The Blood Pact of Visibility
By Ian Stocker
written for N4G
July 2, 2014
I was so proud of my tweet. Every now and then I craft a pretty good one, and it racks up a few RTs and faves. This one was well timed and succinctly expressed my opinion on the topic: should streamers and YouTubers have to pay royalties to devs? The argument is that some of the streamers make lots of money, so therefore some sort of mechanical payment is due to the original authors.
Right after I tweeted this, a couple people politely pointed out that radio stations in fact pay royalties to the copyright holders. Dammit, I should have known that.
Determined to not embarrass myself further, I did a bit of research. What I discovered was actually far more fascinating: even though there are rules requiring that mechanical payments from radio stations to artists, it’s not so cut and dried. And as I started to look at other entertainment crafts--acting, music performing, writing--I saw a trend, perhaps a sign of things to come our way.
Regardless of how you feel philosophically and ethically about streamers paying devs, the answer to this question is simple: It’s never going to happen. Get the legislature on board; see if that does any good. The market forces against this scheme are simply too great. I’ll explain why.
What it comes down to is visibility--the currency of the entertainment world. If you have lots of listeners, readers, fans, viewers, players… then you get sales and ad revenue. No visibility? Starvation. We can straight up pay for it (through ads) or we can do exchanges. Take a look through the self-help section of any bookstore and see how everyone gets a quote from one another for the book cover or jacket. Makes this book AND the source seem more legit. (Yeah, I know, self-help. But we’re troubled souls, we indies. Haven’t you seen the documentaries?)
Most of the time, these sorts of exchanges are out in the open. But doesn’t it put a damper on the mystique to have it say “Paid For By Budweiser” before the opening credits of a film? Hence product placement. But beware… the legislature has stepped in to set up some ground rules for this sort of thing, in the USA at least. Some types of cash-for-visibility exchanges need to be fully disclosed. Radio is a juicy subject for this phenomenon, so let’s get back to that for a minute.
If you’re the Rolling Stones, your visibility vastly exceeds any single radio station--so to have the privilege of playing Jumpin’ Jack Flash, KROQ needs to pony up some cash (usually around 7 cents per spin, but mega hits cost more). BUT if you’re a new indie band and you want to get airplay, well--the radio station has to have a reason for giving you time instead of the hit song the audience wants to hear for the one millionth time. Make sense. Obviously, the solution is to build a case for your artistic merits by enclosing a brick of cash with your song submission.
The problem is, that’s illegal. It’s called payola--any form of playback that is paid for by the record label, without disclosure. Once in a while, everyone plays by the rules (Limp Bizkit wrote a check to get airtime when they were just starting out, and the song was preceded with a “paid for by Interscope Records” type of message). This is rare, though. It’s way more common for the station and the record company to collude and find a loophole in the law--money goes through a third party, takes the form of gifts instead of dollars… or if Congress is too on top of things this year, resorting to a briefcase full of cash passed under the table at Chili’s.
Why go through all this when you could just have the disclosure? You already know the answer. What’s most important is the illusion--listeners are going to ascribe airtime to a social demand, and thus, quality. The visible sponsorship takes a bite out of that. “Why do these guys have to pay to get airtime?” Not to mention the station’s own image: “These guys are taking money from labels who want to pimp out their songs? Sellouts.”
One other thing about music before we get back to games. Bear with me.
New artists looking to book gigs eventually have to answer a tough question: should I pay to perform? I’m the one providing the show for the venue. They even get to sell drinks thanks to me. Am I going to be part of this race to the bottom?
And it’s not just new bands are faced with this decision: Bruno Mars, for example, was paid zero dollars to perform in the Superbowl half time show. You can look at it one of two ways: a) he gave the NFL free content, or b) he got free advertising time valued at $8M per minute. Somewhat established newcomers performing on the X-Factor provide the show with all of their content, and are enthusiastic about footing their own bill for it (typically $100K). Nothing is sacred: actors pay to audition, usually through a service thinly disguised as a “casting workshop.” Kindle authors gladly pay for fake reviews--one enterprising chap made quite a sum offering this service, until Jeff Bezos cracked down on him. The list goes on--show me one corner of the entertainment world where there isn’t a similar exchange of cash for visbility landing somewhere on the shadiness spectrum.
This was originally going to be yet another article on the Indie Bubble, but I decided that this particular dead horse has taken enough of a beating, and you’ve been spared. (Somewhat. You were still forced to read about disclosure laws in radio.) But it all ties together, and with the onslaught of new releases increasing every day, getting airtime with Twitch streamers and YouTubers is VITAL. And I’m going to ask THEM for money? Do you think Activision will, either? (Okay, Nintendo might. They probably already have. I’m done researching though, so let’s get through this.)
But back to the shadiness spectrum. Where you fall on that depends on how transparent the sponsorship is. I think in nearly all cases right now, streamers are not paid to do let’s plays or video reviews. But is that going to change? Think of what’s at stake. One of my favorite YouTubers, EpicNameBro, said this in a video some months ago:
"I did have a couple of offers recently from people who were wanting me to promote their game on the channel. I said no, and it was harder than I thought it would be ... When somebody offers me a chunk of money to promote a game... it's tough, man. Part of me is proud of my integrity for saying no, but another part of me is kinda disappointed, because I feel like there was a price--there was an amount of money they could have offered me that would have bought me…"
Streamers don’t have to ask for money--the devs are OFFERING them cash. Kerbal recently started a referral system for just this purpose, completely out in the open. But is this going to become the norm? Will viewers skip past sponsored videos, afraid that the channel won’t take the gloves off for the games that deserve a thrashing? It’s hard to say.
I brought this up with a friend, who works for a major games website, hoping for a whistleblower-style expose on some sort of payola scandal at the top levels--an unholy cabal between AAA and the media. This will disappoint you, but it turns out they are incredibly cautious about what they can accept from the companies whose games they review. They even err on the side of upsetting the big name publishers, doling out scathing, low digit scores when they are truly deserved, which hurt their chances of securing exclusives next time around. Integrity is protected at all costs.
I wonder what I would really do if I found myself on the other side of ENB’s offer. I mean, when GameGrumps showcased Escape Goat 2 on Steam Train, sales doubled for five straight days. Tell me you wouldn’t consider the deal, if you were in my shoes! As Epic said, It’s Tough.
For now, I’ll stick to writing blog posts on prominent gaming sites, where no money has to change hands, and I can get a guest spot through old fashioned blackmail. Readers, thank you for indulging me, and N4G, I will destroy all copies of the pictures as agreed.
Radio Royalties: http://theunderstatement.co...
Payola Law: http://www.law.cornell.edu/...
Limp Bizkit: http://www.mtv.com/news/150...
Legal Sponsorship: http://www.nytimes.com/2005...
Bruno Mars: http://www.businessinsider....
Kindle Authors: http://www.nytimes.com/2012...
Blog image: Kevin Bacon and Brad Renfro in Telling Lies in America
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