“Sharing Is Not Stealing” – Cost, Value And The Desire To Share.

A few thoughts on the relationship between cost, value and the action of sharing music:

As I’ve said before, £10 was never representative of the real value in an album. It was less than the value of the time the person takes to listen to it, and certainly not anything like the value the artist places on their finished work.

And of course, given that all albums sell in different amounts, and all the cost of making the album is upfront – before anyone knows how many it’s going to sell – it couldn’t really be described in any fractional way as a share of that value.

No, it wasn’t an expression of ‘value’, largely because the most natural way of expressing our sense of value in music is to share it.

For the artist, we love to play the music we think is the best we have for people – we play it live, we want radio to play our tunes, we want people to hear the album. We’re never sad when someone sits one of their friends down to listen to the album having told them how awesome it is. Because the performing and playing of our music is an expression of our sense of value in it – the opposite, to withold it from people who want to hear it, could only seriously be motivated by shame: an expression of our conviction that the music wasn’t worth the time of the listener.

As fans, the more we love an album the more likely we are to tell people about it, and where possible to play it to them.

Encouraging people to buy it isn’t really an expression of the value of the music, but an expression of either

  • our acquiescence to the value system expressed by the music industry – music is “worth” approx £10 for each 60 minute lot we buy
  • or it’s driven by our desire to see an artist who lives off the proceeds of their art be compensated fairly for that art

In the latter instance, we can then make ourselves arbiters of what is a fair wage, and opt into doing our part in the pragmatic subdivision of their living costs, realising that offering up however much we pay for the music is a way of being a link in their ongoing creative process.

And we can most easily do this in a ‘pay what you want’ environment. Uber-fans used to do this by buying multiple copies of an album, often during pre-release, to help spread the word, and to help out the artist. Now, it’s much easier, and more incremental, via ‘pay what you want’ downloads – especially when that download happens in a place where the album is listenable-to in full, and shareable via links or embeds (yes, I’m looking at you, Bandcamp – step forward, take a bow…)

The fixed-value monetary expression most naturally makes sense in two ways, both of them tied to physical product:

  • It was the paywall through which music was available. I’ve talked before about those long-forgotten days when I would buy albums based on reviews, hunches, artwork, suggestions… often without having heard a single track. I had to buy most of them because the indie record shop in Berwick had VERY limited stock. I can only off the top of my head think of three albums I ever bought that they didn’t have to order for me (Back In Black by AC/DC, The Seer by Big Country and Question & Answer by Pat Metheny) – everything else was special order. So it wasn’t that no-one would play it to me, it’s that I was hundreds of miles away from a copy of the music I wanted to hear! Scarcity drove the buying process.
  • The other value is simply that a CD or record, as an artifact, as a stand-alone work of art, as a beautiful container for the music, was worth that. This is born out by the relationship between elaborate packaging and price. Labels who sold their CDs for more invariably spent more time on the packaging (ECM being the main case in point) and budget price CDs often featured lower quality paper, cut-down liner notes, bad photos etc… The complete package is, to the people who still value it, worth paying a tenner for.

When people argue that the value is “all in the music”, ask them when the last time was that they paid as much for a (non-deleted) 2nd hand CD as a new one, or were happy for the box to be broken but still pay full price… Our perception of what the price of a CD should be is exactly the same as any other physical object, and has nothing to do with our notion of the value of the music.

But, what happened because of that is that people were conned into the idea that buying lots of cheap music was better value than paying more for one great album. I used to do this – I’d pass up albums that I was sure I’d love, in favour of 3 budget price ones that were less certain, but offered more minutes per pound. I’m sure if I’d bought the first album, I’d have had more ‘listening hours’ per pound out of my investment… And for the artists, they lost out because I’m far less likely to talk about mediocre music than I am about music I love. So I short-changed myself, and the artists I could’ve been raving about…

We need a complete rethink of how the economy around music works. And it starts in the relationship between fans and artists.

