Radiohead embraces trust over DRM: will it work for film?

Written by Nic Wistreich on . Posted in Studio 2.0

I recently heard from a music industry insider that Radiohead make some 80% of their income from touring, which opened up the question of why they put so much effort into packaging, selling and protecting albums. A question that has now been answered. Free from a record label after their six album deal with EMI had come to an end, one of the most revered bands of the last 20 years have taken the twin giant leaps into self-distribution and inviting downloaders to decide how much to pay for their new album (In Rainbows).

Thousands of buskers today make a living from an upturned hat, which - tho no DRM system can ever force people into filling, often they do.

Trust - it's a model that has supported musicians perhaps longer than any other system, and hundreds of thousands of buskers and touring musicians today make a living from an upturned hat, which - tho no DRM system can ever force people into filling - somehow they do. Magnatunes has already been using the 'pick your own price' system for a while, and despite having a minimum cost of £5 (unlike In Rainbows where there will be no lower limit), sees an average payment of around £8 (Magnatunes also have great licenses for filmmakers wanting to only pay for music rights *after* the film starts making money).

We've seen the publishing industry shift from a paid-for model for newspapers and magazines to free ad-supported distribution in less than a decade. The New York Times was set to make millions this year from pay-per-view articles, the management eventually decided it would make more from advertising in the long run and made everything free. Rumours abound that and are set to follow suit.

With Amazon now opening a 2 million song DRM-free store, making it easier than ever to pirate (if you are so inclined), the tide for music too seems to be shifting towards a more open trust-based situation. Inherently - as with life - the trust approach has a lot going for it, viewing people as decent until proven otherwise, and it is sufficient to support church collections, eBay and plenty more. 

Supercomputer HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey would be upgraded to Windows Vista and instantly cheer up.

 But film is that much more expensive than music or writing to produce, and it'd be foolish not to consider what if trust doesn't work? If so, and unless we are to adjust to watching only microbudget productions and demand that film professionals work for free, then we are presented with the nightmare scenario Orange has been taking great pains to illustrate over the past decade with its Film Funding Board cinema ads - the advertiser as film funder and script developer. In some ways its only a small step away from current practices where Spiderman is filled with Sony technology, or films eligible for British tax breaks have to have sufficient 'British elements'. But it would spell the end of big budget art films. Supercomputer HAL in 2001 would be upgraded to Windows Vista and instantly cheer up.

imagine buying a DVD that you couldn't take out of your house to lend to a friend, or that vanished off your shelf if the distributor went bust.

So if there was an underlying business question the film industry is struggling to answer right now, and that's been at the back of my mind since I first started getting hooked on watching films online, it's how do we make the trust model work? My opposition to DRM is not simply that it's a pain in the arse, a topsy-turvy 'new' technology that offers you less than the 'old' tech it is replacing (imagine buying a DVD that you couldn't take out of your house to lend to a friend, or that vanished off your shelf if the distributor went bust), it's that it encourages technology monopolies to control media distribution. And as we've seen with Google in China, or indeed the iPod, that opens up all sorts of problems for freedom of speech.

Naturally a key part of making the trust model work is increasing and improving the relationship between creators and consumers - making that link as two-way as possible. We put our change in the buskers hat because we see them there as a human, rather than a faceless entity.

As some have seen - such as Brave New Films, who raised the $300,000 budget of their last feature by emailing people who had previously bought their DVDs - the web makes this easy and people are up for doing it.

Could the pre-sales market of finance - which has been shrinking in recent years and could vanish altogether if the web becomes the primary mode of film distribution (why would a video distributor pay an advance if that film is available simultaneously on thousands of download services in many countries?) - be replaced with a kind of micro-presales? Thousands of people paying more than they would normally for a DVD to part finance a film, snoop on its progress, be listed in the credits, and get a personal copy at the end? So rather than paying a premium for something that's offered for free (or pay-what-you-can), you pay for exclusive access, and to be part of the process, like Matt Hanson's Swarm of Angels  (link to interview) or the MyMoviesMashup.

In fact the physical version of Radiohead's new album will sell for a premium - £40 for a box set including vinyl, disc and artwork, and all eyes will be on them to see if the loss in official sales will be offset by the higher price (Kid A famously debuted at number one in the charts despite being deliberately leaked in full on P2P networks prior to that). For if they pull this off, it could change everything. 

Nicol Wistreich is a filmmaker and web designer, author of Digital Asset Management for Informa, and editor of  the Film Finance Handbook: How To Fund Your Film for Netribution, which went on sale in the US on September 28th 2007.