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« The music industry is financially healthy. I will pay you to prove me wrong… | Main | How To Deliver Remarkable Value »

The Free Music Mirage

Steadily, over the course of the last 10 years, the idea that recorded music “has” to be free has been transformed from a radical stance taken by those adept enough to navigate the geeky interfaces of file-sharing sites to a standard online rallying cry.

The tables have in fact been turned so entirely that anyone who dares now to suggest that people should still pay for recorded music can expect derision.

Along the way, many musicians themselves have acquiesced to the situation. Gamely, they’ve been willing to go along, willing to say, “Well, okay, if music has to be free, I’ll figure something out, I’ll get by.”

But what if it’s all been a figment of some overactive imaginations? What if recorded music does not in fact have to be free?

Looked at from the outside, free music is an odd conclusion to come to. To begin with, the idea originated in violation of intellectual property rights. However imperfect and in need of adjustment over time it may be, intellectual property is still a vital cultural concept. One can argue that certain aspects of intellectual property law are out of whack—such as the ridiculous copyright extensions that have been granted in recent decades—without concluding that there should be no intellectual property rights at all, or that musicians in particular should be giving their music away for no cost, all the time.

And there is also the matter of human decency. Even if you think you have good intentions, taking something for free that was not intended to be given out for free is not nice or fair. To turn around and distribute this same something to thousands of other people for free is, well, really not nice.

But of course the matter of music-sharing isn’t quite so black and white. Also looked at from the outside, it should be clear that the taking and sharing of music online happens along a nuanced spectrum, including everyone from the aficionado sharing out-of-print music on a blog with fifty readers to someone who just loves a new song so much she wants to share it with a few friends to the kid stoked by ripping brand new mass-market CDs on the day of their release (or earlier) and putting them on the P2P networks.

A worthy discussion of all this might have been launched in the early ’00s that accounted for the different kinds of sharing that was actually happening.

This discussion never much occurred, of course, in large part because the major record labels from the get-go have brooked no nuance, aiming to fight every instance of online file sharing, no matter the context.

It may be no coincidence that those arguing that music must be free have likewise been little interested in gray areas. Perhaps this arose as a counter-reaction to the mainstream music industry’s onslaught, perhaps it’s just that the free music adherents, like all good zealots, veer naturally towards extremism.

In any case, between vociferous calls to artists to stop even trying to sell actual music (they should be selling “experiences” instead; or, maybe, t-shirts) and gleeful anticipation of our imminent, cloud-based future—in which any one musician’s specific songs or albums are worth fractions of pennies at best or are entirely ad-supported, and no one has to sell anything resembling either a physical product or a digital file—the free music crowd in 2010 is all but ready to declare victory.

But just because a lot of people believe something does not make it true, or right, or good. And because conversations on the internet tend to be dominated by the loudest and most self-promoting voices, it’s all too easy for the true and right and good to be pushed aside.

And, bless their hearts, the free music folks have been nothing if not loud and self-promoting, convinced that they alone have a grip on reality. “Get used to it!” they explain. “Stop living in the past!” they clarify. One can all but feel their hands on one’s collar, ready to yank us out of our humdrum, 20th-century-fixated lives.

But here’s a news flash: it may be the free music cheerleaders who are stuck in the past.

They’re the ones who are attached to the old-fashioned idea that monetary value depends on something having a three-dimensional presence.

As far as I can see, the truly future-oriented music visionary will be one with a plan that involves an industry economy that can and does attach genuine monetary value to digital entities.

Please understand that in arguing that music does not “have to be free,” I am nevertheless not: a) a stooge for the major record labels; b) a believer that all music must on the other hand be paid for; c) convinced that great numbers of people will necessarily pay money for MP3 downloads per se as the future unfolds.

I understand that the technology will continue to evolve, that people may generally go in the direction of paying for access rather than ownership, and that as yet unanticipated options may arise. And I absolutely believe that there have been and will continue to be great benefits to loosening up our ideas of how and why music is distributed and paid for.

But make no mistake. Anyone who looks at the crazy, fluid, work-in-progress that is the 21st-century music scene to date and claims that the future requires all recorded music to be free both to own and to listen to is seeing things. It’s a mirage. The rest of us should shake our heads, rub our eyes, and keep walking—we have an actual future to get to.

Going to Extremes

One reason the free music camp has gained credibility is because they are so resolutely opposed to an enemy already mistrusted and disliked. Few people stick up for the big record companies, for good reason. They have navigated the digital scene very badly, because—basically—they navigate badly in any arena in which fair practices must be maintained. They have consistently stood in the way of rightful progress.

But—this is the part you don’t tend to hear—so have the free music proponents.

If the historical model for music revenue distribution was exploitative—which it most certainly was—then let’s use this opportunity to change it. To insist that the new answer is that all recorded music must now be free is just as absurd and extremist a response to 21st-century realities as was the record companies’ suing of their customers. The latter was a sort of fascist fever dream, while the former is little more than adolescent fantasy.

If nothing else, this insistence on a free music future seems an inexplicable diversion of good energy. Why are people more willing to fight for free music than to fight for a talented musician’s right to earn money from his or her handiwork? Why do people jump through hoops to invent alternative scenarios for musicians to make money, rather than fight to defend the value of music itself?

These are worthy questions, not often addressed. Defending their position, some free music adherents sound like querulous children who don’t want to be told they can’t eat candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many respond with belligerance to anyone suggesting there might perhaps be moral or legal or logistical problems with their grand idea.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Now I’ll admit, something without physical substance is a curious circumstance for a material species such as ourselves. And this is after all the bedrock of the “music must be free” stance: that something that’s just digital bits doesn’t really have to cost anything.

But then here is the even more curious circumstance. If we were willing to pay for music in the past, when it was housed on a compact disc or a cassette tape or a vinyl LP, and we are not willing to pay for music now, when we can still hear it—more conveniently than ever, I should add—then the implication is clear, but startling: in the past, we were paying solely for the physical object and not a penny for the music itself.

And yet of course that’s wrong. Surely we were paying for the music—in fact, I’d say the plastic and the packaging were not much on our minds as we plunked down our money. And so—it seems quite clear in this context, yes?—if we were paying for the music back then, then we should still be paying for the music now. We should be paying for it, that is, with one notable change: the music should cost quite a bit less, because there are fewer material costs involved, and fewer distribution costs.

The bits argument is intellectual sleight of hand. We should dismiss it, and ask, instead: what is it about the internet that makes us think we should not and will not pay for music?

There is one camp that believes the answer to this question is a purely economic one—an argument most famously laid out by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, who declared in 2007 that the price of music would “inevitably” fall to zero because the marginal production costs are zero. By this he meant that it costs nothing to produce an identical digital copy of any given song.

To his credit, Arrington encouraged discussion. He didn’t shy from criticism, but dismissed most of it as “emotional.” He argued from the position that economic theory was as immutable a truth as the law of gravity (which I feel compelled to point out it rather obviously isn’t). He noted repeatedly that this isn’t about fairness.

