June 8, 2007

The Nature Of Things...

by Chris Randall

I'm sitting here listening to Aleksi Virta's excellent jazzy-house-dub-lounge-you-name-it album "..Meets Torsti At The Space Lounge" and I'm wondering about the nature of things in the music business these days. I mean, this is a fine record, and any label worth its salt could sell it, and it certainly would be easy to license (my main area of expertise), so I'm wondering about the wisdom of just giving it away.

I'm sure Aleksi will chime in with his thoughts in this matter; by no means construe this as criticism. I'm genuinely curious as to what would make someone put their album up for free, as opposed to one of the many pay services. I can come up with a few reasons on my own, and here they are:

1. Information wants to be free! Make it so! I personally don't agree with this, as I feel it devalues your initial output; the customer doesn't place any intrinsic value on the product, and thus your later output is similarly devalued. I don't know if this is true or not, and I can provide no empirical evidence to suggest it, but this is my gut feeling.

2. We'll make it up in the back end! This is demonstrably false, of course. A catch-22, if ever I saw one. You can't actually sell your product because it has no intrinsic value to it. You will begin selling your product once it has intrinsic value. It can't have any intrinsic value until such is assigned to it by you, the author. Ergo...

3. We're going to build a fan base first, then rock the shit out of 'em! Hmmm. Dunno 'bout that one.

4. I make music as a hobby, and have no interest in charging money for it. I just want people to hear and comment on what I've made. Now, this is a true calling, and while I don't subscribe to that view myself, I understand it.

Personally, I think a lot of musicians put their first releases out there for free these days, in the same way that I would give a demo tape to anyone in 1988. However, the difference is that, with that tape, there was a physical face-to-face transaction taking place, and I could imply value where there was none. Aleksi had no way of knowing that I would listen to his MP3s today, and he couldn't qualify or quantify what I was going to hear, and he almost certainly didn't want it to turn in to some meta-discussion about the nature of business in music, but there you go. Thoughts?



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Jun.08.2007 @ 3:49 PM
I've felt worse about the whole information being free thing as i've made more music too. Its a lot easier for electronic music to give itself away because it is superficially cheaper to produce and bring into the world, but if you are paying for studio time, should you expect an attempt to make a return on your investment?

Will music be free the way tv is free? Will I have to drop tide commercials on my site and make mall appearances to make a living doing it?

Maybe i can just engineer one of those boring podcasts on a per diem basis instead..

depressing all around.


Jun.08.2007 @ 3:55 PM
Concerning your demo tape comments, I don't see much of a difference there. Yes there was no face to face but you got the album, listened to it, liked it, and made us all aware of it.

If he decides to charge for the next one would you consider buying it? I would think you might. I might even go listen to it based on your mini-review.

I think thats how it was supposed to work.


Jun.08.2007 @ 4:11 PM
Most bands in my local scene give their recordings away simply to get people to hear them and then go to a show to buy merch.

The fact is that most unsigned bands:

a) aren't very good and won't sell a lot anyway
b) have almost NO way of getting their music heard by people who aren't actively seeking it
c) don't have the connections or knowledge to promote their music in any other way
d) Don't have the budget to press 1000 full-length CDs to sell and 10,000 samplers to give away for promotion.

I think that saying "your output has no value" is a bit unclear. What is the "product" a band or musical act sells?

If that product is "audio streams"/"sound"/"songs" than you are absolutely correct.

If that product is "live performances" than giving your music away for free might be a good marketing tactic. CC-licensing it might even be gimmicky enough to generate interest in such performances.

If your product is "a cool brand you can feel cool about supporting and being cool with that is music-based, but otherwise really cool, with haircuts, ties, and vests and other cool stuff", then your music is only a part of the equation and if giving it away sells more t-shirts, maybe that's worth it.


Jun.08.2007 @ 4:17 PM
An interesting subject. I can't speak for Aleksi, but as someone who gives a lot of music away for free, I can say this:

I am very familiar with the music out there that is similar to the stuff I'm doing. I also know that the stuff I make compares well to a lot of similar commercial stuff. So I am fairly comfortable in the assertion that I have actively chosen to give away my music rather than giving it away because it wasn't up to snuff.

But, that said, while my chops are up to the task, it's all the business side of it that's elusive. Selling music requires a certain degree of effort (and financial investment) that I am not 100% sure how best to put in to get any returns on it. I don't play live, I'm not really willing to travel around a lot, and I have almost no connections to distributors/content licensees/booking agents.

