Media Perspective: All things come at a price, even those that claim to be free

Do you hate Jonathan from Spotify? Lots of people do.

There's a Facebook group to this effect and a splendid website called detailing many of Jonathan's failings, including "Jonathan From Spotify Fixed The Iranian Elections", "Jonathan From Spotify Invested in Sub-Prime Mortgages" and "Jonathan From Spotify Uses Comic Sans".

And what's the cause of all this disapprobation? In a small way it's because Jonathan used to read out little adlets on the Spotify music service, in a big way it's because of Free. "Free" in this context meaning the big marketing meme of the moment, the hope of a thousand business models and the subject of Chris "Long Tail" Anderson's new book (which is cunningly available for "free" on Spotify, as an audiobook. Very clever.).

I don't want to get involved in the religious wars that are already starting about Free and all the doctrines that have grown up around it. Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin have already thrown their two cents in so there's little point me pontificating on whether Free is the future of everything or not. But it is worth thinking about the Jonathan from Spotify hatefest and wondering exactly what we mean by Free.

Spotify's a brilliant web service that lets you listen to seemingly infinite oodles of music for "free", supported by ads. Or ad-free with a premium version. When it first started they were mostly house ads and fairly infrequent. But I was listening the other day and heard two ads from apparently real advertisers, back to back in a break.

Two things occurred to me: 1. Excellent - Spotify's business seems to be doing well, it is finally selling some space and 2. Shame, I'll have to stop listening now, it'll be full of ads or I'll have to pay. Spotify's success and the starkness of the with ads/premium equation is revealing the transactions buried within Free. You may not give ad-supported things your cash, but there's a real exchange of value. You're giving Spotify your attention, and while that's not something individuals traditionally know how to value, the £9.99 Spotify Premium option helps us work it out.

Basic, crude logic suggests that listening to those ads subtracts about £10 a month of value from our lives. I know that's not a very sophisticated argument but the proliferation of Free will force people to look harder at the apparently free deals they're being offered, and re-examine the deals they've historically made. And that's how they might think. We're so used to "free" TV, "free" newspapers, "free" all-sorts that we don't examine the buried, unstated and societal costs.

Maybe the imminent blitz of free-thinking products and services will make consumers think again about how much Free actually costs. So we should think about it too.