But in that case I have to say, with all due respect, that the argument is pointless. Fairness actually does matter, as the free market has always been properly constrained and guided by legal and cultural considerations. We live in a world of moral complexity, not of abstract economic theorizing. If you beg off the question of right and wrong then you have begged off having a voice in the matter worth listening to.

What, Me Worry?

Free music proponents who don’t take refuge in hard-core economics like to employ two other prominent rationales to explain why the internet means music now has to be free. And if the economic theory rationalizers sidestep the right and wrong debate, the folks using the next rationale try to confront the morality issue head-on. This is the “I’m not doing anything wrong” rationale.

There are actually a few variations of this one, but the most common is the “I’m not doing anything wrong because nothing is actually stolen” argument.

This outgrowth of the “digital bits aren’t real” concept overlooks the basic idea, mentioned earlier, that if you decide not to pay for something that the owner is otherwise asking a price for, and you take possession of this thing anyway, this is wrong. As soon as you start reverse-engineering a “What, Me Worry?” morality based on interpretation and semantics and loop holes, you’ve already skipped over the part about taking possession of something that is somebody else’s without paying for it.

What’s more, the entire premise is rooted in illogic. On the one hand, the “I’m not doing anything wrong” crew has argued that they should be able to take the digital music for free because it doesn’t have any real value; on the other hand, they want the music enough to have it, which means—um—that is has value.

Because of course it does. Digital files may be elusive physically but they are still very real. To claim you’re not stealing anything because the owner maintains the original file is nonsense. By a similar argument, one could say there’s nothing wrong with hacking into your bank account and adding money to it because “nothing is being stolen.”

Already Free? Um, No

The other interesting rationale for claiming that all music must be free is the “Music is already free” rationale. By this people mean that whether it was right or wrong no longer matters, everyone can get everything they want for free via file-sharing, why are we even discussing this any more, you idiots. (Or something like that.) Note that people using this argument are often kind of angry.

“Music is already free” is a rhetorical trick—the rationale of a wily debater who wants to frame the discussion past the point of argument. But it doesn’t wash. The only way music is “already free” is if you’re willing to take, for free, what the owners of that which you’re taking are not offering for free. By the same assumption, one could say that everything currently in stores is already free to anyone willing to steal it.

And forgetting arguments over intellectual property rights for a moment, it should also be noted that music isn’t “already free” because—minor detail—lots of people are still buying it.

People still buy CDs and people still buy digital downloads, in relatively large numbers, sometimes unexpectedly so (as with the recent Sade album, never mind the Susan Boyle album). Yes, sales are way down from where they were at the height of the CD boom, but the reasons for this are many and varied—a good subject for another essay. But there is no solid evidence to suggest that all the people who no longer are buying albums are now simply accessing their music for free, just as it is specious to pretend that no one at all buys music anymore.

Another nagging way reality is at odds with the “already free” vision: musicians themselves still sell their music. And, as Glenn Peoples recently discussed in Billboard, there remain compelling reasons for them to do so.

And what about the fact that 35 percent of Americans are still not using broadband? If you don’t have broadband, you’re not downloading music. Music is not free for these people.

And by the way, while precise information on this remains sketchy, common sense tells us that most people who are using broadband have no particular idea how to use the P2P networks, if only because the history of home technology has shown time and again that the average computer user has no interest in using anything even a little bit complicated.

Resuscitating Value

There is one final problem with the “music is already free” assumption; it is in fact a problem that compromises all arguments put forward by all free music zealots. And it is the indisputable fact that many music fans to this day enjoy buying songs and albums from musicians they like. Not t-shirts. Not special boxed sets of b-sides and remixes. Regular songs and albums.

I am one of these fans. And I for one resent the the assumption made by the free music advocates that anyone who is into music wants nothing more than to have all the music they want for free.

I find this kind of insulting.

Why do they think it’s somehow wrong or old-fashioned to want to pay musicians for their art? Is it old-fashioned to buy a painting from an artist you admire? Is it old-fashioned now, somehow, to spend money on anything that someone else created and produced?

Which leads us back to the fundamental question I asked earlier: what is it about the internet that makes us think we should not and will not pay for music? To put it another way: why have so many people been hellbent on using the existence of digital files as an excuse to undermine the idea that an individual piece of music by an individual artist has actual value?

All this talk about how music “must” be free is peculiar in the midst of a society that has hardly abandoned the concept of capitalism. The free music camp think they’re somehow saving or reinventing the music industry when they’re actually bringing some big shovels to the graveyard.

And hiding behind alternative revenue schemes doesn’t work. All these roundabout ways that musicians might get paid—from merchandise sales to percentages of advertising on ad-supported music sites—have one thing in common, regardless of how much or how little money they generate: they all implicitly devalue the music.

Neither can we hide behind the forces of history. No historical precedent exists to justify the idea that going digital means music must be free. History is full of shifts from one type of product to another—ice cubes to refrigerators, horses to cars, film to digital photos. In all cases, the replacement product performs the old job in a new and better way, and people pay for it accordingly.

The one valid reason I can see why the blossoming of the internet as a music medium in the 21st century has provoked the idea that music must be free has nothing to do with history, nothing to do with intellectual property laws, and nothing to do with marginal production costs. It does, however, have something to do with economics—namely, the trusty, even homely theory of supply and demand.

As the internet has all but eliminated the barrier to entry for a musician to record and distribute his or her music, the market has been flooded, the drain pipes clogged beyond repair. With the supply of music all but infinite (or at least, to quote Dr. Seuss, “up in the zillions”), the price of music should, indeed, theoretically fall to all but zero.

Unless…okay, it’s a crazy idea, but…unless we somehow begin to work to distinguish quality from quantity. Sure, there’s an unimaginable glut of music, but there has been and always will be a much (much) smaller supply of quality music. I have no exact idea how this could play out—maybe the subject of another essay—but if we can begin to delineate between the dabblers and the virtuosos, we might be able to establish why some music is actually worth paying for, while other music is entirely suited to free distribution.

There is plenty of precedent for this. Think about home-based artists who draw or paint or sculpt just because they love to, without any desire or need to be paid for it. Their existence, however, has never implied that nobody should be paid for those painting or drawing or sculpting.

We need tiers of musical activity. We cannot allow the existence of millions of songs that do not deserve an audience beyond friends and family to negate the idea that some songs are worthy of value in the marketplace. We need not to be telling musicians that they must work harder at mastering social media. They need to be working harder to master their craft, and need to remember that no one owes a musician a living.

But neither do we owe them a swift kick in the ass while we consciously and demeaningly deny all potential value from their chosen calling. If we can shake the sand from our eyes and look hard and fast at the horizon—if we can understand what’s really there and what really isn’t—we may recognize that it is up to us as well. As streaming sites continue to develop, it’s easier than ever to use the internet to listen, so you can make an informed decision. Then you can do the truly revolutionary thing: buy the music that you like.

