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.09.2007 @ 8:26 AM
First off, thanks a lot for the compliments and publicity. There's two more aleksi virta tracks at link [www.spcflts.net]">link [www.spcflts.net] if you like to hear them. The name "Aleksi Virta" is just an artist name made up years ago btw, and has no relation whatsoever to my real name nor the Finnish metal keyboardist guy who I learned of much later... At least I won't be using that pseudonym again then. Blah blah, anyway:

Mr. shamann pretty much hits the bullseye with "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." Selling music isn't just what I'm good at, nor do I really have tight connections to people who could sell it for me. My stance isn't exactly "I don't want any money out of it", more like "I wouldn't mind getting money out of it but I know I'm not going to make a living out of it anyway, so I'll just try to avoid all the extra hassle".

Believe me, I did send out demos and give away CDR copies to DJs and other people though, I just didn't do that enough. My plan with that album was basically 1) get someone to release it and take care of the selling part or 2) release it for free so more people can at least hear it. At some point I got tired of trying to achieve the first part, so I hopped to the second part and let a friend release it on the net label he's running.

Had I chosen to use CDbaby, Beatport or something along those angles, I'm pretty sure almost nobody would have bought the damn album unless I'd invested lots of time to promotion (which I suck at). Now I at least have around 10-20k people who have downloaded the album and hopefully some even liked it.

While I'm all for giving as long as I earn my living in some way (which is basically, studying for another year and then figuring out what the fuck I should do next) and get some feedback on what i've done, I do agree that it has sort of devaluing aspect into it. Many people seem to have the initial bias that if something's given away for free, it mustn't be as interesting as "commercial" releases. There are more and more exceptions but I have a feeling that that is the general bias. I don't neccessary co-sign that it would devalue all the later output too though.

Plus it's hard to stand out in a crowd - like Jinsai said, there's huge piles of free tracks released every day, most of which probably pretty forgettable or even crap since it's so easy to put out something even if you just got eJay or a guitar the day before. As a consequence, if you say to someone "hey, I've got an album you can download for free on the net", the usual reaction is "oh, blah, another of those?", whereas the reaction to having something released Commercially is "hey, would be cool to hear it". So it goes. There ARE ways for "filtering" good free music of course (like the net label scene where somebody with hopefully a good taste filters the release output) but the whole thing still suffers from the same problem - the easier and more risk-free it is to put out music, the less quality control people need to do.

So the "Can I get someone to pay _attention_ to this?" part is a LOT harder this way. I think I've got something like ten mails in two years altogether about the album, half of which have been "hey, it rocks, thanks", and other half "hey, we'd like to use your music for free in our showreel / snowboarding movie". So besides not getting any money, basically the only "feedback" is either from people I know (for who I'm grateful), by doing Google searches or checking out how many times the album has been downloaded (archive.org says about 10 000 times, plus the downloads straight from monotonik site).

The meta-discussion isn't a bad thing at all, I just don't consider myself to be too enlightened in pros and cons of different forms of music distribution and the free / paid thing - the more I think about it, the more confused I get.


Jun.09.2007 @ 9:51 AM
So in fact CR was ALMOST right: I didn't indeed know if anybody was going to listen to the album at all (nor where, when or how it would be listened to if anybody cared) and certainly didn't expect anyone to give me any feedback whatsoever... but I don't have anything against a discussion like this even I couldn't anticipate it either. :)

Jun.09.2007 @ 5:43 PM
I think one aspect of giving away your music is that it is unstoppable... you finish it, master it & put it out there - no waiting for a label to pick it up/promote it etc...
Also I know someone ran a poll on ableton LIVE forum asking if anyone had actually made serious money from commercial download sites & the best anyone had done was like $100... so if you make obscure (ie non-mainstream) music the question becomes: do i want very few people to pay for it & hear it OR do I give it away & a lot more people will hear it? Even on minimum wage you could earn enough in a few weeks to make the difference in financial return insignificant... So i think a large part of the question is about context - is it commercial music? if it isnt then the idea of releasing it commercially is almost self-defeating... I think this is part higher calling & part pragmatism

Jun.10.2007 @ 9:13 AM
Oh, there's actually one other thing worth mentioning about this particular example - it may or may be obvious to some listeners. The album has at least two samples that are dead easy to spot (the flute parts on two tracks, in case you've heard the originals) and some others that aren't mangled, modified and chopped to death as much as to make them completely unrecognizable.

