19 April 2009

What’s This Hullabaloo about Free Music?

I have currently been reading and viewing some video clips about the issue of musicians just giving away their music, and those that are opposed to the idea. This entire debate is really hitched on the idea of broadband and the capacity of people downloading music illegally without paying for it already versus the possible profits for (newly established) musicians. Many bands have given away promotional tracks, and others (including Nine Inch Nails) have given away complete albums. As a policy, I have decided not to post any links to downloading music for free – I am sure that if that is your shtick, you know how to do it without being assisted. And I am not going to sit here high and mighty and say I haven’t gotten something online, but I have chosen to support artists as much as I can. But this debate has been constantly cast from one side or the other by established artists (remember Metallica's crusades against Napster); on that note, I think that this is one of those phenomena of technology growing faster than culture is able to deal with, and it really beckons to be discussed. I may not be privy to the entire argument, but I would like to raise a few questions, polemics really, that I think rarely go discussed.

Radiohead, not long ago, released their seventh album, “In Rainbows,” digitally, with an option of paying as little or as much as one wanted (with a small processing fee, EMI has to make some profit!). The Charlatans made a single available for free, while Placebo released “Battle for the Sun” (the song, not the album) free via their website. Though on this side of the Great Pond, we may not realize just how big all three of these bands are, as they have been marginalized to the fringes for the most part in the US, these are three highly established bands, who have headlined major European festivals and have a larger following than most artists. But why all the free music? Perhaps what is happening is a shift in paradigm. In the past, live shows were seen as the promotional tool for selling albums; post-broadband, this is changing quickly. All one has to do is look at how much more extensively bands are touring today than just ten years ago, not to mention twenty or thirty years ago. Bands are on tour for eighteen months or more, and not that old tried and tested six months. Now, it is the album that has become the promotional tool for live performances, the cash cow of the music industry. With tickets getting more and more expensive, and the Ticketmasters of the world even cashing in with fees, live performances are becoming more and more the focus of the music industry. But not all musicians like or trust this shift in paradigm.

Robert Smith, on the Cure’s official site, stated that he disagreed with Radiohead’s idea of giving music away for free. This started a debate, and Smith wrote on the Cure’s official page:




The sorry thing is that when I read the comments that people left behind at Prefix, the comments had more to do with the fact that he was writing in caps (which Smith always does) and that it made his post look angry (caps supposedly equal yelling, blah blah blah). It was pathetic to see supposed music lovers enter into such trivialities about the comments, because it shows that they are not thinking about the bigger issues. Reread Smith’s comment, and realize that the boldfaced lettering were his doing (not mine). Smith is a crafty fellow, and he chose the word “obliged,” taking the decision out of the hands of artists to decide how they want their music distributed – isn’t that the core of the intellectual property debate? Should anyone or system have a right to dictate the terms in which an artist delivers what he/she has created? If this was a debate about how your labor capacity is being used, all you would have to do is check out of the factory/office and go work elsewhere (well perhaps not in this economy, but you get the point). Smith’s contention is that this should not be something that is obliged, but the decision of individual musicians. Shouldn’t individual artists have a say on how their music is distributed? But let’s look at this from another point of view – economically. Smith did bold a second word, “afford.” Crafty fellow he is. It is easy for any established band or artist – Depeche Mode, Madonna, Metallica, Kayne West – to give away music because they can afford to give their music away, if they chose to, but not all artists are living the highlife. These establish bands, like Radiohead, will make profit from touring and selling their moniker in the form of t-shirts, calendars, pins, concert programs, and coffee mugs (nothing says good morning like staring at a rock star, whatever).

Let’s pull the Virginia Woolf for a moment and imagine I am some schmuck (Joey), who has some talent in writing music with a half descent band that is getting to big for bars in New Jersey, except I pronounce it “Joizee.” Mr. Record Label approaches me with the offer of a contract, and I with all joy and naivety sign the contract. If I am lucky, I am going to get an advance, so that I can pay rent and eat while recording the album. Recording involves renting out studio time and paying a producer, engineers, mixers, and a plethora of other people, not to mention extra musicians if needed and the entire cost of postproduction. There is the cost of marketing, making the first video, pressing and packaging CDs, not to mention distribution and delivery, promotional materials for stores (including t-shirts and the like), purchasing touring equipment that is up to snuff, and all the legal and hidden fees that are rarely discussed. This list can go on and on; suffice to say the point is that once I, poor Joey, finished recording this album, I am in debt. Regardless if I am signed to an indie label that no one has ever heard of other than the owner and five of his/her friends, a midsize label, or a major conglomerate, I have more debt accumulated than Mastercard would allow me charge up on my own. This is when I learn the harsh reality that silly Joey is not making a single cent off of the CD sales until I have recouped the money that was invested by the label. (That was mentioned somewhere in the fine print of page 200 of the telephone guide thick contract I was so eager to sign.) So, if I am fortunate enough to own my own copyright, which I don’t being part of a large conglomerate (I dream big), I will not even get money from licensing my music (Joey is going to have to renegotiate this contract if he goes platinum, which statistically the odds are against him.) So what is left for me to do other than feel like Tom Walker? Tour, tour, and tour some more.

