Online Music: Balancing The Scales Of 'Free'

I’ve just been reading Helienne Lindvall’s latest blog post on the Guardian site, entitled, ”
Behind the music: Can we ever measure the impact of downloading?

It’s well worth a read, as it talks about vested interests on either side (though doesn’t mention that Helienne herself was a signatory on the patently loony pro-Mandelson AIR statement from the Featured Artist Coalition – she probably has mentioned it in previous posts). It does contains a couple of interesting points that I thought I’d throw out for discussion.

The first is that it talks a lot about spending on music without considering that spending on ‘entertainment media‘ is up. Way, way up.

20 years ago, music ruled the roost. For films, we either went to the cinema or rented videos when the eventually hit the shelves. Computer games were an industry, but the big players – the Sega Megadrive and the early Nintendo couldn’t hold a candle to the kind of rock ‘n’ roll image, sales and marketing that the big platforms are commanding today. Despite Bit Torrent, a heck of a lot of people seem more than happy to drop £30/£40/£50 on DVD boxed sets or computer games, as well as the tech to play them.

Contrast that with music, whether one survey I heard quoted recently suggested that over 50% of teenagers owned no speakers that weren’t built into a phone, tv or a computer. Music, as a mass-consumer entertainment commodity, has lost its dominance, and that ever-growing slice of people’s disposable income is being shared between it and all the other myriad forms of home entertainment…

Good or bad? What does it mean for music? For serious music? for Musicians? ideas, please…

Point 2 is concerned with the following quote from Eric Garland, who works for an online media measurement company (you can have a company that does that?? Damn, new industries are springing up all over the place off the back of online media!!)

“Piracy was/is only one expression of a much more fundamental problem: the customer can choose to pay or choose not to pay. You could call it An Inconvenient Music Truth.”

OK, so after talking in the article about biases, he

  • a) calls ‘currently illegal downloading’ piracy (it’s an activity that has nothing to do with anything that has historically been associated with the term – a term that does no favours to the nutters in the Pirate Party who claim it for themselves either – but which is way too loaded for someone impartial to employ)
  • b) only talks about generating money and what the consumer chooses, not the massive new array of distribution methods that an artist has available to them.

Let’s be straight about this, the music industry has ALWAYS given away massive amounts of music in order to get people to buy it. Only previously, it cost the artist for every copy that was given away:

  • If you wanted to do a promo give-away, you had to print vinyl/CDs/tapes.
  • If you wanted someone to distribute them for you, you had to pay them,
  • If you wanted to get them on a cover disc on a magazine, all kinds of deals were struck – some where the artist got paid, many where the space was for sale…

And endless promo copies ended up going to radio, precious few of which ever got played, most of which actually ended up getting sold in local second hand record shops (with no money going to the artist, and as they were promo copies, not even any money going to the songwriters, like Helienne, as you don’t pay MCPS royalties on promo copies). So the lottery of trying to get people to listen to you was prohibitively expensive, and was in large part a factor in 9 out of 10 albums released on big labels never recouping.

Now, promotional distribution costs me nothing. I can make music available at no cost to me! That is a hugely transformative thing. I can put videos online, of me playing and talking about playing, and doing multiple versions of tunes. FOR FREE. Gone are the days when a promo campaign required an artist to spend twice as much on the first video as they did on the album, in the vain hope that it’d end up on MTV or VH1. Once.

I – as a solo bassist – have had 120,000 views of my videos on youtube, at zero cost to me. That’s a transformative fact. It’s not an incremental change in either direction. The zero cost of distribution is the single most empowering element in the new music environment, and the impact of it cannot be underestimated.

How do we make money? Loads of ways, but probably not by trying to compete with Games and DVDs for ‘entertainment’ money, or by speculating massively on expensive and risky promo campaigns that cost a fortune. How about being real, reducing needless cost, talking to our audiences, trusting them and treating the web like radio, where someone listening to me was better than someone not listening to me (even if that radio play didn’t land on a sample day and I wasn’t paid for it.).

So every time someone takes the music that I make freely playable online and embeds is in a posterous recommendations blog (of which there are now LOADS, thanks to you lot taking up the challenge!), it’s like radio play, but I didn’t even have to send a CD to the station.


(P.S. I’ve been meaning to say for ages that I think Helienne’s voice in all this is a really vital one – even when I disagree with her vehemently, as a songwriter in the midst of all this her’s is the most under-represented voice. People who write songs for a living are in a really really tricky position. It may end up that it’s just no longer viable as a career – I hope not – but she’s one of the few people with a high profile blog who is attempting to deal with those questions, and I greatly value her opinion, even when, as I said, mine differs from it – it’s why there’s been a link to her blog from this site for years.)

7 Replies to “Online Music: Balancing The Scales Of 'Free'”

  1. Great post Steve, I love the comparison with radio play – a great way to think of it. And for what it’s worth, my experience is that getting a song onto a cover CD of a magazine, even one that is very supportive of the artist in question, is still VERY expensive.

  2. An Inconvenient Music Truth – I like that. It often occurs to me as I consider whether to purchase an mp3 album, that isn’t it a little silly to pay for what I could doubtless locate and own for free? My history in various copyright protection societies prevents me, however the upshot is that music in mp3 form seems to be worth little. It might contain the same sounds as a cd or vinyl record, but it’s the tangibility and scarcity of a physical product that really matters to me, along with added value like liner notes and art, when it’s music I care about.

  3. I love this subject. So emotive, so loaded and with so many statistics and surveys to be hurled at it; depending on which side of the argument serves our personal expedience.

    I’m firmly with you Steve that there are huge benefits to the free distribution of music. When I think how many CD’s labels and PRs working with my music sent to promote our music, I’m almost ashamed.

    Music has always been free to those in the industry. When we were courted by Beggars Banquet we went to their vaults. “Take whatever you want” they said. “Cool” we thought. Now I think “all recoup-able against those artists incomings record sales”. Sorry Basement Jaxx.

    Jessie, I agree that the mp3 form has little intrinsic worth. That’s why I think it’s still important to have a physical release available for those who want it. Give the people what they want. The mp3 is a great medium for sharing though, and the key is that if people want to pay you money, they can. We also have the option of doing/making “Special” events/artefacts. Most importantly though, people buy from artists (Particularly independent artists) because they want to give them money, not because they want to pay for something. They want to support the artist.

    Love the infograms Simon. Great find.

  4. One thing that sticks out to me about how young people are consuming music is that while music in and of itself doesn’t seem to be a dominant form of entertainment, music does seem to be more ubiquitous. It is in the video games, films, etc. In fact those same teenagers that no longer own a stereo may in fact be listening to more music than I was when I was a teenager. This is anecdotal, but it seems that some kids never take those earbuds out!

    While this may seem odd to older generations, just as texting amongst friends is not considered rude to teenagers, having music constantly playing could be part of an overall experience that teens create for themselves, and not an act of exclusion. Music is actually a soundtrack to their lives and not exclusively a form of entertainment in and of itself.

    This could be damaging to musician’s egos as we all would love to think that our music would cause the listener to drop what they’re doing and just take it all in, but I’m not sure that’s the world we live in anymore.

    The debate on how musicians can make a living in this environment will continue, but I suspect that it is one of these young consumers that will have that one idea that will change the course of the music industry, since it’s obviously looking for direction right now.

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