Why Web Monetization makes me more hopeful about film funding than anything in 22 years since Netribution launched…

In 2006 we wrote here about this new idea of crowd-source financing to fund films, which had funded a few short films – a couple of years before IndieGoGo and Kickstarter took off. We'd followed the growth of a new website 'craze' called YouTube, that was making the industry sit up sweaty, followed their first feature filmmakers Arin and Susan and written about alternative exhibition as Secret Cinema was starting in 2008, doing our own small research project at that time – Living Cinema. But none of these, I think, comes slightly close to the potential of Web Monetization , the protocol for decentralised web subscriptions, across film, music and journalism. 

  • It's not just that Web Monetization currently pays out at $0.36 per hour, 36 times higher than Amazon Prime's $0.01/€0.01/£0.01.
  • Nor is it just that it's been designed to prevent new web monopolies from forming around it, with the underlying infrastrucutre designed as open protocols – allowing an ecosystem of multiple subscription providers interoperating with limitless media providers.
  • It's not even because it's global at its heart, built around Interledger, which is trying to reduce payment processing fees to the absolute lower possible, in a non-monopolistic way. Given it can cost up to 50% in payment processing fees to buy a digital film or album from much of Afrcia in the west, this no small thing.
  • It isn't even because of the $100m seed fund, Grant for the Web, making awards to technology and content producers exploring it – which awarded Netribution our first substantial funding in a long time for project MOVA.
  • It's that it has the potential to separate the business of content production/licensing and distribution/promotion for video online, and so restore to film-watching online something that's been missing from most of the web video experience ­– the role of the expert curator, programmer, flea-pit cinema, film festival – the human selecting and introducing films that no Big Data-fed algorythm guessing what you want to see can come close to. I love subscription platforms, and subscribe to most, but miss the curation taken for granted at a film festival or great video store, and which the old DVD/VHS distribution architecture allowed for. We can read a blog of recommendations of what to watch, but we have to go elsewhere to watch them. Web Monetization doesn't mind where you watch the film because it's a funding model for outside of the 'walled gardens'.

This year, I'll do my best to explain a technology that is still being built, that's not a standard at the Worldwide Web Consortium (tho it's a proposal), that has key features around community moderation and governance still missing, and that currently is used on barely 1,500 websites, with so few people paying to subscribe thru Coil.com you'd be lucky to make the ~£15 we've made this last year across this site and a few others.

But it feels like the start of something that proposes a shift in how media is funded online – from everyone paying with their attention and data to support an advertising industry dependent on surveilence – to subsidising media creation by dripping a stream of payments from those who can afford it as they browse the web invisibly and seemlessly with a browser wallet. It's Charlie Brooker's 'magic coins' idea that he proposed to save journalism 12 years ago. It's open, it's designed to be global, it's being seed-funded well, and over the next year or three, I think will take off if only for the simple reason that the current way media is funded online is such a mess. Hustling hard to get millions of viewers for a video in return for barely the price of a Happy Meal – and – beyond a lucky-few on Patreon, only the hope of becomming a full-time ad-industry sponsored influencer, a Truman Burbank, turning the unique special person that your fans fell in love with, into a full-time QVC lifestyle shopping channel. Which is fine if that's what you want, but maybe there needs to be some other paths for funding video culture online.

Think what it could do for world cinema. Every year, of the approximately 10,000 new feature films that UNESCO says are released, around 2,000 come from Nigeria. Around another 2,000 come from India. And yet Netflix has less than 4,000 feature films IN TOTAL on its platform. Amazon Prime has just over 12,000. Across Hulu, HBO and Disney Plus, according to ReelGood, there's barely 20,000 features on the SVoD platforms – ie two years of cinema releases, or under 3% of the 713,000 features ever made, according to The Movie Databae or 4.5% of IMDB's 470,000 listed. 36 times more money per hour streaming from a web browser wallet, through the curation space that recommended the work, directly back to the filmmaker, with no middle-person beyond perhaps a climate-responsible video streaming provider.

So, for the first time in over a decade since it seemed clear the direction of the web's development, was the explosion of FaceBook and YouTube to monopoly position without a sound revenue model for creators – it feels there's some hope for funding independent media online outside of the major platforms.

 

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If context is king; could version control counter context collapse?

