File Sharing III – a response to Jeff Schmidt…

Jeff Schmidt – fab solo bassist and all-round lovely chap – has posted his thoughts on file sharing, new models for distribution and the futility of milking the old ways of doing things on his blog.

It’s a thought provoking post, with a lot of great stuff in it. Definitely worth a read for anyone considering these issues (and while you’re reading, download his album off BitTorrent ;o) )

There are a couple of things he says that I want to pick up on, particularly this couplet – at the beginning of his post, he states,

“I pay for a lot of music – A LOT. I get a lot for free too. Me and millions of other people…Personally, most of the music I’ve obtained for free is music that I had zero intention of buying in the first place.”

and then later on says,

“…the old system allowed us to mistake the VALUE of the old distribution system for the value of the music itself…In other words – the artificial scarcity created by the old system inflated (or “added to” if you prefer) the value of the music…P2P and open distribution hasn’t devalued music as Willis and many others suggest.”

To which I’d say that the first statement suggests that P2P HAS VERY DEFINITELY DEVALUED MUSIC. The point of the second quote was to point out that the monetary value of a bit of recorded music was abitrary, imposed and regulated by the industry, and the value was not inherent. However, what it caused – intentionally or otherwise – was a situation where we didn’t bother to listen to music we thought was shit because we’d have had to pay for it – even the music we borrowed from friends required them to have bought it, so a level of quality control filtering was taking place. We were listening to music that someone in our immediate peer group had deemed worthy of financial outlay.

And as a result, we cherished our vinyl collections. The release days of certain albums back in the day are firmly etched in my mind – I even remember queuing at a record shop in Lincoln to get King’s X‘ album Dogman on cassette! I had no money at all at that point – I earned less in my first year in Lincoln that I’d got on my student grant, and very little more the year after, but still would happily go without new clothes or other ‘essentials’ to be able to carry on BUYING records. And every new album was lovingly played. I took some risks on what I bought, but nothing was considered disposable.

Fast forward to now, and I get a lot of music for free, legally – being in the industry means I get sent a lot. Being a writer for magazines means I’m on a lot of journalist lists, and even when I email the labels and say that I can’t in all good conscience pretend to be a reviewer, i still get sent the CDs. But I don’t value them the same way, I don’t tend to cherish getting new stuff through the post, (unless I get prerelease copies – that always feels special. I’ve got a CDR of Tony Levin‘s wonderful album Waters Of Eden, and even the title is different, I got it so far before it was released. That’s a fairly treasured CD…)

My point in all of this is to highlight that free music not only messes things up for musicians who are trying to cling onto the last vestiges of a failing 20th century model of wealth creation from music, but it also makes it much less likely that we will value MUSIC to the point where we don’t put up with mediocre music. Why on earth does Jeff even bother downloading music he wouldn’t buy? Who knows (I’m sure he’ll let us know) – there are legal ways to ‘try before you buy’ – every music buying site has at least 30 second clips to check out and make sure you’re not accidentally getting a death metal album which you thought was a ukrainian folk album. Some even give away sample tracks, so you can hear an entire piece rather than doing the musical equivalent of assessing the Mona Lisa by looking at her forhead and a bit of the background.

So no-one needs to do any research anymore. The only recommendations we get are lazy ‘download this’ ones. Because the recommendation isn’t going to cost us anything, it’s not valued, and it’s not given with any sense of trepidation. When I recommend music here, I do so in the knowledge that there are a bunch of people who take my recommendations seriously and will quite often go and BUY the music I recommend. I take that responsibility very seriously. I only suggest music I think is worthy of cash outlay. I don’t recommend friends who are lovely but not particularly great musicians, as I want my recommendation to still be worth spending money on.

And this may also be why Jeff’s beloved radio is dying on its arse, particularly in the US – who needs to go to the radio to hear new music when a) radio isn’t breaking new artists and b) anything can be downloaded. We get lazy and we cease to give a shit, and all of us as much poorer for it.

A commenter on yesterday’s post on this subject said “the only thing that matters in this regard is whether a musician wants to devote energy towards stopping illegal downloading or towards encouraging his or her music to propagate”. The problem with this is that recorded music ceases to have value in an of itself. It becomes an advert for your live show, your other merch etc. The art of making records dies. It becomes the art of making adverts. I don’t want to make adverts. I want to make records that stand on their own. And as long as there are people that want to listen to that music, irrespective of whether I go out and play that music live, we need to come up with a model where I can afford to live whilst making it.