Because here’s the new rule: if someone else made it and you really like it, it’s not supposed to be free.


This essay was originally posted on Fingertips. Jeremy Schlosberg founded Fingertips in 2003, and has been curating high-quality free and legal MP3s ever since.


Reader Comments (57)

An extended beatdown of a straw man that never hit you back once.

Did this really need to be written?

All cogent arguments, but kind of beside the point. Economics and inherent value relies on scarcity. If something is not scarce, then it's not worth a lot of money (a point made by the chief bean counter at PRS no less). This is why your comparison to artists is nonsensical - their product is, by its very nature scarce. Technological barriers to free distribution of music will never exist - indeed the industry has given up trying to find them. Of course musicians should feel that they should rewarded for their efforts if those efforts are any good, but they have to rethink how they do that. The value chain has shifted away from the point of consumption. Relying on people's good will to actually pay for stuff just isn't going to work, and mechanisms for squashing the behaviour will become more expensive than the cost of the pirating itself.

This simply isn't an argument of ethics or morality. The easy distribution of digital media has created this situation and opened a Pandora's box that can't be closed without turning off the internet. Do I think that music should be free? It's an irrelevant question. From here onwards it basically is.

It's really rather simple:

Studio recordings are expensive to produce, take artistic talent and skill from all involved and are HIGHLY valued by the fans of the artists involved.

Copies of recordings are extremely cheaply and easily produced and distributed, so much so that kids and their dogs can do it.

So, recordings can be sold (because there's a market for them), but copies cannot be sold (because everyone can make their own).

Those finding that they can no longer put a price on their product are the producers of copies, i.e. record labels.

The big secret that the labels don't want anyone to find out is that they don't have to sell copies in order for musicians to sell recordings to the label. The label can simply go out of business (though they'll scream blue murder to prevent this, via draconian legislation). Obviously, (well, perhaps not so obviously) the musician has to find someone other than the doomed label who'll buy their recording. Hmmm. I wonder who it could be? Who wants the musician's recording more than the record label? Who could possibly match and probably exceed the paltry fee the label usually coughs up? I mentioned them earlier - they're the same ones who commission live performances. Can you guess who it is yet?

I think you're completely missing the point (well lots of them) one major point is this:

Control. The digital age shifts control from the producer of goods to the consumer. in the case of the music industry, after being raped for fifty years, consumers want, first, payback (and musicians should want that too) and second - control over their experience and consumption of music and, most importantly - control of our culture.

music is nothing if no one experiences it, meaning - half the value is created by the public.
the digital era clarifies this power relationship.

now, to succeed: make good music, play nice, be honest and caring with your fans. Be a human being , not an abusive corporation that could care less about music, culture and society. Stop exploiting people, don't be so greedy that's all. True artists get this intuitively and they are succeeding. If you are in it only for the money than i pity you and hope you fail miserably.

May 7 | Unregistered Commenteryogi

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm not a musician looking to get paid for my music, but as a music fan who happily pays for music, this piece had me nearly jumping up and down, wanting to send you a virtual high-five.

May 7 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. I don't understand why, simply with the further development of technology, that people automatically think they are ENTITLED to that which they have never previously been "entitled" -- the property of others (be it intellectual or otherwise). To me, that is the strongest part of your argument. It would have been delusional to declare that the music of John Coltrane, or Elvis Presley, or Led Zeppelin should be free "just because I say so," in past decades, so why is it not delusional to now declare music should be free just because technology has made it easier to COPY? It seems to me that technology is becoming an excuse for many to behave like selfish, entitled brats with a propensity to want, want, want and throw tantrums when they don't get it their way. Because it is easier than ever to have it "your way," when something obstructs one's path to instant gratification, and free gratification at that, they simply cannot comprehend why someone is harshing their entitled buzz.

May 7 | Unregistered CommenterDrummer

^^Why is it not delusional? Simply because it's factually true. In the real world it happens millions of times a day, every day. Your only argument about it being morally wrong is immaterial to the ongoing reality.

Further, the audience you people are bitching at? Are not listening, do not care. Will never read this, don't even think about it. If you're think you're "harshing their buzz" -- well, that's delusional. They're not even here.

Feel free to keep lecturing, though, everyone needs catharsis, I get that.

This is the most accurate breakdown of the current state of affairs I have ever read. I have written these points almost word for word over the last few years on several blogs myself. Dead on, dead on, dead on, dead on, can I say it again? DEAD ON.


^^Paul inspired me to re-phrase, because I do respect this guy...

When I say this is about a "straw man" I mean, there really is no "Free Music" counterculture writing manifestos and spreading the entire catalogs of Zeppelin and Coltrane online. There's millions and millions and millions of people who download music for free using the internet, around the world, every single day. They don't really philosophize about why. They don't even care enough to think about it. It's available and it's easy and they do it.

There's also -- whole separate group now -- also a small bunch of writers on music blogs and tech blogs who get gigs writing opinion pieces in magazines like Wired and papers like NYT. They write deep, hip think-pieces about how "All Music is Free Now" and they have nothing to do with the actual phenomenon. They're just useful idiots for editors who need to fill some column inches for next issue ASAP. They don't deal with statistics and facts, they write about feelings and ideas, and that's cool, but my points is: don't worry about them, they're not a threat.

The real threat is this mass of totally normal people who are downloading music for free because it's easy, and considerably cheaper than actually paying for it.

What bothers me about this article is that you're taking exactly the same sloppy, lazy approach that the "Music is Free Now" kids do. Nowhere in this article do you "actually" "quote" anybody, you don't address anything specific, but you still get to write like you're arguing with someone. (Because you don't have an editor.) That's a BS approach. If you're talking about a real school of thought, name them. If you're addressing a real problem, give details, support, proof, evidence, quotes, something real.

I didn't like this very much. Basically.

I would say this. This is a piece that is theorizing about the future. What the future can, should be, might be. This isn't journalism, this is an editorial. As such, I don't think the author has to reference every point. There's not one point from the "straw man" that any of us wonky enough to be reading this hasn't heard. Whether the opinions of the "straw man" are printed in Wired or NYT, or said by one of the millions upon millions that you say are downloading music illegally now, it doesn't really matter.

If you sit on Twitter long enough, you will find many people that are industry wonks or common fans that believe this "Straw Man" theory that music should be free.

Music should not be free. That's a fact. I'm not questioning the fact that people do and will continue to NOT pay for music, I'm just stating it. I see the author doing the same thing here.

I think his point about the lost opportunity for independent artists to FINALLY get what was kept from them by horrid major label contracts is valid, whether it is sourced or not. It's a fact.

The reality is this, and I'm sure you've seen/heard me say it a million times:

Art and Commerce are perpendicular streets, NOT parallel. Art is better appreciated when you pay for it. Think about how much you either love or hate a movie when you go to a theater to see. Think about how indifferent you are when you see a movie on cable for free.

