Andrew Zolli, a self-proclaimed futurist and executive director of the PopTech network and conference, has quite a mea culpa in the latest issue of Newsweek. Zolli preached the virtues of free digital content for many years. Upon reflection, he doesn't think that was great advice.


Unfortunately, as we've seen since, for companies whose core product is content -- like every newspaper and magazine you read, including this one -- the idea that we Internet visionaries sold is a total load of crap. We persuaded executives to compete with themselves online by setting up Web sites that offered for free the same content their staffs labored so strenuously to produce and sell in their print publications. The theory was that companies were supposed to make back the money by, uh, "monetizing the attention economy," or some other similarly vaporous concept, that meant either charging customers later on, or selling advertisements, or both.

They bought in, and now the Internet is pulverizing them...Following our lead, companies have now trained a generation of young people to never, ever, ever expect to pay for content on a laptop or desktop.



Zolli's article came two weeks after Jack Shafer's "Not All Information Wants to Be Free" at Slate looked at the slow shift to paid online content. The Internet's early years had many attempts -- the New York Times' TimesSelect, the Los Angeles Times' CalendarLive and Inside.com, to name a few.


These failures tell us much about what customers refused to pay for on the Web. But they tell us little about what customers will pay for. Not all successful paid sites are alike, but they all share at least one of these attributes: 1) They are so amazing as to be irreplaceable. 2) They are beautifully designed and executed and extremely easy to use. 3) They are stupendously authoritative.



This discussion has been extended to recorded music. Futurists like to tell record labels to monetize scarcity and worry less about abundant digital copies. That implies artists and labels should charge for items like T-shirts, designer purses, live concerts, VIP treatment and synchronizations. Artists would no longer be just artists. They would be entrepreneurs.

Yet it's clear people will continue to pay even when it's not absolutely required. Radiohead proved people will pay when they could simply take it for free. The band's album "In Rainbows" could have been teens buy less than adults, but they do pay for music.

In some ways, encouraging businesses to monetize awareness is actually good advice, because it puts the focus on products and features that add value to music. In the digital age, much of music's value will come from the quality of the services built around it.

Convenience, one of iTunes' hallmarks, creates value for music. Helpful functions like recommendations also create value. "While it's easy to acquire the entire U2 discography for free on a file-sharing site," wrote Shafer, "it's still easier and faster to use iTunes to search for and purchase the tracks you really want."

The future of digital content may have to reside outside the Web browser. Shafer argues people have been conditioned to think any content delivered by a browser should be free. Zolli agrees that new platforms will play an important role in future of digital content.


But this is not quite the apocalypse. Many new digital platforms are brewing, and early on in the development of each one there will be a battle for the business model -- a fight to figure out who will pay. The advent of every new device is another chance to turn it all around.



Remember that we're only about 15 years into the Internet. After that period of time, Shafer writes, paid television was practically non-existent. Paid radio took many decades to appear.