I stumbled across some of my old writing still online on Netribution from over two decades years ago that was so bad I wanted to cancel myself before anyone else had a chance to. I was scrolling down my old year 2000 design for old raw HTML Netribution pages untouched in 20 years, and still looking much like it did then (other than screens are much bigger so there's a lot of left/right padding). I noticed the list of feature interviews were all with men. It stood out how many of the director interviews were with men - so I clicked on one that wasn't - Oscar winner Marleen Gorris and found I'd written something that a drunk or stoned 90s-soaked teenager would have penned, about feminism, dungarees and Valerie Solanas. Gorris was incredibly graceful in the circumstances. So this right here is sitting waiting to be taken out of context by some future mob in the event I'm daft enough to make myself interesting to a sufficiently large crowd.

It made me think of Charlie Warzel's recent quote: "The internet is flat. Three-dimensional human beings can’t thrive in a one-dimensional space".

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Music streaming, monopolies, interopability & the chaos monkey

“The reality is a single stream only amounts to 0.003p, which means I would need millions of streams to earn at least the minimum wage”
Ayanna Witter-Johnson, singer-songwriter

Last weekend The Guardian published some great insights from 25 figures across the music world around the state of subscription-streaming, as Spotify passes 155 million Premium subscribers and ahead of a uk.gov report into Music streaming. While many called on Spotify to pay more, some were complimentary – and the bulk of frustrations were royalty splits with record labels and publishers, as well as a general lack of transparency. I've pulled out some of the highlights:

“Many artists have recording contracts that reflect physical rather than digital distribution. Before the internet came along, artists were willing to give record labels the lion’s share of the royalties because they did all the heavy lifting: pressing the records, distributing them to shops, collecting royalties. Standard contracts divided profits 85% to 15% in favour of the labels… [but today] most releases are made available by the click of a mouse.”
Billy Bragg

Crispin Hunt, director of the Ivor Novello awards agreed: “the reality is that the major labels are still controlling it as if it were still a manufacturing industry and it isn’t anymore, they’re a marketing industry”. Bragg calls for an industry-wide 50-50 digital royalty split between artist and label, while Gomez’s Tom Gray says “we need a limit of 25 years on recording contracts” so people can get out of deals made in the physical era.

But no other industry would give 50%, let alone 85%, royalty to a marketing agency. This opens up the broader question of what’s a modern label? Is it providing debt finance to record and market an album? Or is it more like an equity investor in an artists’ future copyrights? That analogy fails as what kind of VC invest in a business that depended on the CEO working minimum wage.

Given how much new revenue the major labels can make from the back catalogues through Spotify/etc (“It has drastically increased our royalty payments to artists for releases years ago” said Giles Peterson), it’s hard to see how they can justify continuing to take such large fees from current signed artists who are struggling. But if artists with large back catalogues benefit, then majors with many artists with back catologues are making record profits after years of decline, Labels “making so much money at the moment that they think this is going to last forever, but the problem they’re going to have is that a career as a musician is not going to be viable any more” said Steve Mason of the Beta Band.

Songwriters left out

There’s a further question around splits between publishers (representing copyright for the songwriters) and labels (representing the performers in the recording). “The contractual relationships between the major record companies and artists/songwriters need to be reviewed… the revenue taken by a master holder/record label is 58.5p out of every pound, whereas the writer/publisher gets only 11.5p.” said Merck Mercuriadis, CEO and founder of Hipgnosis Songs Fund.

“If a singer releases a cover of a hit song, they’ll earn up to 10 times more from it than the writer will. Record labels get about 55% of streaming platform income because they historically had large overheads for their physical products, while publishers only get about 15%. Songwriters are still trapped in this archaic model, ending up with a tiny percentage of the publishers’ 15% by the time everyone else has taken their cut along the way.”
Fiona Bevan, songwriter

Jazz musician Orphy Robinson proposed a new four-way split:

“I think there has to be an even four-way split – between the labels, the artists, the publisher and the streaming company. In the last year we’ve heard about how the majors have made these amazing profits but some of the songwriters – the people who provide the product – are starving… We hear horror stories about people with hundreds of thousands of streams, but when the revenue from that is all broken down between a band and their management they make nothing”

Not-so-open data

"We don’t even know what a stream is worth and there’s no way you could even find out what a stream is worth, and that’s not the basis for a satisfactory relationship.”
Nile Rodgers

What was most of suprise to me in the interviews was that, according to songwriter Imogen Williams, “while remuneration is the obvious argument, the lack of transparency is of equal concern”. There are no legal obligations on Spotify or the labels to not only publish data but even to know who to pay when they put a track online.