Until some level......ANY level of commerce returns to all forms of art, you will see culture decay as mediocrity becomes the norm.

You have the right to create music. you have the right to publish it. You have the right to try and convince people to pay you for your music. you are not entitled to force people to pay you for your music. you are not entitled to create artificial scarcities of music. you are not entitled to force people to pay you what you think is the correct price. All you can do is try to convince them that your price is correct.

In short - you have to make a living like most everybody else - nobody owes musicians anything.

That's freedom and it's all good.

Take care of your fans and they'll take of you.

May 7 | Unregistered Commenteryogi

creating stuff with view to selling it is part and parcel of making "a living like most everybody else", a musician has the right to do whatever they like with their creations. If you can't afford them/won't pay for them then go without. I'd like a new car, but just because I can't fork out the money for one doesn't give me the right to drive it away without the vendor's permission.

May 7 | Unregistered Commenterspider

Interesting to see this here - I've already read it over at Fingertips. Can't say the audience reactions surprised me, MTT being what it is.

Couple of points:
- There's no such thing as an artificial scarcity of music - no more than an artificial scarcity of anything else. Since creating music (both in terms of composition and recording of performances) requires labour on the part of the musician, it is only fitting that the musician should have some say as to its commercial application, if any. That is: they should have the option of controlling the supply of their music to the market, as assured by copyright. The fact that copyright protection is available for a limited amount of time is a reasonable compromise of producer/consumer interest.

- As a corollary, talking about control passing to the consumer is nonsense. There is absolutely no rationale, moral or economic, supporting such an idea. The consumer always had control, in the sense of her spending choices. The producer prices his product as he sees fit, but the consumer can always choose not to buy. If a given price point finds buyers, it means that it is acceptable to the market.

- Talking about "rape" by the recording industry is so absurd, it barely deserves a response - by the same token we could talk about Apple raping consumers, or how about Rolex or Rolls-Royce?

- Furthermore, I'm frankly amazed at the sad attempts to drag the artist into this. Today's music business simply substitutes one Man for another. As an artist, I don't care whether I'm not being paid by a label, a Web-based music service or by someone who considers themselves my fan. If I'm not getting paid for making music that people like, all scenarios are equally crappy.

I agree with Justin, catharsis is fine, but a complete recap of the last decade isn't neccessary for most of us, we just lived it.

Re: your endpoint, the fact is, capitalism doesn't work by telling consumers how to act. You don't create a business model and then tell the customers what you expect from them. You find out how they act, and then figure out how to make money off of that. Right now, we're still waiting for the dust to clear, we've got holdovers from the old system, a few success stories in the new medium, and we all get a much more level playing field for the moment while the giants are thrown off their balance. But once this window is over and a tried and true business model is established, those with the big money will be all over it, and we'll have a new 'Machine' to rage against.

This part: "We need not to be telling musicians that they must work harder at mastering social media. They need to be working harder to master their craft, and need to remember that no one owes a musician a living." I have issues with. Duke Ellington worked hard as a musician AND as a bandleader/businessman, as many have since, and no musician should expect to just play music and let the business guys take care of that math stuff.

Much respect though, Jeremy, I know you've thought about all this thoroughly and it's a very well written article, but would be much stronger with quotes or citations of the other side's arguments presented here.


May 7 | Unregistered Commentertom riley

Thanks to all for the provocative posts. I am mostly coming at it from the perspective of trying to restart a live performing career at the age of 55 after 25 years off the live stage. I have had some success marketing my own CDs but realize that is a closing window and I have to switch to the live route. I do know from my other business pursuits that giving stuff away for free can make me good money but giving stuff away for free actually requires much more money to implement than the "free music" musicians are budgeting for.

I have miscellaneous analytical questions on the ASCAP record collections year that I have not seen answered:
1. Does this past year include significant new money coming in from web radio broadcasters that was not in prior years?
2. Was there any relevant market share shift from or at the expense of the other collections agencies (BMI,etc)?
3. Did more musicians change their affiliation to ASCAP from other agencies because of increased publicity about ASCAP?
4. Someone asked this above- did ASCAP ramp up collections calls and threats to collect?
5. Did ASCAP open up new offices elsewhere in the world (Australia, Europe, South America) to collect in areas that weren't paid that much attention?
6. Was there more music clubs or restaurants of a certain size open up or try live music for the first time? Also was there a shift away from recorded dance music clubs with emphasis on mix tapes or DJs?
7. Lastly, could ASCAP have raised their rates by 5-10% and have gotten the increased revenue that way?

May 7 | Unregistered CommenterTom Laskey

No offense, but you come across equally as idealist as the folks you're chastising. In truth, we are not all bound by a magical universal moral code (not in practical terms, at least). We're bound, instead, by the law. And the law has limitations in terms of enforcement. Anyone can break the law... you can jay walk, you can hit & run, you can run stop signs & traffic lights, you can tear those tags off of mattresses, & you can share music online. Just the same as the labels can do all of the shady corner cutting & the unethical & downright illegal things that they've always done & that they continue to do. There are tangible consequences (and perhaps intangible consequences, but that's irrelevant) if you get caught, there are no tangible consequences if you don't. So when the cost of policing this activity surpasses the value of policing, music has essentially become free. You might live in a world of "moral complexity," but that doesn't mean that everyone else does. The record labels certainly don't. They live in a world of quarterly profits. And a lot of consumers don't, especially younger people who were raised by television and have only ever lived under a post-Reagan corporatocracy. They live in a world of cause and effect. What this means is that in this brave new world if your product lacks scarcity (and is therefore impractical to protect), you have to not only entice consumers to want your product, you also have to give them a reason to want to pay for it. This is 21st century public relations & the record labels have been failing miserably at it.

And I'm not arguing against morality, I'm just saying that expecting children of the 21st century, nevermind demanding them to obey these traditional precepts without a practical, cost-effective way to enforce them is not a sound business model (as we've seen). You have to offer an incentive, whether it's a physical companion to the music or simple gestures of goodwill (the latter more often than the former).

And to those who are still buying music, this doesn't (or at least doesn't yet) apply, but the ones who are buying (*caugh*Susan Boyle*caugh*) are going to be gone eventually and those who aren't buying will still remain. Do you keep hanging on for dear life to the shrinking piece of the pie, or do you plan for the future? I think you can do both.

So to argue that record labels should act a certain way or that consumers should act a certain way is a little bit absurd unless you can cost-effectively litigate. The answer is to deal with things as they are & to change yourself as much as you can in ways that benefit you & to work on a new system.

At least that's the way I see it.

May 7 | Unregistered CommenterJon Cole

Why do people feel the need to make something so simple, so complex?

If I create something - a car, a shoe, a song - I do not DESERVE anything for it - but if I name a price and a consumer agrees to pay it - we have a deal. Record companies never raped the public (although they may have screwed many artists.)

