In Depth

Column: Web Video’s Barter Economy

There’s a joke in the new-media business that money never changes hands.

But there’s a lot of truth to the proposition, because most independent Web video creators aren’t making money.

That also means they aren’t in a position to pay others who work on their shows.

But that’s not stopping them from having casts and crews. In fact, the independent new-media business is being built on the financial foundation of a barter economy in which creators, producers, editors and others trade services on each other’s projects.

The barter economy that’s underpinning Web video programming grows out of the independent filmmaking community, indie movie producer David Stripinis said during the “This Week in Media” audio podcast last week.

In these early days, when advertisers are just starting to dabble in Web video, a barter economy is probably the best way to build for the future. That’s because a barter economy makes a future possible, a future where ads fund the best shows.

Without a barter economy, most Web shows wouldn’t get off the ground. (OK, maybe most shouldn’t get off the ground.)

The only way to test the potential of Web video as an ad medium is to create shows and, in doing so, learn which ones draw an audience.

The currency of trade works for small and big shows, including Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” () perhaps the highest profile Web series to date.

“On ‘Dr. Horrible,’ the lead actors were deferred pay and will be paid,” said Felicia Day, one of the three leads in that show. “Joss was very careful about clearing the unions because this project was in part a statement about the strength of a creative voice going right to the audience” in light of the writers strike.

Then there’s Web video creator Zack Luye, who uploads his show “Bottles, Blends and Brews” to Viddler, and in exchange Viddler promotes the show on its front page. “We bring traffic to Viddler, they bring traffic to us,” Mr. Luye said.

French Maid TV producer Tim Street acted in an episode of “Galacticast” in exchange for motion graphics work on his show.

Filmmaker Maxime Brulein has borrowed equipment for his shows and hired actors who wanted material for their reels. In return, he worked on their projects as a production designer and art director, he said.

But a free model isn’t a business model, and it won’t last forever.

“Hollywood is built on this dream of creatively collaborating and then eventually getting paid for it,” said Sarah Szalavitz, CEO of new-media consultancy 7 Robot. “This is how independent films have worked forever, but once you get funding you can’t do it anymore.”

In time, we’ll know which barter bets were worth it.