We're doing a roundtable of essays (500 to 1000 word suggested length) of experiences by people who have given away their movies for free online. Here is the second one by Benjamin Arntzen who is responsible for the #2wkfilms reaching a large audience via P2P networks. More coming in the upcoming weeks and this roundtable is open to everyone so just send me a message on twitter @thraveboy if you'd like to do one. Enjoy!
What Happened When I Gave Away Reid's Films For Free - By Benjamin Arntzen
Respect no longer comes solely in the simple form of money, as music, movies, and other videos are passed along between friends and strangers. Nearly every piece of music and video created is available in some form on the Internet, freel and easily accessible, and the connections between creators and consumers are getting stronger. Respect for content now comes in many forms; as fans constantly reupload songs and videos to video sites such as YouTube, rebelling against the publishers and copyright owners, remixing and re-releasing content in new forms, and participating in a sort of creative anarchy. BitTorrent sites are thriving as people use them to discover more and more media, fueled by trends like tagging and social networking.
Perhaps most importantly however, most of the people involved in these activities aren't doing it out of hate or malice. Their actions are, in nearly all cases, based on a love for the content that they possess, and a will to share it with other people and build reputation for the creators, artists and content itself. The money element is still very much involved, too. Concert tickets are still a sought-after item, and despite the availability of nearly all purchasable content at no cost, music and video sales are still alive. If the sky is falling, there are no signs that make it apparent. One of the major changes in this new paradigm is perhaps one of the most interesting: the middleman is dead. The music industry's "Big Four" (Sony Music Entertainment, EMI, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group) and the movie industry's equivalents aren't going anywhere soon, but as artists begin to create and share outside of contractual obligations and restrictions, the major media companies are getting less and less powerful.
I believe that success in media of various forms won't necessarily be measured solely in terms of profit in the future. Creative Commons and similar projects are allowing artists to grant permissions to their fans in an easy, uncomplicated manner, and combined with BitTorrent and other web/P2P technologies, helping to remove the boundaries of distribution. Success will be measured by what consumers do with a creator's content, and the way they support it. Nine Inch Nails have shown that success outside of the labels is possible, although most of their popularity stems from their label days. Perhaps more realistic examples are webcomics like xkcd and Penny Arcade and artists like Jonathan Coulton and Brad Sucks. They are shining, if rare, examples of what can happen with a dedicated fan-base.
Self-sufficiency is the dream of most independent content creators. Various methods of achieving such a goal, with varied success, are being tried and tested at this very moment. Most people, even within the "Napster Generation" are still very much willing to pay for quality content - despite no longer being forced to. Over the last year, I've probably spent more than $160 on various bits of Creative Commons music, and $40 or so on label-music, bought second-hand. All of it was content I already had - but the satisfaction and nostalgia of buying music and video, whether physical or digital, remains regardless. The general consensus among my friends is simple: if content can be purchased at an affordable price, even if it's available for free, most of them will do so if they have the ability.
Within film, the situation is a little different and far more experimental: viable ways of making money in the file-sharing reality are still being sought after. In the meantime, the barriers to both creation and distribution are being lowered, allowing more ambitious projects and drawing in talent that may not have been reachable before. At the same time, some argue, mediocrity is given a chance to thrive, but people will put their passion and support behind the content that they love. Essentially, consumers are becoming the ones who decide what content is worth, both in terms of money and in terms of reputation, rather than a company deciding what will make them money. Those who love content will open their wallets or their Internet connection in the pursuit of supporting or promoting it.
This is mainly what I'm known for today - the pursuit of promoting content. In July of last year, I wanted to share some Creative Commons content with friends, but existing links and downloads for it were either too slow or not packaged in a coherent way, so I decided to remedy this. I simply downloaded the content, renamed some files, added some information and changed it into the format that made sense to me, then released it on The Pirate Bay and Mininova. The main interest in the downloads came from my friends, as that was the original purpose of the releases. I decided to package xkcd comics in a similar fashion and released those, which brought interest to the other torrents.
