First, Warner Music (which might be thinking of buying EMI from Citigroup?) reported its numbers for the fourth calendar quarter of 2010(which is actually its fiscal first quarter). Oh dear. Total revenue ($789m) down 14% from 2009, down 12% on constant currency basis (ie allowing for exchange rate fluctuation); digital revenue of $187m was 24% of total revenue (yay!), up 2% from last year (oooh), but sequentially down by 5%, or 7% on constant currency.

Operating income before depreciation and amortisation down 20% to $90m, from $112m a year ago. All of which led to a net loss of $18m, compared to a net loss of $17m a year before. In other words, things are still bad there. And it’s still got some heavy gearing: cash is $263m, long-term debt is $1.94bn. Warner might want to buy EMI, but it would put a hell of a strain on it. And the music business isn’t exactly looking like a place where you’d want a bank putting your money.

Second, Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist who spends upwards of $60 per month – and by his estimate around $2,000 annually – on music and music subscriptions was forced to turn pirate in order to get hold of the new Streets album:

“searched the Internet for the record. It was not even listed in iTunes or emusic. It was listed on Amazon US as an import that would be available on Feb 15th, but only in CD form. I’m not buying plastic just to rip the files and throw it out. Seeing as it was an import, I searched Amazon UK. And there I found the record in mp3 form for 4 pounds. It was going to be released on Feb 4th. I made a mental note to come back and get it when it was released. I got around to doing that today. I clicked on “buy with one click” and was greeted with this nonsense “

Which was Amazon saying that because he wasn’t in the UK, he couldn’t buy it. Unable to find a VPN that would let him masquerade as a Briton, he took the next step:

“So reluctantly, I went to a bit torrent search. I found plenty of torrents for the record and quickly had the record in mp3 form. That took less than a minute compared to the 20+ minutes I wasted trying pretty hard to buy the record legally.

“This is fucked up. I want to pay for music. I value the content. But selling it to some people in some countries and not selling it to others is messed up. And selling it in CD only format is messed up. And posting the entire record on the web for streaming without making the content available for purchase is messed up.”

Well, you could argue that an inability to actually wait for the few weeks, perhaps a month, before he could hear the songs via a licensed US label was what’s messed up. Is there no other music in the world that he can hear first? Nobody else? True, it would make sense if contracts were signed so that everything happened at once. But the record industry is still rather like the book industry: because it generates most of its money from physical things, it organises itself around those things.

And finally to Mark Mulligan, music analyst at Forrester Research.Writing on the Midem blog, Mulligan points out that “Digital music is at an impasse” because “it has not achieved any of its three key objectives”, specifically:

1 – to offset the impact of declining CD sales
2 – to generate a format replacement cycle and
3 – to compete effectively with piracy.

Mulligan notes that

“the divergence between emerging consumer behaviour and legitimate music products is widening at an alarming rate. And consumers are voting with their feet: Forrester’s latest consumer data shows digital music activity adoption is flat across ALL activity types compared to 1 year previously (in fact the data shows a slight decline).”

The hope on the part of the music business that the iPod, and the iTunes Store, and then digital music stores of all sorts, would be its saviour has turned out to be false. As Mulligan notes,

“all music activity is niche, except for video. Just 10% of Europeans and 18% of US consumers pay for digital music. Only music video has more than 20% adoption (and only in Europe at that): YouTube is digital music’s killer app.”

(If you are, or know, any young teenagers you”ll know that this is absolutely true. YouTube, and of course in Europe also Spotify. The problem with Spotify being, in the eyes of the record companies, that it simply doesn’t pay them enough. Whereas in Spotify’s eyes the record companies have for too long demanded too much.)

Mulligan adds that the “transition generation” – the 16-24 year-olds – aren’t the future. Instead, the future lies with the 12-15 year olds.

“In fact, when you look closely at the activities where 16-24’s over-index [do more than other age cohorts], you can see that their activity coalesces around recreating analogue behaviours in a digital context. The 16-24’s started out in the analogue era. They are the transition generation with transitional behaviours.