Making music is just what I do. It's a lot easier to just do it and share it with others than figure out how to sell it. Through the web, I'm able to interact with my audience fairly reliably. The stuff on my website gets downloaded at a steady but modest rate (76 downloads in the past 8 days, excluding the drone track I did for KVR's wiki, which has been d/l'ed 52 times this week and pretty much every week this year). I'm not in it to have fans, but more for the music. So putting free stuff out there has been great for finding collaborators to work with.

I've never really approached music as a business. I'd make music no matter what, and come from a long line of musicmakers who never approached it as a profession. For me, at least, it'd be really hand-to-mouth if I were to try making a living with my music, since most people are perplexed by it. I make a pretty good living with my non-music profession (despite hating it), I don't think I could make as much starting out now with music.

Aside from the obscurity angle, which is unique to making very niche unpleasant stuff, I imagine most people just don't have the right connections to make a go of it, given that it is who you know a lot of the time. The options are sit on your stuff in hopes that you'll sell it, where the chance of it being heard are slim, or skip all the fuss and just give it away, where the chances of it being heard by at least a few people are pretty good.


Jun.08.2007 @ 4:20 PM
Chris Randall
Giving away CDs to sell t-shirts is a really stupid business model. The markup on CDs is 1000%, while the markup on T-shirts is less than 100% usually. If anything, you should do it the other way around.

Viz. CC licensing, Positron is the first record label that moved its entire catalog to Sampling +, and I had many conversations with Dr. Lessig about the nature of the license before it came in to existence, and many more afterwards as we determined the effect on performance royalties. Long story short: nobody cares about CC licenses except BoingBoing. I wish that weren't the case, and we've picked up a few podcast performances we wouldn't have otherwise, but in general, all it does is put in official legal writing the things that I wouldn't do in any case.

In any event, the band is a vehicle to perform the songs. The songs themselves are the only product a musician makes that has intrinsic, rather than implied, value. This value is assigned and administered by the creator. At least, that's my thinking on the matter.

EDIT: Steve posted that while I was writing. So he fits in to the Higher Calling category in my original post; this is, in my humble opinion, the purest form of expression, supported by other means. I personally pay my bills with my sequencer, so it doesn't work for me, but there's a certain honesty in that sort of transaction which can't be denied.



Jun.08.2007 @ 4:23 PM
Adam Schabtach
I think #4, the it's-a-hobby theory, probably applies to a lot of folks putting up music for free. If you're trying to be a pro musician from the git-go, you're not going to put up stuff for free, no? Or you're not if you've done your homework, that is.

There's also this angle: writing music and selling music are two entirely different things. It's a mistake to think that you're good at one activity just because you're good at the other, or that if you enjoy one you'll enjoy the other. There's some book about being a successful entrepreneur that uses the analogy of baking and bakeries: just because you like making pies, it doesn't follow that you should open a pie shop. (Personal example: enjoying origami doesn't necessarily mean that you'll enjoy running an origami-paper store, but hey, it's a partial living.) This guy may have figured out that he likes making music but doesn't like selling it, so he's content to make it and give it away.



Jun.08.2007 @ 4:25 PM
Adam Schabtach
Steve's post went up before I hit the post button for mine. What he said.



Jun.08.2007 @ 4:34 PM
Higher calling notwithstanding, I wouldn't refuse a commercial opportunity that fell in my lap. Sadly, it's been my experience that commercial opportunities so rarely fall in my lap. And so I stick with the writing gig.

Jun.08.2007 @ 6:58 PM
I think the real problem for most aritsts these days isn't "Can I get someone to pay for this?"

It's "Can I get someone to pay <b>attention</b> to this?"

Everyone can get any piece of music they want now for free. And there are enough legal free MP3s pushed out daily that one can quickly get overwhelmed. You end up competing with a daily flood of new releases plus the 5,000 tracks everyone has on their iPod.

Putting a cost barrier in the way doesn't help. Yeah, some people will listen for free, like it, and not buy. But in the absence of your music being available at all - they're not going to listen and definitely not going to buy.

I am still on the fence about whether or not it's worth giving away everything on a new release. I'm an ASCAP member with film and TV scoring experience, plus a few records. I give some of my music away for free on the Internet. I don't know if it's exactly the right thing to do, but I know that even if I don't, someone else will put it up for free.

I was actually a little surprised that CR doesn't have at least 1 full MP3 available for each of his albums - it would seem like great advertising for the software, if nothing else.

But as a Rhapsody subscriber, I was delighted to find all the Micronaut stuff available in there.


Jun.08.2007 @ 7:29 PM
Chris Randall
"I was actually a little surprised that CR doesn't have at least 1 full MP3 available for each of his albums - it would seem like great advertising for the software, if nothing else."


link [www.positronrecds.co...]">link [www.positronrecds.co...]

We normally do two for each album. On some we've done three, but it doesn't appear to make any difference one way or another.



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