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Distribution & Payment

29 Aug 2000

I heard an interesting little piece on NPR this afternoon about Stephen King’s latest project, The Plant. I’m not a King fan, so what interests me about the story is not the content of the book, but its distribution method. It’s being given away, one episode at a time over the web. Readers can optionally pay $1 for the story, entirely on the honor system. If 75% of the readers decided to pay King his buck, he continues to write and release the next episode.

Bruce Schneier (whose book I highly recommend) was interviewed because he and John Kelsey first proposed such an arrangement in their “Street Performer Protocol”. The key difference between the system as Bruce envisioned it and as Stephen realized it is that Bruce assumed the users wouldn’t trust the artist to fulfill his end of the deal, and therefore planned on a third party escrow system for the money.

But so far, this is all just review. The really interesting part of the story was about a British band I hadn’t heard of, and I now can’t recall the name. This band was between record contracts and decided to attempt something new: they send a message to their fan base asking if they’d be willing to pre-order the next album before it was recorded. The band raised UK100,000, enough to make the album without an advance from a record company. Then they signed a deal with the company to provide promotion and distribution, but the band was able to negotiate far better terms because they didn’t need a cash advance. The artist won, and the fans won, because they got the album before it was available anywhere else, along with a disc of B-sides. Moreover, the fans got the intangible benefit of feeling a connection to the music that they helped make possible.

These experiments in content distribution models are beautiful examples of the way monolithic, corporate control of content should (and will) continue to crumble. I greatly look forward to seeing more artists reaching their fans directly in coming years. What do you think? Discuss.