Technology has made it simple to steal someone else's creation - does that mean we SHOULD? No, of course not, but too late - its already happening. As for the cost of policing this theft...

Someone said this theft is consequence free - it isn't. If the revenue stream dries up, so will the quality of the product. Compare the music made between 1960-1980, to the music from 1990-2010. The QUANTITY is way up to be sure. And it's not for me to judge the QUALITY, but why do you think the average teenager's iPod is filled with Beatles and Led Zeppelin? Teenagers in 1975 were NOT listening to their parents' Perry Como records. This is new. Even Mozart thought Bach was "square". Without a revenue stream, imagine music from 2010-2030.

Musicians will not stop making music - but if the revenue stream dries up, musicians will be forced to support themselves in other ways. That time away from its creation will logically affect the music's quality.

Fifteen years from now, I wonder if my daughter will be more likely to listen to Lady Gaga or Lady Madonna. Nothing against Lady Gaga -- she's a marketable entity to be sure ! But is it about the music ??

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterMark


I appreciate the spirit in which you say what you say. There are many of us who want to find ways that artists can be kept solvent. No easy task though, and never was.

Revenue from records was historically one way that might be done. It wasn’t that great however as it tended to reward only a tiny minority of successful artists and their commercial overlords.

Technology having eroded the economic value of the recorded copy is a brutal fact of the current age. Fighting against it using moral arguments is like arguing at the weather.

Whatever new ways there might be to finance musicians I imagine income from copies of our recorded works will not be one of them. And just to repeat myself: it never was. So no change there.

Arguments from quality make no sense either. There is no such thing as “quality”. It is a metaphor, a linguistic device for expressing preferences.

You learn after a while working in music that tastes are hugely diverse. Some really do prefer a dabbler to a virtuoso. You also learn that 99% of people are indifferent to 99% of music. What any given person likes is a drop in the ocean of what’s available. And their likes are more determined by cultural cues than any “ghost in the machine” that is quality.

Before a work goes into the world it exists in a kind of quantum state, neither good nor bad. It is the culture that gives it its cred. Or not, as the case may be.

If it were possible to run music up a measuring stick of quality, art would be a science. That there is no such thing as quality is the beauty of it.

The hidden moral of this story? Write music for people with slow internet connections.

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterKeith

Regardless of the reasons, the value of recorded music is determined by supply and demand, like anything else. This article describes in length why recorded music SHOULD not be free, all while ignoring the reasons why it IS being given away.

It's a rather moot point anyway. Royalties were never really substantial for any but the most successful artists, the only substantial benefits to artists from a record deal were the album promotions, yielding profits in other music marketing departments (tickets, merch, publishing, etc). Since record labels are all influentially bankrupt, at least it's still a level playing field, probably moreso than it ever was.

The downside is that live music is down globally due to the lack of such promotions. There is a huge void that promoters have to fill. It is the greatest opportunity the music business has ever seen. I'm starting to see people recognizing that and acting upon it, with widely varying results.

Wonderful piece. Wish I'd written it. I'm also unsurprised by the all-too-predictable reactions to it, but when the smoke clears, Jeremy will still be right."They're going to do it anyway.", is not an argument, and won't save a single thieving soul. Freeloaders can cry "Foul!" all they want over the industry's financial rape of artists and the public at large, but now who's living in the past? If we're to move forward, and build a music industry that's fairer to artists and fans, we need do only two things; codify fair use in the minds of consumers and eliminate human error from the remuneration and pricing of music.

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterMojo Bone

I love how all you guys that want music to be free continue to bring up "major labels" and "corporations". Unless I'm in a room here with a bunch of people illegally downloading Lady Gaga and Kanye West's hits, I doubt that applies. Most of the music that is free flowing around the internet is either directly from the artist, from an artist run label or from small independents (as long as we're not counting back catalogs). If you buy something that was just released, the odds of it coming from a "corporation" are pretty slim.

I've got news for you, YOU'VE WON! Major labels are all folding or shrinking. Their impact of the industry is smaller then it ever has been. Most of their dirty tricks don't apply anymore. The past is the past. I know you got your feelings hurt when you went to a Sam Goody in 1998 and saw CDs for 18.99 each, I know that was a crushing part of your life, I cry for you. It clearly was very traumatic.....I'd get you a tissue, but those days are over!

Personally, I'm just as happy those days are over too, but the important part is, they are the past.

It's 2010. we need to move forward. I know that most people sitting in their house don't care about the people that work in the music industry. They don't care about the musicians, they don't care about the people that work at labels, they don't care about the people starting their own small businesses, but they have a right to make money at their chosen craft just as much as you do.

Maybe someday, someone will come along and take your career, remove almost any way of making money at it and tell you to "deal with it".

All this piece does is search for a way to the future. A way where music is sustainable. Most importantly, it looks for a way to make music sustainable that is more fair to the musician AND the consumer.

Music will not be free forever more. It's unrealistic. You might not like that, but it's true.

I'm a musician and produce my own recordings. Also a "human being" and definitely NOT a large corporation, and I've definitely been HURT by the HUGE fall-off in music purchasing that's occurred over the last few years.

I guess people think that by sharing files they're not really hurting anybody (I mean they don't "really" cost anything to make do they?) I've even been amazed at the many people's total ignorance about what it REALLY costs to make a CD. They figure since you can buy blank CDs for about $0.25 a pop, this is the real cost, so everything else up to $15 must just be pure greed and profit (not taking into account that even a low cost artist produced CD COSTS the ARTIST about a MINIMUM of $20,000 to produce). People are telling me all the time that I "should" put out more recordings, but the reality is that I've got to eat and pay the bills just like everyone else, and the last CD I released in 2004 has yet to come close to paying for itself (my marker for when I go back into the studio and do another one is when the last project at least nears the break-even point).

So what are we supposed to do as an artists? Go out and get a non-music related day jobs to subsidize the cost of creating music for other people to enjoy for free? Writing, practicing, teaching, producing and recording music, going out and finding gigs and performing are already something like TWO full-time jobs (I routinely work about 70-80 hours a week at this 52 weeks a year and most other full-time musicians I know are in the same boat). Working musicians are among the hardest WORKING people I know. I'm sure that flies in contrast to what many "non-musicians" think our lives are like, but those people are living in fantasy land.

To think that we don't deserve to get paid for our work is just plain ridiculous.

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterRick Stone


I'm saying that thinking about your career in terms of what you "deserve" is childish. That's all. Nobody owes you shit and that will never change.

Since I already accept that the amount many people will pay for music has been driven down to little or none, I treat it as a reality, whether or not I like it.

Where I jump into the conversation is mention by people who aren't in the music business about how great a time it is to be a musician now. They assume that the fall of the major labels has somehow opened up lots of opportunities for unsigned musicians. But since most musicians have never been a part of the major label system, having the major labels disappear hasn't significantly helped them.