While that wouldn't make commercial use and licensing impossible, it would probably still mean that 1) at least two or three samples should be legally cleared or 2) either me someone who is using the tracks commercially should be prepared to pay up if someone spots the samples and gets mad about it. That's a part of the additional hassle.

I know even some bigger "indie" electronic labels aren't too meticulous with making sure that the samples on albums they release are cleared, and seem to do fine with that strategy so far... But that might or might not be too wise in the long run. No idea.


Jun.10.2007 @ 10:26 PM
professor ned
"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."

Be that as it may, it would appear that, in this day and age, kids are willing to buy T-shirts, but they are not willing to buy CDs. Thus, the theoretical markup on CDs becomes effectively meaningless, as no one will buy them. I would rather sell 100 T-shirts at a 100% markup than 0 CDs at any markup, etc.

Of course, the making-music-to-sell-T-shirts model works only if you're interested in being The Kind Of Band That Sells An Image, or as CR once put it to me, a "tchotky" (sp?). What future awaits those of us who don't have crazy hair/eye makeup/photo budgets etc.?

I have been hearing some interesting talk of late about slashing the heck out of download prices. $9.99 is great and all, but what about $4.99? I do not buy albums via iTunes (I buy everything in a physical format at a store 6 blocks from my house), but I can tell you right now I would buy a whole lot of albums from iTunes at $4.99 per DRM-free album. But can anyone make a living from that?

[Answer (?): artists, probably, but not labels, probably?]



Jun.11.2007 @ 9:57 AM

Screw selling to kids though, sell to the middle-of-the-road, middle age, soccer mom crowd. They seem to still be buying CDs, nothing else would explain the recent creation of the Starbucks label.

I think one of the things about selling music as a full-time endeavour is that you have to think of it in generic terms of business -- markets, trends, delivering product that can be sold, etc. Just making your music in your silo and then sticking a price tag on it won't likely sell much. Might sell a bit of course, but not a lot. My deal was always making music in my silo, where business concerns never much mattered.

Inspired by this and other recent conversations I've had on the subject, I'm interested in experimenting in the commercial side of music, if only because I never have. ( I announced my great selling out on my blog yesterday: link [www.intelligentry.ne...]">link [www.intelligentry.ne...] )


Jun.11.2007 @ 9:58 AM
Good music is a dime a dozen. Selling music has always been about buisness and capital and connections... there is a reason why there are professional record labels, and why people still sign to the major labels.

For 99.99% of the people, if you don't give your music away for free, no-one is going to hear it. Just throwing your music up on CDBaby or iTunes, with no kind of promotion or buzz or anything, isn't going to make you a cent. The only people who are going to buy it is your friends.

CR can sell music online, but that is because he built a following with SMG and has people who have followed his music for years... He also most likely has plenty of connections in the industry, built over years. All that is essentially capital - maybe not tangible physical capital, but it is capital none the less. You are not going to have the same results imitating what he is doing.


Jun.11.2007 @ 10:09 AM
Chris Randall
Shammann brings up a good point. The easiest types of music to sell in America are kid's music and Christian music, neither of which is drastically affected by the internet. If you want to make a good, easy living in the music business, write children's Christian music, and you'll be set.

My hypocrisy, it seems, knows no bounds.



Jun.11.2007 @ 11:25 AM
"You are not going to have the same results imitating what he is doing."

I assume that was directed at me (and if not, I would nonetheless like to usurp its direction). No of course not, nor do I have any intention/delusion of doing so. I am, however, fairly confident that I'll be able to match download sales of a few of my closes peers (which seems to hover around $50 to $100 a year). Money for the webhosting fund. I should have actually set up a paypal tip jar on my site, see if anything trickles in through that conduit, to fully extend the experiment.

I actually have accrued a respectably sized audience over the past few years, not all of whom are my friends. From my perspective, I'm more interested to see how my audience changes, whom I might reach (or no longer reach) by selling stuff.

And if I find I like selling stuff, Christian children's music here I come (just need to work on becoming Christian, a minor detail I reckon).


Jun.11.2007 @ 11:57 AM
Adam Schabtach
Don't worry about that detail, Steve. Being a Christian is by no means a prerequisite for doing Christian music.



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