Selling Sex: The “Other” Shiny Plastic Disc Business


Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

These days, it’s becoming clearer that the record industry’s plight in the digital age hasn’t happened in a vacuum – that, in all actuality, its troubles aren’t that unique at all.  Many industries in fact, particularly those whose content can be turned into zeros and ones, are finding themselves struggling to rethink the ways in which they make money and how they will continue to remain profitable.

Recently, an article appeared in The Daily Beast by Richard Abowitz called Top 5 Reasons Porn-for-Profit Is Dying.  In it, Abowitz makes the case as to why a rather lucrative industry has found itself transformed by an onslaught of technological, economic, and societal changes.  Quite obviously, one needs not to know much about the porn industry to suppose that the number one factor contributing to their difficulties is piracy.

This, in turn, opened up the opportunity for one insider to comment that, “Piracy is the biggest single factor contributing to the economic malaise we are in.”  After all, they say, as almost all insiders tend to say, “How can you compete with free?”  That statement, from the perspective of Mike Masnick of TechDirt, is one of those “that people love to throw out.”  To which he further argues, “If we break down the statement carefully, anyone who says that is really saying that they can't compete at all.”  In effect, what they’re saying that “they can't figure out a way to add value that will make someone buy [porn] above marginal cost.”1

What’s more interesting though is the manner in which porn stars view their careers much in the same light as artists in the record industry and the managers and lawyers and RIAA representatives that tend to speak on their behalf.  These claims range from the more traditional axioms that, “If people don’t realize [that piracy] is stealing and start paying for their porn then performers are going to stop performing.”  Onto where they pronounced that, “I don’t think people are just going to do what porn stars do for free and put it on the Internet.”

Sound familiar — that if people don’t start paying for music, people will quit making it?  Similar arguments have surfaced in the record industry, but, for some reason, instrument sales are high and people keep making music.  Yet, making music requires a certain degree of talent, ambition, or, at the very least, practice for that matter.  Much of which, courageous YouTube uploads still lack on their best day, but, in fact, people are still making music.  In contrast, without the intent of degrading the works of other ‘performers,’ a Flip cam is about the only thing between professionals and amateurs seeking Internet fame.

Another fascinating similarity is that “paying online hasn’t worked out so well for porn.”  For the reason that recording entire movies, much like albums, can be an expensive undertaking when in reality the porn industry equivalent of the 4-5 minute single is all that the more casual fans are looking for.  So, many studios that once depended heavily on their DVD sales are finding themselves besieged, because they “haven’t figured out how to fully monetize that content.”

To paraphrase Jeff Zucker, head of NBC Universal, these studios have indeed ended up trading analog dollars for digital pennies, and, evidently, they are not very happy about it.  While insiders state that they are still in fact making money on video-on-demand services, they are quick to point out that they don’t bring in nearly as much as their DVD sales have in the past.

Taboo, cited as the third reason that ‘Porn-For-Profit’ is dying, fluctuates around the idea that it used to be rather unacceptable to do such matters for money, and that increasingly for anyone with the ambitions to do so, all that they need to do is set up a website.  Put differently, in an industry where gatekeepers used to choose who succeeded and who didn’t — today, anyone can setup their own page and encroach on the wages made by professional porn stars.

Here is where it gets remarkable though — that, “One of the strangest challenges porn faces is competition from online games like World of Warcraft, though the connection may at first seem random.”  However, if you subscribe to the notion of the ‘attention economy,’ and think that porn now competes not only with online gaming, but all forms of media, it becomes clear why this connection isn’t quite so disparate after all.  It, in truth, alludes to the most prevalent shift in the consumption of entertainment that is happening today — that video gaming has restructured the level of engagement that consumers expect from media.

Lastly, rather than fighting for “the diminishing supply of work in the porn business,” doing, well, all kinds of things, some porn stars have come to realize that they can complete with free in other ways — that their fans will pay them more to have ‘basic sex’ with them.  Naturally, this puts quite a different spin on Masnick’s "Connect with Fans + Reason to Buy = $$$$.”  However, Abowitz says, “It is a logic that is increasingly making sense to some porn stars as fans are able to connect ever more directly with them via Facebook and Twitter.”

Given these similar circumstances it makes you wonder whether or not tiered releases are in their near future, if not, already happening.  Yet, while the porn industry equivalent of ‘the shiny plastic disc business’ may be in dire straits — chances are that it won’t entirely go away, but, it will have to change with the times.  Porn, like music, won’t ever quit being made, for the reason that it’s not likely that people will soon lose interest in it anytime soon.  That said it should be interesting to see in the years to come if the porn and record industry’s share a similar fate in the digital age, and, if so, how different they will look in the future.


1.  Mike Masnick,  Saying You Can't Compete With Free

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1 Comment

  1. The point where the similarities of selling CDs and selling porn DVDs ends is that the structure of hit songs or hit bundles is very elaborate when compared to what is called the highlight of porn movies, the zooming in on the actors’ parts. The latter can be done much more easily by willing amateurs than playing music. So that suggests the porn industry faces even tougher times than the record industry. And nobody wants bad porn when they could have a lovely girlfriend.
    When you talk about something like “attention economy”, please consider the fact that the ads sponsoring ad-supported music do take away attention from the music, because listeners don’t get more time off from work when they listen to ad-supported music whereas they used to pay for music with their hard-earned that they get from working hours.

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