I’m now Twitter-friends with lots of ‘famous before the internet’ (FBTI) artists. The challenge for them is now to be as interesting as the people without the baggage are. When they manage it, they win twice – so chatting with Kristin Hersh or Rosanne Cash, Vernon Reid or Mike Scott is not only interesting for the conversation itself, it’s interesting because it puts them in the position where whatever the state of their relationship with the ‘industry’ is, I now see them as ‘one of us’, and am far more likely to seek to support them and their music, both by telling people about it, and with actual cash monies!

I’ve mentioned before that in the 90s, we indie people were desperate to look like ‘the big people’ and now its reversed, with superstars desperate to look approachable. But there’s a massive musical middle class who, if they get it, can cash in on their pre-web fame and actually chat to their audience, via Twitter, Facebook, Blogging, community forums etc. and circumvent the arguments of the old industry about how to force music back behind a paywall, and instead – like us – build a community of people who care, and are willing to express that care and their gratitude for the music by sharing it with their friends AND paying for it.

Comment questions:

  • Who’s getting it right?
  • Whose music do you share most with your friends, and how to do you share it?
  • What entertainment media (physical or digital) have you paid the most for over the last couple of years?
  • What kind of band merch are you most likely to buy?

Let’s have a conversation about what works, what we ‘actually’ do, and see if we can’t start to carve out a fun way forward that’s good for music, for artists and for listeners.

65 Replies to ““Sharing Is Not Stealing” – Cost, Value And The Desire To Share.”

  1. Another point I’d like to make is that sometimes fans don’t have the money to support you, as much as they might like to do so.

    If you have fans who love you, but who are broke, then getting that exposure isn’t necessarily going to put money in your pocket.

    If you have an affluent, older audience, I think they may have more resources to throw your way than if you have a younger audience that has very little money to spend.

    1. If you have fans who love you, but who are broke, then getting that exposure isn’t necessarily going to put money in your pocket.

      That’s odd, that thought would never cross my mind – my thought would be ‘if people love my music but will never be able to pay for it, then I want to them to be able to get it, enjoy it and talk about it, because I make music to be enjoyed.’

      One of the huge problems with iTunes and Amazon is that they aren’t available in a lot of countries – Bandcamp or a self-hosted shop works anywhere that paypal works… where that doesn’t work, I want my music to be free, because restricting listeners based on their inability to pay makes no sense at all…

      Re: old/young – a lot depends on environment and the nature of what you’re selling/charging for. Kids spend way more on T-shirts that older folks, but probably less on CDs… you find the merch to match the market, if that’s your concern.

      Of late, Lo and I have been selling Memory Sticks with a huge chunk of our back catalogue on it. With live video on it that’s not available anywhere else, and with my novel on it… That’s where a large part of our merch money comes from now, though we still sell a fair few CDs to people who like them 🙂

      1. I’ve done sales at live shows for musicians. The older fans seem much more willing to spend money to support artists. The younger ones say they love the music, but they don’t buy. And even when they know the artist is broke, they commiserate but still don’t offer anything in the way of financial support. It just doesn’t occur to them that they can/should help out. They see the music and the artists as there to make them, the fans, feel good rather than trying to make a living at this. The idea of giving back to the arts is not something they have adopted as a philosophy.

      2. I’ve done my fair share of CD merch at gigs, I’ve seen pairs of ‘younger people’ putting their money together to buy a CD more than once. The other thing is though, perhaps they go home and pick n mix from iTunes or other download sites. Online sales always show an increase when he’s been out touring. I’ve also known ‘younger people’ to drive hundreds of miles to get to a gig (having had a ‘copy’ of a cd thrust on them by a friend), that all costs money too. Let’s not tar all ‘younger people’ with the same brush.

        I really don’t like the ‘financial support’ phrase. It has a kind of begging bowl ring to it.

        Musicians are not selling CDs to be ‘helped out’.

        How would an audience know the financial state of the musician playing to them? Why should they know?