“When I look at the way streaming works, I feel like I’ve opened the bonnet of a car and there’s no engine in there. There are all of these cables hanging out, and the key missing part would be a system for the streaming platforms to accumulate and to get simple information such as who wrote what song, because at the moment there’s no requirement for the label. They can put up a song without knowing who should get paid for it. There needs to be a minimum data requirement for submitting a song to Spotify. Or simply, Spotify should not publish or feature any song that doesn’t have all the information needed.”
Helienne Lindvall, songwriter

This seems like low-hanging fruit to fix in the short term. "The government needs to regulate the data" said Crispin Hunt, musician and chair of the Ivors Academy. "They need to make sure that you can’t put anything up on a streaming platform without knowing who to pay for it. There’s no way that the record label should be able to put a track on the streaming platform without knowing who the songwriters are.”

It's worth looking at the interviews in full, over at The G, they even highlighted the threat of Spotify to the Jazz solo and long instrumental. In Orpjy Robinson's words:

"People are saying because of the nature of what we do, and the art that we create, we’re going to have to change it to fit into Spotify playlists, which value songs that are shorter and don’t have long intros. Some jazz musicians I know are saying: ‘Should we make something that is two-and-a-half minutes long?’

Which seems a good time to pivot to Web Monetization - which pays content creators in constant stream, rather than a fixed fee per play.

Web Monetization update

As mentioned previously – I've been testing it here for a few months. Checking my Uphold wallet tied to Netribution just now, it stands at £5.03, from 8 visitors with a wallet (not necessarily 8 unique visitors). And elsewhere, fundyourfilm.com generated £0.48, Visuali.st £0.06 and screen.is – the only site where I've hosted video – £10.61. Although over half of this is from the rising value of the cryptocurrency currency (Ripple) that Uphold stores my balance in, it’s far more than I ever imaged for some very quiet and barely public websites.

So while Coil’s payout of $0.36/hour isn’t so much money for a single 4 minute track (2.4c/1.7p) compared to the 99c cost of an old iTunes download, it’s many factors higher than the average payout from a stream from Spotify, and it rewards long-form.

The other key attribute of Web Monetization is it’s interoperable by design: any website can implement it and start earning from Monetization subscribers, which seems a pivot to…

Doctorow on Interoperability…

“Interoperability is the default state of the world. Anyone’s charcoal will burn in your barbecue, just as anyone’s gas will make your car go. Any manufacturer can make a light bulb that fits in your light socket, and any shoes can be worn with any socks.“

Cory Doctorow, who has been on great Twitter form of late (if you indulge the interspersed bursts of retro-futurism, Disneyland history and strange adverts of old) – has updated what he describes as one of his most important pieces of writing in 13 years from last year, following on from the Oracle/Google Supreme Court ruling. In Unfair Use: Anti-Interoperability and Our Dwindling Digital Freedom he presents vividly how Web Monopolies form, and how they undermine the basic principles of good design the rest of our lives take for granted.

“Leaving Facebook in the 21st century is like my grandmother leaving the USSR in the 40s. You can go, but your friends and loved ones are all held hostage behind Zuckerberg’s Iron Curtain, so leaving Facebook means leaving your communities, your relationships."

One one level, he doesn't blame the monopoloies for behaving as their shareholders expect: “the more freedom you have to leave Google, the bigger a risk you pres­ent to Google“ – but he's merciless to them in their self-perception as chief disrupters of vested interests: "where tech is challenging [existing] monopolies, it is doing so in order to create more monopolies“. And these monopolies are protected in ways that previous monopolies could only dream of; "any attempt to interoperate with an existing product service with­out permission from its corporate master is a legal suicide mission, an invitation to almost unlimited civil — and even criminal — litigation"

Interoperability, he explains, is the key concept that regulators, legislators and conscious consumers should focus on to try to build a better web and world.

"Writ large, interoperability encompasses things like democracy. When someone says they like their city but not its bylaws, we don’t tell them that the law is the law and the home comes with these bylaws in a package. Instead, we [in liberal democracies - edit] set out processes for amending or repealing laws that chafe the people they govern. If you fail in your bid to reform your city’s laws, you can also move to another city without having to surrender the possessions in your home or your social relations with your old neighbors. Interoper­ability lets you replace the laws and keep your house, or replace your house and find new laws."