Touring is a monster of its own. Will I be fortunate enough to have a major band or even a midsized-established band, pick me up to tour with them? (Even if they do, lately, most people are in the hallways of arenas and stadiums filling up on overpriced, watered down Budweiser waiting for the main act to come on.) Or will I have to tour the small venues with one or two other new artists, and split the $15 dollar ticket charge between all the bands, the venue, and tour management. Being part of a conglomerate, some money or promises might be traded in some backroom to get me some radio play, but if I am not touring with a major band, will the company really rely on this underhanded tradition in music? So all I can hope for, aided with my MySpace page, Joey Kicks Ass, is that I will create a growing fan base. But I will have to place music on the site, and inevitably I know that it is going to be “stolen” – such a harsh word, anyone placing music on MySpace has to know that it is going to be “obtained” by thousands of people.

So what does Joey learn? I learned that it doesn’t matter if I give the music away or charge people $9.99 on iTunes or $14.99 at the Virgin Mega Store (hoping that no one is going to steal my music – Joey is naïve), I am fucked! I am not going to make any money – perhaps that is the secret of why young musicians are thin: they can’t afford to eat! (Joey may shed a few pounds after all!) The real culprit that is going to suffer from all of this is Mr. Record Label if the music is not paid for.

All jokes aside – grim picture, no? In actually, the bands that have the most to lose from giving away music are midsized bands, who tour extensively in smaller venues (1,000 to 5,000 seaters), who derive some revenue from gold status records. The platinum and diamond sellers are playing arenas and stadiums and racking in the money. But the venom and anger that the general audience will have to contend with is the displeasure of record labels not generating profit. Perhaps that is why more and more record companies are becoming the main agent in managing the touring affairs of artists, like Live Nation. But does an artist want to have only one group of people make decisions about recording, production, promotion, and touring? Though technology has caused a paradigm shift in what the focus of the music industry is, will they follow suit and create a new model that is ready to conquer and flourish in the broadband world?

Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, has taken a stab at this; as I have said in the past, he has ventured into the realm of challenging the existing models of releasing music. In a great interview with Revision3, he answers to this right off the bat (watch the entire video though, it is very interesting, including the love of a disco song you will never believe he likes).

He describes the current situation as limbo: the old labels are dead and the new thing has not happened yet. Reznor acknowledges that it is no longer up to the artist to decide if music should be free or not, as anything is available on the Internet (so much for intellectual property). He has come to think of Nine Inch Nails as a brand, in that giving music away for free (to what may be a larger audience) may be monetized in the form of ticket sales or sales of the moniker (t-shirts, pins, etc…) The brand may also be licensed to commercials, television series, and movies for profit. The advantage of this model is that everything exists in one pot – all of the monetizing activities can support one another, as opposed to parts being the responsibility of the record company, while others being delegated to other agencies. In a telling experiment, Reznor quickly discovered that only 18% of people were willing to pay a nominal fee to artists for an album, while the rest downloaded for free. Any printings of CDs, such as “The Slip,” were limited editions, based on orders; as the numbers were exact, there was a fixed number of albums printed and packaged, and some profit was made. But you still had to get online to order the CD, and the musical model that labels are considering involves a monthly subscription that allows for unlimited downloads (good luck dividing profits between artists and the company). But what Reznor and the companies do not answer to is the telling reality that not everyone has access to broadband. Perhaps these models are great ideas for most of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, but what happens to areas within these nations and other nations altogether where broadband is not as common as in New York City or Berlin? For example, as more artists tour South America, the ultimate evidence that South America is an untapped market, how will artists get albums and singles circulated there? Broadband is nowhere as common and quite expensive if not in a major city like Mexico City, Buenos Aires, or Santiago. So do two models have to co-exist?

And if this is the model that we are heading towards, will bands need to supplement their websites with advertisements? Can you imagine the White Lies website with advertisement? That would destroy the look and feel of what I consider to be the best band website in years. But forget the triviality of the look of a website, and lets consider the one thing that is not typically mentioned (though Thursday in an interview right here pointed to this reality, and perhaps the only band that really hit the nail on the head in this debate): quality. Right now, we are use to high quality in our music. Have you heard “Wrong” by Depeche Mode? Are you going to actually say that you could not tell it was recorded in Martin Gore’s basement, forsaking the quality of a record labels studio? Are we willing to let go of record labels to the point that the quality of the music we listen to suffers? Lately, I have been purchasing anniversary and re-mastered editions of CDs of bands I love (yes, CDs, I am antediluvian and love the process of unwrapping the plastic and flipping through the booklet, and vinyl really gives me a high). I hear the difference in quality from the original to the newer released and I am stunned at how much better the quality is.

I, for one, am not willing to sacrifice quality in sound and product – I want my music to come through clearly, crisp, and exactly how the artists envisioned it. Unfortunately for the record labels, broadband is here to say, and perhaps Trent Reznor has the right idea of thinking of monetizing the brand of the band, but how will all of this look on the larger scale? What I am confident of that it will be the smaller and midsized labels (Astralwerks, Mute, Fiction, Morsecode, etc…) that will have the flexibility and desire to rise to the challenge. History has shown that smaller, more flexible, companies are the ones that wheather economic and industry crises. Perhaps it is time to look at Europe, with its plethora of festivals, and combine that industry with an industry that sells monikers, not music. Perhaps it is time for the labels to not try to fight the shift of paradigm towards live music, and see the actual music as the promotion of artists. So many “perhaps,” but what is a definite is that it is a time for music lovers to really access what is going on and what they are willing to do and sacrifice to make the music they love available for years to come. The music industry is going to change for better or worse, and as the capital investing consumer, we have the ability to ensure that what rises out of these ashes is profitable and acceptable to all parties involved. We might not like the broadband world in all of its manifestations, but as long as we are living in it, we should make it as painless as possible.