It may be that I have to make money elsewhere in music to be able to do that as a side project, but why the hell would I or anyone else do that? Where does that leave us when one’s deepest creative urges (and consequently our most valuable creative statement to the listener) are marginalised because the means of making a living from it is removed. I don’t want that to be the case for the artists whose recorded output I cherish, and for whom making records is a wholly different musical pursuit from documenting what they’re going to do live so that you can check it out before forking out for a ticket (fuck it, why not just let yourself in through the fire exit of the venue? After all, they’ll be playing the show whether you pay for the ticket or not…)

I wonder if we’ll end up with music like that being a new form of subscription service. This already exists to a degree with that site where you can pledge to pay for an album before it’s even been recorded, and when the band reaches a certain level of funding they go in and make the record… But I have to say that as a creative idealist, I still don’t like the idea of making records for a market like that. I make the music I make because I have to make it, it’s what I do, it’s who I am. There are people who like listening to it. Quite a lot of them, it seems. Therefor, in order for me to keep doing it, to get better at it, to develop and grow as a creator of music, there needs to be some way for them to keep the supply of music happening.

I’ve already chosen to forgo earning big money by choosing to be a solo bassist – it ain’t going to ever make me rich. I’m earning less than I would as a training manager in McDonalds. But I guess the quandary for us as listeners is – are we prepared for the art of making records to shift away from being the central focus of the music lives of the people who are currently very good at it, but need lots of time and money to be able to do what they do, and are we happy that we now look back nostalgically at the feeling we had when a new album came out by a favourite band when we were kids and we had to invest something of value for which we had to calculate a real cost, but that we just don’t get when we unzip a file we pulled off Bit Torrent?

4 Replies to “File Sharing III – a response to Jeff Schmidt…”

  1. Steve said: “This already exists to a degree with that site where you can pledge to pay for an album before it’s even been recorded, and when the band reaches a certain level of funding they go in and make the record… But I have to say that as a creative idealist, I still don’t like the idea of making records for a market like that.”

    However even if fans “subscribe” to the new release, they don’t know in advance what they’re going to get. You’ve done this to a certain extent where we paid in advance for the CD and got “Lessons learned” as an added bonus for stumping up in advance. The difference is what stage in the process you get listeners involved with cash… For you it was at the point of pressing CDs so you had already committed the music, just needed cash flow for the physical disc, right? Marillion did a bit of this – fans commit to buying the CD up front to subsidise the costs of recording. Well, why not? If they had decided to record their farts for 60 minutes fans would probably have been disappointed, and not invested up front again, but it would have been their call artistically, no?

    I hope you continue to do what you do, and that it is lucrative enough for your to continue. As a professional musician and teacher (like yourself), my wife makes less per hour than our window cleaner.

  2. We need to be careful, though, of allowing money or finance to be the key to anticipation. When scarcity is a factor, either through records being expensive or us being short of money, financial cost works to focus our minds on a new record. But if it becomes the key part of the equation, that’s a problem.

    One other way it works is through relationships. That doesn’t scale up to “big names” and “big releases” but if someone has seen the care a friend has put into crafting their new album, could that cause them to focus on it (even if it’s then given to them for free) in a way similar to the way you enjoyed Dogman? When we appreciate that gift as gift, rather than simply something we managed to get for free, does that help?

    And how much of it is about the event? I think one key aspect to what Radiohead have achieved with their new album is they have taken away the incentive to leak the record, the spoilers of endless blog chatter, etc. I’ve not yet ordered the new album but you can be sure I will before next week because I want to get it when it comes out. I wonder if that’ll make it more special than if I’d found a torrent, been a little smug to have it early, and then not been part of the excitement when it was launched to the world?

  3. Mike – all very valid points re the ‘subscription’ query… the thing I need to take some time to do is look at the balance between creative/artistic idealism and the pragmatic reality of what I do on a day to day basis to get my music out there, and then apply that same degree of pragmatism to thinking about this whole issue – it’s unfair on any new models for distribution/remuneration/etc. to impose on them a level of idealism that my current model doesn’t have to meet…

  4. James – “When we appreciate that gift as gift, rather than simply something we managed to get for free, does that help?” is a really interesting point.

    I guess in some ways that’s the point of the Street Team stash – a repository of music, made available to people who’ve signed up for the street team, which is ‘free’ but is a gift rather than something thrown away. Albeit a gift that’s either a thanks or at least a ‘thanks in advance’ for Street Team-type helpfulness…

    …which reminds me, I need to do some proper thinking about what the street team is, what it’s for, and how that set of relationships can move forward in a way that is mutually beneficial, but that’s a whole other blog post…

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