Modern technology that isn't explicitly open source on the other hand not only prevents the users from this freedom, it punishes those who perform helpful and environmentally-important services, like repairing your iPhone. And with this comes the third and final pivot, to a tech company, who with over 200 million paying subscribers and a mostly proprietary system is kind of the opposite of interoperable…

Netflix, microservices and a chaos monkey

But Netflix's use of Microservices, as presented in this really clear, albeit tech-heavy presentation from 2016 by Engineering Leader Josh Evans, struck me as a story about how big and stable software development over the last few years has shifted from huge central 'monopolies' of code to a web of small, autonomous, interoperable 'microservices'. It's like a model of the distributed web. The success of the whole system depends on no single service, and can cope with most of them falling down during production.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZ3wIuvmHeM

Evans further explained how software reflects the culture that creates it with Conway's law Conway’s Law – “organisations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organisations”. Or simpler put, ‘Any piece of software reflects the organisational structure that produced it’. There's lots in his talk including mention Netflix's chaos monkey – an open source tool they've built to randomly make parts of their system to fail so as to ensure "that engineers implement their services to be resilient to instance failures". It was hard not to think of the virus sized chaos monkey rampaging the planet at present checking and challenging the resilience of everything from information networks, welfare systems and health funding, to supply chains, international cooperation and human behavioural adaptability – or how this has revealed greater vulnerabilities and far worse fatality rates in the UK & US, than Africa or India.

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"Old Man Shakes Fist at Algorythm", but Scorsese has a point, and is WebMo an answer?

So I finally hit the big time and moved up a decimal place in my daily Web Monetization payouts.

As I mentioned last month I've added Web Monetization here and a few other sites (FundYourFilm.com, Visuali.st – my work site, and screen.is). After a daily trickle of a penny or two, I got an email on the 15th "You received 1.77612 XRP from Interledger Network", which based on today's price of the cryptocurrency XRP/Ripple (another blogpost), is $0.98. Because reporting is currently pretty basic with WebMo (to avoid the z/s issue and use fewer characters?), I can't be 100% sure, but I think it came from one link, in one one forum comment by Mark Boas here from the day before, pointing to this page, where I'm using Mark's Hyperaudio to link the video from an event I helped organise last year, to its transcript. A dollar from one external link in one day is more than I would have expected, given the only people currently with Coil subscriptions I know are people testing out the technology.

Much to my shame I'm late to signup to Mubi.

There's already so much to see on Netflix, and once you add Prime, iPlayer if you're in the UK, then that NowTV sub hanging around since the GoT finale the proved worthwhile when Chernobyl came out - and finally Disney Plus because their films aren't anywhere else. I never got round to adding Mubi because, I proclaimed, I didn't have time – but it's might be more to wanting to get my junk food entertainment fix over 'serious cinema'. Mubi is the closest in lockdown of visiting a good film festival where you're presented with a choice of films most of whom I've not heard of, seasons by directors I've maybe only seen one of, strands and themes, and programme notes. It's personal and clearly not generated by algorithms – and all the better for it – Netflix seemed to take years to learn that just because I'd watched Stranger Things I don't share the US obsession with TV set at high-school (although Ragnorok was rather splended and is keeping me hungry for season 2). Amazon still hasn't picked up on the fact I've never watched one episode of Top Gear. Highlights so far include Pablo Larain's Ema, Todd Solonz's Weiner Dog and revisiting Michael Mann's Heat after a few decade's absence.

So when Martin Scorsese claimed recently that alrgorithmic curation was undermining the art of cinema, and devaluing us the audience to mere content consumers and 'eyeballs' I was surprised to see any serious disagreement. The films on Mubi are not for mass audiences, but the personalisation improves the experience many times over. And it's clear what people love about the Influencers they follow on YouTube, is that personal perspective. The director of Casino, the King of Comedy and Kundun made a reasonable point, was quickly reduced to 'old man shouts at technology he doesn't understand' by people maybe still hurt he'd dare suggest Marvel films weren't the pinacle of cinema. Even the BBC played along - look at their choice of photos topping their article on the subject (crotchety old man vs happy couple just wanting to enjoy watching something).

But maybe part of the backlash is the same as I get when I tell an open source developer I don't like something about an interface that is way beyond their control – it's all very well being a critic, but what's the answer? (There's probably also some of what Jaron Lannier has raised in recent years in the social media storms – that those of us using those platforms daily are addicted, so we show many of the side effects - short-temperedness, impatience, mood-swings, etc – associated with addiction). Because any centralised curatorial system – even Mubi – is going to hit limits. You might have your favourite film festival – but would you want only that film festival choosing what was shown around the world?