At the time, Mininova was one of the largest sites on the Internet, and I decided that their Content Distribution service would make releasing things easier, so I applied, using my existing torrents as a reference. Within a couple of days I had a second Mininova account with no CD access, after being accepted for the program. A quick conversation with Erik Dubbelboer later, I had a working account and re-released the existing torrents under Mininova's CD service. Mininova CD was at the time a way of giving privilege to legal content, such as that offered under Creative Commons licenses, and as a result any torrents I posted would be put at the top of the front page for about a day, in the Featured Torrents category. I established a simple rule for content I posted: If I liked it a lot and was legally able to, I would publish it.
Most of the content I posted at first came from sites like FrostClick, through which I discovered some of the most played music in my collection. It is also how I discovered the #2wkfilm project and got dragged kicking and screaming into the strange world of Twitter. As the preferred method of communication for #2wkfilm participants was Twitter, I used it to contact them and discuss the torrents and films. I also used it to mention newly uploaded torrents, so that people who particularly liked my releases could easily stay up to date with what I published, either through Twitter or RSS.
Soon after republishing the old torrents, I contacted one of the artists, Adam McHeffey, and told him about the download count which was at the time about 250. As a thanks, he sent me two pressed CDs of the album and a personal note. The album was at the time only available as a set of highly compressed MP3s, so I ripped the CD into lossless files and made multiple releases in various formats which all got a similar reception on Mininova, quickly bringing the count to 1000. I also helped him set up LetsKickFire.com, which has served as the home of the album since, as well as, occasionally, a blog. By the end of the year it had been downloaded just over 11,000 times.
Since what I was doing didn't cost me anything but small amounts of time and effort, and it was making people happy, I sought out more Creative Commons content. This is how I discovered the Intercontinental Music Lab, right after they had released their third album. I released all three albums in four formats simultaneously on Mininova, gathering a decent number of downloads in a couple of weeks, but (at the time) more importantly allowing the albums to be downloaded and shared in a coherent, easy manner, rather than as single files or large slow downloads. Eventually things got to a stage where seeking content has been much easier and some content creators would even contact me when they wanted to put out some large content. As of Oct 1st there was 25,000 downloads, and by the end of things, everything was sitting at around 750 downloads, and there was a total of 36,000 downloads.
Towards the end of November, Mininova deleted all non-Content Distribution torrents from their servers in order to comply with a court order. Whilst the traffic to the site dropped significantly, the demand for the remaining content went way up, as seen in this picture (http://twitpic.com/rk34r), taken on December 1st during the aftermath. Downloads have remained at a constant 4000-per-day average, and on December 8th total downloads had reached 100,000. As a result, interest in the #2wkfilm projects, as well as the music of Adam McHeffey, the Intercontinental Music Lab and nearly everything on my Mininova account increased significantly. Total downloads for the IML have recently broken 100,000 and the total downloads for the #2wkfilm projects on Mininova recently reached 25,000.
The overall impact of my actions as a simple fan of content has been much larger than I expected. I would love to say that I am responsible for the content creators being rich and prosperous, but this is not the case, mainly because most of the content was not originally intended to be a way of making money, so there was not much information within the releases about where to purchase merchandise or donate money. My personal goals for my actions were simple: to spread the word about content I loved and wanted to share with others, as well as gain exposure for those who I believed deserved it. In both of those respects, in my opinion, I've been successful.
As of 11:25am PST on December 31st, 2009, content I'd published had been responsible for a total of over 59,685 gigabytes of Internet traffic, nearly 60 terabytes. This bandwidth has mainly been provided by the people who downloaded the content and cared enough about it to contribute to the distribution of it, as well as Mininova Content Distribution's "seedbox" servers. The phrase "ZORLiN-CC" on Google now returns 37,200 Google results, and the torrents I created ended up on hundreds of different torrent sites and mirrors. The power that fans have to influence the popularity of content that they like is real, and will change the way things are both created and distributed, and the way profit is made on content. There is no longer a monopoly on distribution, and for better or worse, there is no longer control over the free availability of content.
The old business model will continue to exist and be profitable for at least the next 4-5 years, but today, consumers and creators alike are working together to carve out a new one.
Welcome to the new creative age.
Benjamin Arntzen is a self-proclaimed expert in digital culture who distributes content via BitTorrent. You can visit his profile on Mininova here.