“The 12-15 year olds, though, don’t have analog baggage. All they’ve known is digital. Online video and mobile are their killer apps. These Digital Natives see music as the pervasive soundtrack to their interactive, immersive, social environments. Ownership matters less. Place of origin matters less. But context and experience are everything. The Digital Natives are hugely disruptive, but their disruption needs harnessing.”

So why does this matter, asks Mulligan? Because

“current digital music product strategy is built around the transition generation with transition products to meet their transitional needs and expectations. Neither the 99 cent download and the 9.99 streaming subscription are the future. They are transition products. They were useful for bridging the gap between analogue and digital, to get us on the first step of the digital path, but now it’s time to start the journey in earnest. We’d be naïve to argue that we’re anything close to the end game yet. But the problem is that consumer demand has already outpaced product evolution, again.”

It’s time, he argues, for the music companies to deal with the world as it is, rather than as it used to be or as they liked it. Many in the business will tell you that that is exactly what they are doing; and nothing that Mulligan says in any way detracts from the (real) efforts that are being made by many record executives, who are not as clueless or uninformed as many would like to think. Instead, they’re frequently dealing with institutional and sector-based inertia that’s hard to get moving. Plus if Simon Cowell can discover a singer on a talent show and propel her to the top of the UK and US album charts (the first British act since the Beatles to achieve that), selling millions of CDs, well, is his strategy so wrong and everyone else’s somehow so right? Realities like that give even the most digital executive pause.

Back to Mulligan, who points out that

“the digital natives have only ever known a world with on-demand access based music experiences. …And the experience part is crucial. In a post-content-scarcity world where all content is available, experience is now everything. Experience IS the product. With the contagion of free infecting everything the content itself is no longer king. Experience now has the throne.”

So what’s needed? He thinks future music products need “SPARC” (no, not the Sun processor architecture). Digital music products, he says, must be:
• Social: put the crowd in the cloud
• Participative: make them interactive and immersive
• Accessible: ownership still matters but access matters more
• Relevant: ensure they co-exist and joint the dots in the fragmented digital environment
• Connected: 174m Europeans have two or more connected devices. Music fans are connected and expect their music experiences to be also.

His parting shot: “Music products must harness disruption, that isn’t in question. What is, is whether they do so quickly enough to prevent another massive chunk of the marketplace disappearing for good?”

I think Warner may have answered that already, actually.

My commentary: after reading this, if you were a music industry executive you’d probably want to slash your wrists. But things may be both worse and better than it seems  for the big music publishers. Here’s why.

Firstly, experience can be excluded, branded and sold. The predominant form of musical experience today is not the download but the live music festival or concert. Large multinationals are already aggressively into this space (think LiveNation) and we should expect this to continue. Secondly, experience can be a good as well as a service: that is, really well produced and packaged vinyl can be an experience (although only a niche experience – but then again, all music is niche now anyway). Finally, certain aspects of the music market are not being disrupted in the same way as downloadable songs – for instance, royalty streams where the end customer is large enough to warrant legal pursuit by collection agencies.

On the other hand, in some ways, things really are as bad if not worse than the Forrester report suggests. Free music is not going away, and today’s teenagers really don’t expect to pay for it. That battle is over. So the future for recorded music may really be truly non-excludable and free. That’s a challenge that no-one in the industry seems willing to face up to, even those advocating streaming or subscription models. Finally, the recent history of the music industry suggests that music publishing executives – indeed, musicians themselves – struggle to understand the new paradigm, even twelve years after Napster.

Ben Davis on the rise of art news and the crisis of art criticism

Clement Greenberg. Image: Chicago Art Criticism

At ArtInfo.com, Ben Davis has a thoughtful and I think largely accurate description of the rise and rise of news media about the visual arts industry over the past decade – at the expense of art criticism:

The expanding market for “art news” coincided with the ballooning of the more commercial side of the art world in the ’00s: the explosion of art fairs (Art Basel Miami Beach debuted in 2002, Frieze in 2003), the rise of the “ego-seum,” the hunger of corporations to tap high-culture cachet (Takashi Murakami’s team-up with Louis Vuitton was in 2003), the triumph of art-as-investment, and the “emerging artist” wave that saw galleries harvest kids fresh out of school (Alex McQuilken’s “Fucked,” a video of the 19-year-old artist having sex made while she was at NYU, famously sold out at the 2002 Armory Show). But everything about “theory-crit” requires the reader to buy the idea that the academy is the most important tastemaking center. Thus, the commercial explosion created a space where all the stuff about the market and the social scene, institutional moves and their political ramifications, actually feels more relevant than the most “serious” criticism.