        Of course artists are there on stage for the fans and audience, they are there to make the audience feel something through their music, hopefully, happy / good / uplifted / inspired etc. That’s a huge part of the job, making people feel good.

        An evening of enjoyment and entertainment is what people pay a ticket price for, not becuae they have a sneeking suspicion the musician is broke and they should rush to buy a CD to help support them financially.

        These people at the gigs who aren’t buying CDs have already paid to go to the gig. Most folk have a limited supply of money to spend on leisure.

        People generally aren’t buying CDs to ‘support’ the artist, they’re buying because they loved what they heard and they want to be able to take a little of it home with them, to have so they can listen to the music when they want.

      3. That memory stick idea is a blinder Steve. I’ve just gone mad with bandcamp and got a load of codes from them to put onto download cards, the thought being that they will be more (financially) accessable for the kids (or anyone less flush) that turns up, and well, maybe even a little more ehem ‘hip’.

        As for broke fans, they can still share the music and expose their friends to it through the internet, widgets and bandcamp and the like.

        Recently had a fan translate the bio for us, he just offered out of the blue. I didn’t realise he was a student and not flush till I asked for his address so I could send him CDs as a thanks. He only had a copy of one of them, that copy was what turned him into a fan. It’s not all about money, heaven forfend. My posts last night I hope didn’t read that way.

    1. of course, and sometimes I’ve said yes, sometimes I’ve said no. I don’t feel pressured to do anything.

      One thing I don’t do any more is give CDs away as anything other than a present. CDs are no longer a promo item. You can download it, or you don’t hear it. Same for anyone. I do give my CDs away as thankyous to people – it’s a present that means something because it’s the best thing I have to offer.

      But, I hear it far far less these days than ever before. I very rarely hear it at house concerts or at gigs that I’m putting on myself. And I never hear it when selling merch (I rarely have a ‘merch table’ as such these days, just a pile of CDs and a pocket full of memory sticks that I carry with me when chatting to people after the gigs). I think the fact that it’s me that’s got the fistful of CDs has a big impact on how people perceive the transaction…

  2. Perhaps there isn’t any problem for anyone. If you’ve got fans to support you and you are making enough from music to live on, then it sounds like everything is working out fine.

    And if you are making music and not making enough from it to live on, but you have a day job that pays the bills, then you are in a situation that many others also find themselves.

    All I have done is to say that many people don’t make enough from music to do that alone, and it isn’t necessarily that you don’t have talent or that you are doing something wrong. I like to encourage people to make music even if it doesn’t result in a full-time career as such.

  3. man there’s a lot of stuff to chip in on in this discussion, but as a young music fan, where/whenever i’ve not always backed a musician I’ve loved financially, I rave about them SO much. I can think of several bands who’ve I’ve loved so much outloud that I’ve turned sales their way, either by getting people excited about albums or gigs to that they contribute too. Indeed, one of my fav jazz bands here in edinburgh gives me their CDs for free now because I’m always asking when their next gig is, and bringing people along, and kicking their arse about getting up to speed with social media stuff, and telling other people to listen to their music ( http://www.myspace.com/haftormedboegroup seriously they’re incredible)

    don’t underestimate the amount a fan can contribute without ever having to spend money on a band.

    1. There’s definitely promotional value in having fans (or bloggers or the press) rave about you and I think giving CDs to people like this is worthwhile.

      Where it has really made a difference is having a fan recommend you for a paying gig. I’ve known a number of cases where someone was visiting Denver, saw a local act play, and then returned to Texas or Nashville or Oklahoma (etc.) and recommended the band or artist to someone booking festivals or clubs in that area.

    2. I agree Paddy. My friend and I did a few dates on the continent in April and we had places to stay, slots on university radio and so on, all due to friends and fans. The thing is, fans that may not contribute in the ‘buy all your stuff’ sense can do other things that ‘save’ musicians money, like letting them sleep on your floor or something. That saved hotel bill could be the equivalent of 5-10 CD sales or something.

