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Monopoly, Monopsony, and the Value of Culture in a Digital Age

I attended a talk by Phil Graham from UQ Ipswich on Friday - mainly because of the intriguing title "Monopoly, Monopsony, and the Value of Culture in a Digital Age". Phil is a colleague with whom I've collaborated on an ARC Linkage grant proposal earlier this year.

He began with by pointing out that the long-established idea of a media monopoly (or more precisely oligopoly) of a very few major transnational corporations presents only one side of the coin. Not only do audiences have a very limited choice when it comes to choosing which media company to patronise (the few sellers, many buyers model of an oligopoly) - but just as importantly a similar problem also exists on the production side, where these few media conglomerates operate as a monopsony (or oligopsony): there are many potential sellers of creative content, but only few buyers.

This speaks quite directly to my work on open news: open news producers are attempting to bypass the monopsony/monopoly bottleneck of the media corporations altogether. In fact, Phil pointed out that the situation in news is particularly dire: there remain only two world-wide news agencies - Reuters and APTN...

In other words, then, the monopsony constitutes the bottleneck of the middle (or mediation) layer in the media, between producers and audiences. Due to conglomeration, there are very few potential buyers of media content for broadcast, and in turn very few alternatives in what is broadcast, which ends up limiting audiences choices as well as producer creativity and financial viability.

It also devalues creative work: as buyers of content, the corporations which make up the monopsony (or oligopsony) are naturally interested in keeping costs low, and so cultural products are (ideally) kept value-less until they are bought by (or unless they have already been born within) the system. (Phil's analogy was with money: it too has no value unless it is in circulation as currency.) In fact, cultural products might even be regarded as illegitimate unless they were produced within the established and controlled production system of the monopsony.

New media challenge this, of course: they foreground the free character of creative labour, and the apparent "worthlessness" of such labour within the monopsony systems; and they multiply the number of potential producers, sellers, and buyers in ths system. Thus, they threaten the stability of the monopsonistic system, which leads to a struggle for control over the means of distribution (as witnessed in the backlash by traditional content distribution industries - movies, music - against new media forms).

Ultimately, such struggles may be a last-ditch effort to maintain control, and are doomed to fail: as statistics of advertising expenditure vs. direct end-user expenditure show, the media overall are now for the first time predominantly supported by end consumer money rather than advertising (and the trend in this direction is continuing) - some more than others, of course. So, this might well undermine the monopsony irretrievably.

Phil concluded with some more general observations: cultures rely for their existence and reach on the reach of their mediating technologies. New systems permit new mediation patterns and intercultural interactions. Axiological conflicts - that is, conflicts between the ways in which people (choose to) express themselves - and syntheses are facilitated by new media systems in this process; and as a final result, then, axiologies change. In other words, in this current case, the effect of new media and their distribution systems is to challenge the existing axiology of the monopsonistic system; as to what it may be replaced by - well, we'll can make some educated guesses…

Some useful Websites referenced by Phil: JibJab and AEShareNet.