What I have seen, working with very talented unsigned musicians over the last ten years, are these treands:

1. They have lost CD income, just like the labels. Although fans are still buying CDs at shows, fewer of them are, and the standard price for a CD has dropped. So unsigned musicians are selling fewer CDs and getting lower margins when they do.

2. Now that everyone is trying to make up lost CD income by playing shows, the competition to get a gig has increased. It used to be that a popular local band might be the only band on the bill. The band would have to play for three hours, but got to keep most or all of the guarantee or the door. Now it's more common to see three or four bands on the bill. They don't play long enough to build up a following, and they aren't likely to get paid much, if anything.

3. Bands are being told to make money selling something other than music. That means they are spending time on activities other than recording and playing music. If they are going to do that, they might as well get day jobs which will probably generate more income than T-shirt sales. Then they can just play music to play music.

4. Popularity is still about more factors than just the quality of the music. While in the days of the major labels, youth and appearance meant as much or more than the music, now it matters if you are good at social media and making YouTube videos.

I'd like to see at least some musicians receive enough fan support to be able to do what they are doing full-time. The most direct way is to buy their CDs, If the fans for some reason don't want to do that, I hope fans tip heavily or become patrons or something along those lines. Music adds to the community and what we can do to support it enriches all of us.

That music is now essentially free and that will never change presumes the worst of human character will permanently prevail.

And it very well might.

The possibility does exist, however, that if enough people shared the essence of the authors post - that to take something that is not intended to be free is not fair to the creator - then over time Suzanne's plea:

"Music adds to the community and what we do to support it enriches all of us", may be heard and acted on...and the world will indeed be a better place.

Pie in the sky? maybe.

Too good to be true? possibly.

But the defeatist attitude of "it's too late and irreversible" depends on GIVING UP ON HUMANITY. That we as individuals WIILL NOT PAY FOR MUSIC EVER AGAIN because we can get away with it.

Well, that's probably true - UNLESS WE DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

One by one, entire nations have been formed and one by one, entire nations have fallen.

Neither happens by itself. It is a CHOICE. Every INDIVIDUAL gets to choose. Those choices influence other INDIVIDUALS. Some become centers of influence and LEADERS.

Where are the LEADERS now? It is up to EACH OF US to CHOOSE. Then lead.

Now I am not saying this will change things in the music business overnight. But over years, possibly a decade or two - why not? And it may be that revenue is created through purchaseing music in some form other than a CD.

But to GIVE UP on the possibility of music being purchased ever again is QUITTING on the human race. GIVING UP on the possibility that we can ALL INFLUENCE CHANGE.

What if human rights leaders and all the axctive participants felt that way about civil liberties throughout the world?

I am not suggesting that getting musicians paid is of the same magnitude of importance as fighting against serious human rights violations, simply pointing out that much more far-reaching shifts have been made in the world and that continues as this is written and read.


The future, truly, is up to us to create.

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterDg.


When the argument is made that "music is free, like it or not," I'm not sure anyone necessarily saying "people will never pay for music ever again." My point was merely that the consumer is the one holding the cards now. They CAN buy music, but they don't HAVE to buy music. Therefore it is up to the industry to motivate them to purchase, either through premium packaging/bonus material/etc or through good will.

The Beatles defined this model, pressing christmas greetings to 7" for their fan club members, constantly releasing albums & singles, doing videos & movies to accompany their songs, etc., even to the point that they began to feel like monkeys & removed themselves from the situation. Jack White is probably leading the pack now, doing all sorts of things to foster a very healthy relationship with his fans. This, I feel, is the future. Not getting no money for recorded music.

In simple terms, the bar has been raised.

May 9 | Unregistered CommenterJon Cole

Copies are free. Music is not.

People won't pay for copies, because they don't need to buy them when they can make their own for nothing.

People evidently want music, and will buy it, because they can't make it themselves.

Music is not free. Copies are free.

Beer isn't free. Speech is free.

Is anyone familiar with "Free as in free speech, not as in free beer"?

Until people deprogram themselves from the 'music is copies' fallacy they will keep on thinking that music must be free because copies are free.

Copies being free is only a problem for record labels, NOT musicians - though they certainly would prefer people continue to believe their problem is the musician's problem.

If you are an artist - and some musicians are artists, though not all - this is a great time to be a musician.

For the first time in our lifetimes there are virtually no barriers to creating music and distributing it.

This does not mean that more people will be able to make a full-time living from their art. it does mean that more people have the opportunity to be creative and create a fan base. Some of these people will also be able to make a living, probably modest, from their music. Nothing wrong with that, i believe.

In any case, isn't this much better than trying to convince a rich, greedy label to sign your band because recording and promoting cost too much? isn't this much better than dealing with the politics of music that invariably existed everywhere?

Freedom - try it - you'll like it!

May 10 | Unregistered Commenteryogi

"I'm saying that thinking about your career in terms of what you "deserve" is childish. That's all. Nobody owes you shit and that will never change."

Thinking that you deserve to have music for free is even more stupid.

May 10 | Unregistered CommenterFebreze

"Thinking that you deserve to have music for free is even more stupid."

Febreze, I agree, though I can't recall ever coming across anyone who supports that notion.

People have a natural right to engage in cultural exchange: to sing the songs they've heard, to build upon them, to play the music they've heard, to build upon it - however large or small their audience.

However, there is an unnatural 18th century privilege that interferes with this natural liberty, and that's the problem we're confronting today.

It's nothing to do with paying musicians to produce studio recordings or to perform live. If you've agreed with a musician to exchange your money for their studio recording or live performance, then you should pay up. Similarly, if you're a musician who's been paid then either supply the goods or give the money back.

But then, it's not about who deserves what. It's all about preserving an anachronistic monopoly on the production of copies. It's about the privileged publishing corporations preserving their privilege.

It's not 'free' as in "free beer", but 'free' as in "free speech".


That's a good zinger but if you think about it, it just doesn't work. Way more people are able to get music for free, than are able to make money getting paid for music. So although I'm not arguing that music should be free and I never have, those who do are measurably less stupid than musicians who think they deserve to get paid now that they're playing shows and recording songs.

It's all numbers. One of these two sides is, statistically, way more likely to get what they want.

And it's not the dude with the guitar.

A classic case of, "I buy music, so you should too."

Artists who paint sell 2 things, the original work, or a copy. You can't buy the original work from a musician, not unless you commission them to make the music, in which case you own it. The copies require a print to be made of the original work. The cost of copies has now been reduced to zero for anything digital.

If it's a case of supporting artists, then by all means support them. Give them your money. You are free to do so. Heck, why not commission them to make a song. Then you would actually own some music.

May 10 | Unregistered CommenterXander

And again, guys, the vast majority of people actually doing this have never written an essay in Mashable or Pitchfork about this. They don't think about it, and nothing we say here is going to make them start. This is Music Think Tank, not a court of law where God decides what's "fair" and what we "deserve" -- that's emotional language and it's useless.