Web Monetisation allows for a single subscription to exist across multiple websites.

If we suffering from a lack of human curation – from a bigger diversity of people than any one streaming platform's buyers and editors could ever offer – WebMo presents a future where a single subscription can have potentially unlimited curators. While it doesn't yet have an infrastructure for high-end feature film distribution and revenue collection, in principle, I could of an evening watch films recommended and presented by my old local cinema the Rio, or the Krakow Film Festival, or Steven Soderbergh's Twitter feed. My subscription would still be with the same provider – be it Coil, or Mubi, Netflix, or even my BBC License Fee or Guardian subscription – but it travels with me, letting me invisibly pay for films as I travel around the web.

Obviously this is a long way off for most feature films – but for shorts, archive, world-cinema, obscure and undistributed films that can't be found on any of the big subscription services, there's a clear gap between watching it free and unofficially on Vimeo/YouTube, and pay-per-view. On which subject there was an interesting story in the last few weeks about sometimes Netribution blogger Dan Hartley, the 'Rogue Runner' – his film Lad: A Yorkshire Story, has just after 10 years found viral success after someone posted it to YouTube – and is now doing really well on Prime (as covered here on BBC Breakfast).

NB - An update on other Netribution writers creative projects: Elio Espana (behind the launch issue Soderbergh interview, 21 years ago) now has a blog at Medium – and Suchandrika Chakrabarti has a newsletter and a great podcast for freelancers - now at edition 48.

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Netribution is 21 today; expirements with Web Monetization

There's not been a new post here in over four years, so maybe Netribution's 21st birthday today is a good time to update on a little expirment with "Web Monetization" (their zee, not ours).

Web Monetization is a way to donate to the sites you visit without needing to have a separate subscription for them or even having to hit a donate button. After signing up with a provider (at the moment there's just Coil, who charge $5/month), as you wonder the web you drop tiny anonymous golden breadcrumbs – to any site with a wallet. I've long been dreaming of such a system, paying out a subscription proportional to time spent — so soon signed up, and now as I wonder the web, the extension I added to Firefox occasionally flashes green in the toolbar to say I’m paying/donating as I read: perhaps it’s the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, or the New Yorker for an article about the Queen’s Gambit.

Coil claims to pay out $0.36 per hour —falling once someone has spent $4.50 in a month— which might not sound like much, but compare earnings for a 4 minute track or short film: $0.024 on Coil versus Spotify’s $0.00437 or YouTube’s $0.00074. In other words, you’d need 42 plays of a song with Web Monetization to make $1, against 131 on Apple, 228 times on Spotify and 1351 times on YouTube (ref).

So I created a wallet via Uphold and added it to Netribution.co.uk, FundYourFilm.com and my personal sites on August 18th last year. Adding it just meant putting a single metatag to the header of the page pointing to my wallet – <meta name="monetization" content="$ilp.uphold.com/iq6dEJDJGGQ7">. If you look in the source code of the New Yorker you’ll see <meta name="monetization" content="$spsp.coil.com/donate/condenast”/>.

I had low expectations as Coil isn’t known and the concept is new – so it faces that vicious circle of not enough content to get subscribers, and not enough subscribers to get publishers. But, so far these sites have made £1.15! It's hardly giong to save journalism – but the tech works, and it's left me with a small bit of hope that following other attempts to solve 'subscription for the open web' – Flattr, Brave's Basic Attention Token and Scroll — we've finally got something that, like http or html, is a web protocol rather than a product from one corporation or specific browser.

While this of course opens up new challenges (Coil pays out to whoever puts a wallet on a page, but there's no way to prove yet they "own" the content on that page), it comes at a time when most web publishers are so starved of cash they've surrendered to advertising stalkbots, luring us in with clickbait headlines and opinion-news catering to our wishes and hopes, regardless if it's true or not. For as long as attention is more valuable than quality, we end up with 'scamdemic' content literally killing people. The adstalker attention economy has so many profitable tentacles –- from infrastructure to data farms to lawyers to to shock jocks to social media companies – the unfortunate truth that disinformation online has made the pandemic so more deadly and harder to control is regularly overlooked. The market isn't self-regulating at sufficient speed, while legislators face a very tough task to try and distinguish in law between free speech and life-threatening media, again not resolvable at sufficient speed. In the meantime there must be better ways to fund, and therefore incentivise, what the world consumes online.

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