Thursday, February 28, 2019

Industry Musings

So, I wrote this thing a couple days ago, and sent it off to PetaPixel, who published it (presumably gleefully) and lo, there are many comments.

Of course there's a handful of simpletons, and a handful of people who agree, huzzah. Whatever, it's all about the fur flying, really, innit? (no I don't get paid, don't be stupid.)

But there are a few people who seem to think that I am simply wrong and that, in fact, more angry blog posts about theft of photos will actually solve the problem.

Let us review a little history.

When technologies for digital media matured with the internet, two major industries felt the clammy hand of death almost immediately: the music industry, and the film industry. Piracy was a big big thing. Also, any jackass could suddenly record and distribute music, or video, easily and simply. The tools and the distribution are just there. What did the big players do?

First they passed a bunch of draconian laws. The DMCA here in the USA was supposed to stem the tide by making it easy to bring miscreants to justice, and punish them horribly.

None of this did shit, of course. The bleeding did not slacken off even slightly although they did hand out a few gruesome punishments to timid grandmothers, which was terrible PR so they stopped.

Somewhere in this mess Vevo got launched. It will serve us as the template. The CEO of UMG (I think) at some point asked a grandchild, sort of desperately, "how the hell are people listening to music?" and the grandchild said "YouTube" and the CEO said "the hell. YouTube ain't paying us. But they're GONNA." and then Vevo got started to represent music videos, basically to YouTube. The upshot is that when you listen to music on youtube, the music industry gets paid. Ad revenue gets shared out.

Let's break this down a little: laws and regulations didn't do anything. Once media is digital, it's simply too easy to move around and copy. You cannot put everyone in jail, and the FBI cannot put even a single person in Australian in jail. What worked was providing a way to listen to music that was even easier than piracy and in which the industry got paid.

We see this all over now. What's easier than stealing a movie? Watching it on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu. What's easier than stealing music? Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, etc. Digital streaming media is now available, absolutely frictionlessly, over a myriad of channels that pay the industry.

The DMCA is now 99% irrelevant, and exists mainly as a tool for bloggers to harass one another with spurious takedown requests. The industries that paid for it today give very very close to 0 shits about the DMCA, they have pivoted to new models that get them paid just fine, thx.

What about all the kiddies that can use digital technologies to make their own music, their own movies? The industry has simply turned that whole thing into a sort of minor league farm system from which they recruit the next generation of talent. Since their revenues are protected, they can afford to pay, and they do, and that's that. YouTube is now, among other things, a system in which randos compete to become the next pop stars, the next TV hosts, and so on. Launch a channel, record some material, and if you amass a few million followers, someone is gonna offer you a mainstream deal. It turns out to have streamlined that whole process.

The industry isn't gambling on unknowns any more at all, they're acquiring pre-verified, already popular, talent. It has worked out beautifully for the music and video industries.

The photography industry has yet to find its Spotify, its Vevo.

Photographs are not used in anything like the same way that music and movies are, photographs are not streamed. In fact, nobody really just sits and looks at photographs. They're background.

Now, the still photography industry hasn't got anything like enough money to change any laws, and they actually have the DMCA already anyways. Naturally, the DMCA isn't doing a goddamned thing for them.

It doesn't look to me like any kind of pivot to an ad-supported model is going anyplace, because a lot of photo usage is in ads. We may yet see ads embedded inside of ads to pay for the content used by the outermost ad (and maybe ads in ads in ads, I suppose) but that honestly seems insane. Given that the only business model we've seen that seems to work in the digital realm -- and that dubiously at best -- is ads, we may be looking at the end of the line for photos as a business.

To be fair, subscription models also seem to work for streaming media, and we're seeing those in the stock photography industry (over the wails of would-be-pro photographers). There's not a hell of a lot of money in play here, though, and certainly not enough to enrich all the people who would like to become rich shooting stock photos. In fact, there's not nearly enough money to pay the models that are employed in the shooting of the stock photos that fill the coffers of the subscription-based agencies. The agencies are making money, the photographers are not. There are just too damn many of the latter.

On the other hand, obviously, there may be some pivot I'm just not seeing, here.

The key points are clear, though. If you want to solve the theft problem, as well as the various rights-grab businesses, you need to invent a system that makes getting pictures easier than these methods, and which gets the photographer paid. It's a lot easier to steal pictures than it ever was to pirate even music, though. Right-click-save (i.e. piracy) is pretty damned frictionless, making it even easier to acquire pictures for pay is going to... hard.

As for the problem of now any doofus can be a creative the industry is doing fine. They're finding instagrammers with large followings to do their product photos, artists are being forced to "crowdfund" everything in sight. The photographers on the other hand are not doing so hot, generally. Increasingly, the artistic side is mastering the crowdfunding/influencer dynamic to their own ends, I guess.

There's just a hell of a lot less money on the table, as compared to the music and video based industries, and a hell of a lot more players. You don't even have to be able to sing. If you have $300 and can press a button, you too can be a photographer. This isn't a good recipe.

Again, there may be some pivot I am not seeing, but I am not optimistic.

Which brings us back around to this: It can't really be just about the pictures. You've got to bring something else to the table. Even if that's just a solid reputation for showing up on time and working fast.


  1. "Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia"


    1. Their bio for me is a little out of date, and I think it missing a negation as well. This delights me so I have not bothered to correct them.

    2. It does appear to be a pretty threadbare outfit.

    3. As far as I know petapixel is one dude who works his ass off. I think he refers to "us" and "we" sometimes, so there may be a couple other staff, but Michael (the editor) is literally the only person I have interacted with or observed in a staff-like role.

      While I think PP is often lousy, I I have a lot of respect for Michael's work ethic, and rather hope he's making a bunch of money (and investing it wisely)

  2. I'd be prepared to bet good money that less that 1 in 100 of all these forum spawn who pontificate about their "clients" and their "business" have never sold a photo or indeed anything else in their lives. I can't see, e.g., Kirk Tuck disagreeing with a word you said, although he might complain you're being too mild. What is it about photography (or rather cameras) that makes nerds want to pretend they're professionals ? Shrug.

    1. I have come to the conclusion that there are vast swathes of photographers who do an occasional gig, and consider themselves "almost ready to quit their day job" more or less permanently.

      Punters at the racetrack and day traders likewise consider themselves to be winning, but temporarily down a few bucks, as a more or less permanent condition. Parimutuel betting systems allow you to bet literally at random, and still believe this, which is the bedrock of that particular industry.

    2. And that is why I created the "Bad Photographs Lotto":

      Everyone's a winner!

      </shameless self-promotion>

  3. Numerous interesting questions raised in this post.

    In the ever evolving world of professional photography it seems to me that one of the constants is that you have to learn how to acquire clients, service clients and retain clients.

    This is how to become a successful photographer.