      I think most musicians I know trying to get their own material out there are not doing it for the money. They just want as much time to create as possible and avoid the slow death of a day job they don’t care about. It doesn’t make them better or worse, pretentious or whatever, their priorities are just different 😉

  4. Hi there Steve,

    I’ll start with a way off-topic remark and say that I wish you were here so I could give you a big hug! I think it is wonderful that you have brought so many cool people together through your work so that we can share our thoughts and “best practices”, and work collectively to find a way forward through the prevailing chaos. Also, those are some beautiful tracks you have on your site! I love the bass tone, and what you are doing with Lobelia inspired me with the idea that Chi and I can be doing much more with our own music than we currently are.

    As always, Steve, your points are very well taken. However depressed I get when I look at the reality of what I’m up against, if I instead shift my focus to the silver lining, i.e., we (independent artists) are free to invest however much or little money we want in our music and build our audience on our own terms, instead of starting a hundred grand in the hole that we are on the hook for because someone else dictated the terms of how our music was recorded/duplicated/etc., having no fans, or too few to recoup that cost, and not even owning the masters of our own music; and that our ability to “get our music out there” and presumably derive some sort of income stream from it is directly correlated to our will and effort to find and connect with the people who care about it and build a community from there; those are indeed good things, and a case for at least a little hope.

    As for the questions,

    1. Who’s getting it right? Well, obviously you are! That’s especially relevant to me since you are the only artist I have come across yet that is doing anything remotely similar to what Chi and I are.

    2. Whose music do you share, and how do you share it? Well, the awful truth is, and it’s quite mortifying to admit this in a public forum full of musicians, but I am so utterly overextended working constantly, that I personally am very hard pressed to find time to listen to anything or talk to anyone, so unfortunately that vitally important aspect of being a musician has been pushed out of my timeline by the economic imperative for me to have to do all the administrative work of being an independent artist, on top of support the whole house by working a day job….Again, point well taken, and many thanks for the tip – I guess I should be leading by example, especially now that I am well on my way to building an infrastructure that enables that!

    For what it’s worth, there is an L.A. band Chi and I listen to and go out of our way to see them play on the rare occasions when they perform a local date: The Mojo Monkeys. They are first-rate musicians (Their leader David Raven engineered our most recent album), and seeing them perform sets a benchmark for what a live performance is supposed to be like. I recommend them by “name dropping”. Chi is much more active about recommending music to friends when we have people over to the house. He plays stuff for them and asks me to burn them a copy of the disc(s). The last time we had a few friends over he played them some beautiful traditional Japanese shamisen music by his favorite exponent of that instrument, and two recordings from two different epochs in the career of his sensei Masayuki “Jojo” Takayanagi, the leading pioneer of the free jazz movement in Japan. The first recording sounds like “normal” jazz, but the second one is way out there. We love it. If anyone is interested, it’s called “Action Direct”, and I have no idea whether it’s available as a download or present on any streaming services.

    3. What media have I spent the most money on over the past couple years? Every once in a blue moon I buy a new CD. I don’t do digital downloads at all since I have no effective means for coping with them. I hope to fix that someday though.

    4. What kind of band merch are you most likely to buy? Hmmm….I’ve never been much of a “joiner”, nor much into “band culture”, so I have never really bought much in the way of band merch other than a couple t-shirts I bought at concerts I went to when I was a teenager. I do fondly remember my long-sleeved Rush shirt and my Lou Reed white t-shirt that I wore until they literally fell apart many years later.

    Just by sheer coincidence my most recent blog post touched on some of the points you brought up and the comments to it – must be something in the air.

    By the way, would you happen to have a “best practices” white paper about BandCamp? I just opened an account, but got totally overwhelmed by all the decisions I have to make and stuff I have to think through and comprehend in the process of populating my profile and putting tracks up. I don’t even know what happens next after the track part….I do intend to circle back and figure that out soon, but I just cannot mentally process it tonight – I’m tapped out!


    Brenda K

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