Let's stop conflating a large-scale, complex social trend into a straw man argument. There's nobody on the other side of this. We're all here to figure out how musicians can get paid, now that this social trend has taken hold.

For the first time in our lifetimes there are virtually no barriers to creating music and distributing it.

This does not mean that more people will be able to make a full-time living from their art. it does mean that more people have the opportunity to be creative and create a fan base.

As long as everyone understands that this is a great time to be creative, and not necessarily a great time to make a living at music, then everything is cool. If musicians understand that the act of creating music is its own reward, then they will have achieved what is doable.

Unfortunately, there still seems to be a bias against musicians who have day jobs, as if somehow they aren't good enough or dedicated enough to do music full-time. I'm trying very hard to change that impression. In many cases, you can be more creative and actually have more time for music if you don't have to spend a huge chunk of your time trying to squeeze some extra dollars out of your music-related activities. Why try to sell t-shirts for some extra income if you can have a day job that pays you more per hour and if it allows you enough free time to make music?

I'm trying to break down the distinction between professional and amateur. Talent isn't always a factor. There are extremely talented musicians who have non-music day jobs. So how you make your money to pay your bills shouldn't factor into whether or not you are a "true" musician.

"Let's stop conflating a large-scale, complex social trend into a straw man argument. There's nobody on the other side of this. We're all here to figure out how musicians can get paid, now that this social trend has taken hold."


"BRAVO", indeed!!

A large-scale complex social trend is EXACTLY what the issue has become, and WAY past anything the music industry alone can do about it.

So it's literally up to us as individuals to collectively focus and work on CHANGING that social trend (please see my previous comment above)...

and in the meantime, be practical and keep the T-shirt presses rolling!

May 10 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

why is it so hard or Strange to understand about Compensation for work by the Creative People,..
joseph nicoletti consulting /promotion 386 Laguna Bch,CA 92652 USA E-mail ph 949-715-7036

A few things:

1.Music is free because labels made it free. If someone's stealing from you, you either put a bigger lock on your door (which only works until they figure out how to bypass it) or figure out how to give them less incentive to steal. If labels had spent more time figuring out how to monetize the Internet model instead of firing all the 20-somethings that might have been able to help, and clinging to old ways, we probably wouldn't be having this debate. But it's hard for me to feel bad for the entities who are responsible for this mess in the first place.

2.One of the best ways I can think of to monetize the Internet model would be to add a tax to people's ISP bill. They're doing it already in Denmark and if it works there, expect to see that model cross the ocean.

3.@Rick Stone: If you're spending $20K financing an album in these times, you're a fool. Hell, if you're spending $10K on an album and you're an unknown act, you're a fool. EPs are definitely the way to go these days. They're cheaper on your end as well as the consumers' and they're much less of a risk. If the Beatles walked into a label president's office today with The White Album, they'd get laughed out of the building. Save the expensive production for when you're more well known.

May 10 | Unregistered CommenterAdam James

Wow! That was a lot of reading... But I think (For Me) I've found the best of both worlds....
I started my own (small) independent recording studio... I'm no longer able to write as much, or perform, but I create music in some fashion on a consistent basis now... I'm helping others that would normally not have the ability create and produce music.

I'll probably never be famous except to these people... And that's very fulfilling. They, for the most part, have no problem paying to take those dusty songs out of the draw and having life breathed into them... So.... Keep the T-Shirts... I'll keep the music...

And thanks to those who have faithfully supported my music... It's you I will never forget...


May 10 | Unregistered CommenterDennis C.

Suzanne, you said:

"I'm trying to break down the distinction between professional and amateur "

I think there is a more important distinction: between artists and laymen.

An artist has to create, he or she have no choice in the matter. For the artist, creation is its own reward. The audience is unnecessary because as long as God is listening then that's all you need.

Making money from their art is, for artists, an option, not a necessity. It is not always a desirable one either - money can corrupt the artist's soul like nothing else, as has been seen in so many instances in the past. So many wonderful artists have died from such corruption.

Laymen are people who want to create to make money. For them, creativity is not a need, it is an option that they exercise and therefore these people need to be compensated. Their art is not an end in itself because it is not actually , art, it is technique, a completely different thing. Most of popular art is technique with perhaps a mite of creativity and not much else.

An artists knows that creativity has a rhythm - most artists (Bach excluded) just cannot crank out high quality creations on demand because they need to pay the rent. for most, it just doesn't work that way. When the labels forced artists to do this the results were lousy.

So, Suzanne, I think you are perfectly correct that artists can decide to create in whatever conditions they want, whenever they want and they should be judged on quality, not on popularity, income or daily hours worked in the art business. Just do your thing.

May 11 | Unregistered Commenteryogi

When you stated "@Rick Stone: If you're spending $20K financing an album in these times, you're a fool."

I was thinking the exact same thing. The cost for recording have come down dramatically. Just what the hell is he spending this 20K on? I'd be interested in knowing.

Art forms appear and disappear with a predictable pulse. No one is screaming because book-length poetry - once a cash cow / money mill for artists, has vanished. There's a non-profit trickle of poetry published every year, and there really are real-live poets, except they they make their livings as university professors. Literary novels - also gone as a business. The writers are professors and book reviewers, except for the handful who create best sellers. New symphonies for orchestras. A few a year. It's not the bread-and-butter cash cow of Haydn. Black and white movies. (And soon 2-D movies.) It just happens as inattentive time moves on. New forms rise up, and as they do, the people mourning the old forms looks sillier and more out of touch.

And so with the thing called "recorded music." Humanity got along for most of its history with plenty of great music and without "recordies." And there's s more than a century's worth of them tucked away to satisfy every possible taste. And if someone wants to make more, the laptop is a right there on the kitchen table where you left it. The same technology which took the profit out of making recordies, let's you make them yourself. Now, for historical reasons, certain recordings will be made, on government grants, vanity projects, etc. knowing full well there is no business in "recordedies" anymore. It's an archive / conisseur item.

And really, we're already there. Recordies are over, there's little money in making and selling them, which will get littler. Black and white movies, book-length poems. We loved them. And there are millions to choose from! There just won't be any new ones made (except home-made, except for archival, non-business reasons.)

Find from the library the recordies to satisfy your musical mood and taste. If you don't find something you like, if you want something new -- go make some! The same technology that made the recordies extinct allows you to create your own for next to nothing - mash-up the old, medley-fy, overlay and edit and paste and add a new percussion track. Program your computer to do it for you, regularly. But don't expect to be paid for this.

So, jobs for musicians? Oh yes, plenty in non-profits - symphony orchestras, travelling ensembles. Money for musicians making "recordies"? My dad was talking about how he did that once when he was in college in the Sixties. In a real recording studio!