And there’s the rub, of course. Art news is more relevant than art criticism in the year 2011, because almost no-one reads or takes art criticism seriously. What mattes in the art world nowadays is the money, in the way that what matters in publishing and in Hollywood are best-sellers and blockbusters. Critics will remain interesting, insightful and even incisive, but the days when a powerful critic such as Clement Greenberg could effectively ignite and then police an entire art movement are, at least for the foreseeable future, probably over.

Some thoughts on cultural innovation and cultural policy, via the Victorian election

I’ve been away from the blog for the last little bit, but the break has given me the opportunity to do some sustained reading and thinking about some of the bigger philosophical issues that revolve around the ideas of “new work”, originality and innovation, and what these might tell us about cultural policy and the everyday experience of creating and experiencing art.

Rather than mount an entire academic paper’s worth of argument here, I’m going to take things from the particular and work my way back to the general … which might well be putting the cart before the horse, but should chart a course for you (and me).

Let’ s tart off with a bit of real-world cultural policy: today’s announcement by the Victorian Labor Party that it plans to amalgamate all of Victoria’s “cultural” agencies into a new mega-department called “Creative Victoria”:

“Under Creative Victoria, cultural organisations and industries currently overseen by Arts Victoria and those relating to screen, digital games and design that reside with the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development will be brought under the one banner.”

Those who’ve studied a bit of the recent history of cultural policy will know this is thoroughly reminiscent of the formation of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport by Tony Blair’s government in 1997 – the administrative move which is generally considered to have started the whole “creative industries” ball rolling.  There is now a pretty deep literature about the DCMS, it’s lofty intentions, actual actions and the sociological and theoretical underpinnings of the move. A few of the best papers have even been covered here in this blog – Phillip Schleshinger’s paper on think-tanks, Justin O’Connor’s literature review, Toby Miller’s anti-creative industries critique, and Nicholas Garnham’s “From Cultural to Creative Industries” paper of 2005.

As Garnham observes in his paper,

… the use of the term “creative industries” … draws its political and ideological power from the prestige and economic importance attached to concepts of innovation, information, information workers and the impact of information and communication technologies drawn from information society theory.

Garnham puts his finger on the critical point: that creative industries policy is a political idea that can be traced to ideas championing the economic value of creative innovation. Richard Florida and Australia’s CCI centre, while they would not see themselves as fellow-travellers, are indeed partly responsible for promoting to policy-makers these ideas.

Innovation is one of the key terms here, because it the mechanism through which this school of thought connects creativity to economic growth. A case in point is Paul Stoneman’s recent book Soft Innovation. A ‘soft innovation’ is roughly an aesthetic innovation that can be fitted into existing neoclassical concepts of ecocnomic innovation, such as the so-called “technological, process and product” (or “TPP”) innovation defined and insitutionalised by bodies such as the OECD. Stoneman is an economist, and his project aims to carve out a meaningful space for aesthetic innovations in the cultural industries (like books, films and games) in the existing economic theory of innovation. (This poses a few problems, because his models are neoclassical ones which assume things like perfect comeptition, rational consumers and markets that always clear … that doesn’t sound much like the music industry in the era of The Pirate Bay to me.)

Another line of research comes from the CCI’s Jason Potts, who sees the creative industries from an evolutionary economic perspective in which the act as a kind of meta-industrial economic cluster that provide transformative innovations to the broader economy … a sort of storm-cell generating constant gales of Schumperterian creative destruction, if you will.

