The Content Debt Dilemma: What Do Creators Owe Fans When Their Work Is Free?

Hello, everyone! The COVID-19 pandemic upended normal life in numerous ways, but one of the most important changes was the shift from an outside lifestyle to an indoor lifestyle. With millions of Americans now spending the majority of their days at home, the need for distraction increased tenfold, and with it, the demand for new content. While the average person might have only had a few hours each day for leisure time to watch YouTube or listen to a podcast, now they had an endless stretch of time that needed to be filled. For paid creators, this unprecedented amount of free ears and eyeballs has been a godsend. But what about unpaid creators, and those that make their money off of placing ads in their free content? How much do they “owe” their fans in a time of such economic uncertainty?

“Content debt,” or the idea of creating free content to pay off a “debt” to fans who support the creator with their attention, rather than their dollars, is the concept I want to discuss today. As free entertainment becomes more normal, the burden for unpaid or underpaid creation will increase. Should creators feel obligated to make new content for their audience if that content is not paid for? And if so, how can creators keep up with high demand without experiencing burnout?

Back in the days of yore, before YouTube and Spotify, paying for entertainment was normal. People bought movie tickets if they wanted to see a movie, purchased records and later .mp3s if they wanted to listen to music, and payed a monthly fee for their cable package if they wanted to watch TV. “Free” entertainment, such as the radio, was indirectly payed for by advertisements that profited off of the medium’s enormous audience.

Fast forward to 2020, and “free” entertainment has completely taken over. While many people still pay for subscription streaming services like Netflix or Apple Music, the ubiquity of free content platforms like YouTube, Spotify, TikTok, and Twitch have made it easier than ever to access thousands of hours of content without ever paying a dime. The balance has seemingly tipped in the audience’s favor.

There are still venues, however, for creators to make money, with the main method still being advertising. With its AdSense platform, YouTube made it possible for its creators to profit off of their videos, even if that profit is mostly minuscule for all but the most popular creators. With Spotify, individual podcasts and podcast networks can insert mid-roll ads into each episode. And outside of the traditional advertising route, creators can set-up Patreons for fans to donate to and in turn receive extra content.

Even with advertising and content-subscription sites like Patreon, this entertainment is still free. Audience members can access the content even if they skip right past commercials and never give a cent to a creator’s Patreon. So even though some audience members are “paying” for content by giving their attention to advertisements, or donating to the creator directly, the majority are not. In sum, creators are basically giving away thousands of hours of content for free.

This would be fine, perhaps, if this idea of “content debt” didn’t come into play. Take, for example, the case of My Favorite Murder, a true-crime comedy podcast with 20 million monthly listeners and a huge fanbase. When the show first started, it was free, and had no ads. Hosts Karen and Georgia released one 60+ minute episode each week, and then soon introduced the shorter minisode format, which increased their output to one longform and one shortform episode each week. As the show’s popularity quickly increased, so did its creative output. The hosts began touring for months at a time and recording live episodes, wrote a best-selling memoir, created a paid fan site called Fan Cult which included bonus content for subscribers, and started their own multi-show podcast network, all while continuing to create two new podcast episodes a week. And though the show did bring in advertisers, all of their content (excluding the Fan Cult) was completely free. As of December 2020, the show has about 450 episodes totalling hundreds of hours of free content.

As you can imagine, constantly creating new content, as well running other ventures, started to take a toll on the quality of the podcast episodes. The hosts introduced the idea of a “quilt” episode, where they would take unreleased live shows and stitch the best stories of them together into a new episode. They also started doing episodes with one longer story instead of two shorter ones. The “lesser” quality of these episodes started to make fans disgruntled. Take a look in the My Favorite Murder subreddit, for instance, and you can see dozens of posts lamenting the drop in quality and complaining about quilt episodes. Additionally, some posters have taken issue with the hosts’ seemingly lowered morale. Some wonder about burn-out, and wish the hosts would take a hiatus so that they can return with refreshed spirits and better content, while others unfavorably compare the show’s diminished output to other weekly podcasts who have avoided this creative slump.

Is it fair for listeners to complain about the quality of entertainment when it’s constant and free? That’s where the dilemma of content debt rears its ugly head. On the one hand, many people have pointed out that the fans are paying for the podcast with their attention. Without their enormous number, the show wouldn’t be able to court advertisers, have profitable live tours, sell merchandise, or start a new podcast network. And in this instance, they’re right. My Favorite Murder does rely on its fanbase to make money.

On the other hand, however, fans are not entitled to a certain quality of entertainment when it is basically free. Creating content, especially on such a large and constant scale, is grueling. The fact that so many people expect to get an unending stream of new premium entertainment for no cost shows just how much the public’s view of the value of entertainment has changed. Creators are expected to pump out new content with no guarantee of reimbursement from the audience or advertisers. For big creators like the hosts of My Favorite Murder, the profit is mostly guaranteed. But for smaller creators, they are expending huge amounts of time, energy, and creativity for no reward. Audience members can move on to a new form of entertainment in the blink of an eye, leaving the content-creator high and dry. And yet, creators are viewed to be in “debt” to their fanbase because that viewership enabled them to make a profit. It’s a hugely imbalanced system that gives all of the power to the audience, and almost zero to the creators themselves.

So why does content debt exist? In my eyes, it’s an idea that has only taken root in the past decade or so, nourished by the proliferation of free-content platforms like YouTube that allow normal people to rise to fame through the attention of large fanbases. Viewers who watch their favorite creators grow from tiny voices to mega-stars feel invested in those creator’s success, but they also feel directly responsible for it. When those creators start off by making exclusively free content, and then graduate to creating ad-sponsored or donation-funded content, the viewer might feel like their creator, who they are personally invested in, is selling out. And if the creator makes exclusively paid content, the viewer will feel like something is being taken away from them unfairly, even if in another era, that content would have always come with a price.

I’ve experienced this feeling before and had to remind myself that creators deserve to be paid for their work. Advertisements are nice, but for most creators, ad revenue does not pay the bills. Many YouTubers and podcasters and artists of all sorts work full-time jobs while creating free content for their fans, and yet are still being harassed to create more. While a sensible creator would be wise to show gratitude to their audience, they should not feel indebted to them. After all, they are holding up their end of the bargain by outputting content to their viewers. It is the viewers who break their end of the agreement by demanding and complaining when they feel that they have not gotten enough reward for their engagement.

It’s a hard balance to achieve, and for many creators, the content debt burden will only increase as free entertainment becomes the standard, and paid content becomes a rarity. But if we want to keep having high-quality free content, there needs to be a societal limit on how much fans can expect in return for their attention. Creators are not robots, their work has value, and that value should not be written off just because the public thinks that their attention is payment enough. If paying creators is not an option, then we should at least strive to be more flexible and less demanding. Free entertainment is better than nothing.

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