Sharing all music freely is very much like the theory of communism, where everything was supposedly shared evenly. Ha! So if we are all sharing openly our potential wealth sources and doing this because we are having a wee bit of trouble attaching any monetary value to what is merely a digital transaction, then hey, count me in on the logic! From now on everybody post their credit card numbers and access codes online. Then whenever I want to go out and say, buy CD's at my local record shop, I can just use your credit card to buy my favorite artists. This works out exactly the same as when people burn stuff online doesn't it?
Well let's compare. Credit cards are digital transactions right? Music on the internet represents a digital transaction also. A song's potential to generate cash is a future source of income. Your credit cards ability to generate cash also can be considered a future source of income because it generates money you do not currently have. So, since a song and a credit card are both digital, then I propose that they be treated as one and the same; that is, as everybody's property. Why should you have the sole abilility to access your credit card account? Oh Sure! Just because you worked twenty years to develop your credit rating you feel you should be the sole beneificiary to that hard work and credit. Well how about me ? I worked twenty years also to develop my musical "talent" to where I am ready to produce a CD. I agree with you! Why should I have any right to create ready cash from all of my hard work? I mean just because I laid out thousands of dollars for my musical instruments, music lessons, song books, instructional DVDs, recording gear, a room to record in, and the services of other musicians, why should I receive any money to compensate myself for any of that.
You have the same situation with your credit card except you pay after taking the money out; whereas, I paid in advance. We both still are making payments right? Afterall most of everyuthing I needed to purchace to make my music I had to put on my own credit cards. So, it is only fair since you get my music for free and because of that I can not make my credit card payments, so then I should have access to your credit cards to get my money for free and then of course you can pay the interest on that!
It is the same coin, just two different sides.

@Michael Enright: No one says you have to give your music away. Chances are, if people are making copies of your stuff and putting it on P2P networks, you're doing well enough to not have to worry too much. Given the way most major label deals go down, if you're worried about the artist getting paid, steal the album, then go to the show and buy a t-shirt (but check and make sure they don't have a 360 deal first ;)

May 11 | Unregistered CommenterAdam James

Given the way most major label deals go down, if you're worried about the artist getting paid, steal the album, then go to the show and buy a t-shirt (but check and make sure they don't have a 360 deal first ;)

I say, don't bother to buy the t-shirt because there are costs involved in making it. Give a direct donation instead.

I don't understand these long-running debates over merch. If you just want to make music, fine. But you have to do more than that to make a living "doing music." This idea that a musician should be able to make a living wage solely from selling recorded music is a farce. It has never been true.

How many coffeeshops do you know stay in business selling ONLY coffee? Almost all of them sell mugs, specialized drinks, beans, tea, chai, tshirts, CDs, etc. Some of them go further to create a great customer experience, with funky cool interiors and comfy furniture. Some ally themselves with causes like Fair Trade or whatever.

None of these guarantee you'll become as popular (or evil) as Starbucks. But if you sell ONLY coffee, well, I can get coffee anywhere, why should I buy yours?

Seems lots of musicians want to run their careers like a coffeeshop that sells only coffee. Noble career move, but it doesn't work.

That the margins on recorded music are contracting only amplifies how important the other activities are in creating music-based income.

And musicians who still blame "stealing" for their lack of success deserve to be ignored or ridiculed -- most aren't willing to do even the basic groundwork (hint: it's not just releasing a record). Piracy is a factor, but for most indie/DIY artists piracy is nothing compared to track/album substitution, early price expectations set by Apple, low streaming royalty rates, and the that the biggest music consumers these days prefer their music to be mobile and not attached to a $16 plastic disc.

Despite all this, I think the reason most artists fail to thrive full-time is because they fail to do the work. They think the hard part is releasing the record. Not so.

May 11 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

I don't understand these long-running debates over merch. If you just want to make music, fine. But you have to do more than that to make a living "doing music." This idea that a musician should be able to make a living wage solely from selling recorded music is a farce. It has never been true.

I agree. You usually have to do more than just doing music to make a living. But why focus on merch as the way to augment your music income?

I see musicians scrambling to find extra stuff to sell at shows when they might be better off doing something totally unrelated to merch sales to generate cash. Then they are free not worry about whether they collect the necessarily income from fans.

What I am afraid happens is that musicians think they will be perceived as less serious or less talented if they have day jobs. But often those day jobs are what will generate the money to cover the music making.

I am suggesting there might be more freedom, and thus more creativity, if they aren't always thinking, "What will my fans buy from me?"

I suppose my perspective is this: Everyone is going to do music, and almost everyone is going to do something besides music to generate income. So I'm looking for ways for people to integrate music creation into their overall lives.

Of all the creative fields, music still seems to have the most people thinking they will make careers out of this. But I just don't think the world can absorb all of these musicians selling merchandise.

So let's face facts and recommend that most music makers think in terms of having day jobs. If you want to sell t-shirts, learn everything you can about the fashion business. If you want to sell promotional items, learn about that business. If you want to sell social media services, learn that. Become really knowledgeable about those side businesses you plan to use to pay those bills. Yes, you can combine music with any of them, but they are full fledged businesses in and of themselves and to succeed, you'll probably need to learn a fair amount about them.


I agree completely. I think a lot of musicians still secretly think their credibility would be ruined if they admitted to having a job outside music, and I think people enjoy the idea that there are artists out there living the dream full-time on behalf of us working stiffs.

That said, there are other things besides selling merch.

The lead songwriter of one of the bands I play with also has a weekly gig at a winery, playing covers and originals. He also has a staff writer deal with a production house. The band is a nerdcore rock act, so he gets a booth at comic conventions and sells quite a few CDs and t-shirts. He is a full-time musician, and he hustles -- he's not just releasing records and waiting for someone to pay him.

The other band I play with is easily categorized as "indie rock" so we have to work harder to differentiate ourselves in a city of umptybillion acts. Fortunately most of us have solid day jobs we actually enjoy, so we have the advantage of not having our fortunes rise and fall based on how many CDs and t-shirts we sell. We can in fact give away quite a bit of product in order to get our music into people's hands and ears. We can afford to spend a little more lavishly on equipment and promotion, because it's not coming out of our food and rent budget.

We're not full-time musicians by any stretch, but we're in a better position than a lot of full-time acts struggling to keep gas in their van.

I think the latter case illustrates a real threat: never mind "normal" people casually participating in music creation a la transmedia -- how are you going to compete with an artist that doesn't depend on music-based income and who is actually excellent? An excellent artist with a well-paying job who hustles in his/her off-hours can do some real damage.

In either case, a lot of what transpires to turn a music hobby into a music "career" doesn't happen in the studio. That's why the mind reels when I hear of someone dropping $20K on a record. Why not spend a fraction of that on a great 4-song EP and use the rest to hire an intern to do online promotion? Or buy a reliable car to get you to the next gig? Or take a local music attorney to lunch? Or put together a really killer live show? You can do a lot of music-related things when your money isn't entirely tied in up in recordings.

May 12 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

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