Both Potts and Stoneman are interested in innovation in a specifically economic sense, which is interesting in itself. They are not overtly interested in, for example, the social consequences or preconditions of cultural innovation, and you would be hard-pressed to fit them into any kind of sociological understanding of innovation such as the social production of art or the social reception and consumption of art.

This matters, because by the time these ideas get bowdlerised and compressed into an election promise, cultural policy begins to force ideas of art and culture into a highly reductionist framework. As they are understood by governments, the value of the creative industries then begins to look like large matrices of employment and income data, and probably of a less-nuanced nature than the gold-standard data like that collated by Peter Higgs.

What we could expect in Victoria under this policy, then, is some sort of gradual skew of cultural policy away from ideas of participation and access, and towards economically-validated special pleading for various well-connected organisations and firms within the creative sector, much as Garnham described happened in Britain. Festivals and “flagship” performing arts organisations are probably best-placed to benefit from this skew, because of their media profile and the social capital they enjoy amongst well-connected board members. Paradoxically, independent artists and small collectives might also benefit, perhaps, out of a general realisation that they provide essential seed-beds of start-ups necessary for the generation of “innovation” – understood as bringing a cultural product to market, of course. Community arts organisations and service agencies may not find the new paradigm as easy to manage.

I’m going to sketch out some more ideas about what I think are some of the problems of innovation theory as it is being applied to cultural policy in a future post.

Foremost among them will be the contention that we need to rescue the idea of innovation from the economists, because the creation of new ideas and artworks often occurs outside markets, for anti-rational reasons, and produces harms as well as benefits. Indeed, there is a strong case that can argued in analogy from theories  in science and technology studies that ideas like “innovation” and “new work” are themselves socially constructed and open to contestation, resistance and subversion – one reason perhaps that Rosalind Krauss famously described “the originality of the avant-garde” as a “modernist myth“.

The Times paywall: what do the numbers tell us?

The preliminary numbers on The Times paywall are in … and no-one quite knows what to make of them.

Paid Content argues that while web readership has fallen off a cliff (as expected), the modest number of ongoing subscribes offers some hope for the future.

Roy Greenslade says its early days but the numbers probably don’t add up:

I am told that iPad numbers are “jumping around” all the time.

But there has been no attempt to counter my source’s view that there has been a measure of disappointment about online-only take-up.

Many people who tried out access in the early weeks have not returned. However, it is also true to say that some daily subscribers have been impressed enough to sign up on a weekly basis.

And it is also the case that the Sunday Times‘s iPad app has yet to launch. It is hoped that this will boost figures considerably, though I have my reservations about that.

I think, once we delve further into these figures, they will support the view that News Int’s paywall experiment has, as expected, not created a sufficiently lucrative business model.

Clay Shirky argues the paywall means a retreat from broad-based newspaper-style publishing to narrowcast newsletter publishing:

One way to think of this transition is that online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience. (In this case, the Times is becoming the online newsletter of the Tories, the UK’s conservative political party, read much less widely than its paper counterpart.)

Murdoch and News Corp, committed as they have been to extracting revenues from the paywall, still cannot execute in a way that does not change the nature of the organizations behind the wall. Rather than simply shifting relative subsidy from advertisers to users for an existing product, they are instead re-engineering the Times around the newsletter model, because the paywall creates newsletter economics.

As of July, non-subscribers can no longer read Times stories forwarded by colleagues or friends, nor can they read stories linked to from Facebook or Twitter. As a result, links to Times stories now rarely circulate in those media. If you are going to produce news that can’t be shared outside a particular community, you will want to recruit and retain a community that doesn’t care whether any given piece of news spreads, which means tightly interconnected readerships become the ideal ones. However, tight interconnectedness correlates inversely with audience size, making for a stark choice, rather than offering a way of preserving the status quo.

This re-engineering suggests that paywalls don’t and can’t rescue current organizational forms. They offer instead yet another transformed alternative to it. Even if paywall economics can eventually be made to work with a dramatically reduced audience, this particular referendum on the future (read: the present) of newspapers is likely to mean the end of the belief that there is any non-disruptive way to remain a going concern.