See also the sharethemusicday weblog
In the early 1970's at the Festivali 11 concert in totalitarian Albania, singer Sherif Meidani decided to do the unthinkable. He sang in public a song by the Beatles (reputedly, "Let it Be.") At the time, the Albanian government (ruled by Stalinist tyrant Enver Hoxha) imprisoned Meidani for his "crime," a prison sentence that lasted for 20 years. This individual suffered for his belief that powerful organizations should never have the right to repress the free sharing of music in public.http://www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,59654,00.html
But the American music industry has started using similar tactics to punish people who want to share music. Sherif was punished for an unauthorized public performance of music. But in the US, just sharing music files without authorization subjects the individual to fines up to $150,000 and up to 10 years imprisonment. Another anti- piracy bill backed by the people who brought you Eminem and Norah Jones would increase the maximum fine to $250,000 per file shared and make file sharing make the violation a felony offense with a maximum sentence of 5 years. (And if you are unlucky enough to be in a "3 Strikes You're Out," state like California and already have 2 serious felony convictions, a file-sharing conviction would mean mandatory life imprisonment). In many ways, the sort of punishments advocated by the major record labels is worse than anything dreamt by the most authoritarian regimes.
Impossible, you say? You think these maximums are just theoretical and subject to judicial discretion? First, the docket is replete with cases of people who received maximum sentences out of proportion with the offense. Second, repressive bodies seek broad discrepency powers in order to dilute the legal remedies available to individuals. A group that can sue for $150,000 can also intimidate risk-averse defendants to settle, even when the facts aren't on their side.
The music industry that profits from Justin and Mariah and Kelly want you to believe that people who share music are criminals and hurting artists. In fact, 68 million people have shared music in the USA alone, and many are the biggest supporters of musicians. That is more than the number of people who voted for George W. Bush last year. Any industry that calls for punishing a sizable percent of the population has to be viewed with suspicion.
By nature, Americans are a generous, sharing people. Sharing artistic experiences is a natural and integral process of a musical education. The music industry benefits when a piece of music is treated as a commodity, and therefore they promote the idea that you can enjoy music only when you own (i.e. Pay for ) it. But if you are like me, you have heard free music at open air concerts, churches and along the street without feeling the urgent need to possess it. In fact, sometimes an effective piece of music wants to possess YOU instead of the other way around. That is good and perfectly natural.
If this is true then, why would musicians—who care about the soul of music more than anyone-- agree to let record musics serve as caretakers for their music? First, when recording equipment was expensive, cutting a record or CD was a way to ensure that music lasted. If one criticizes the music labels for their "greed," one also needs to credit them for preserving the musical souls of Louis Armstrong, Elvis, Andrew Sisters, Count Basie for all generations. Second, a typical musician wants some way to defray production costs and to free up more time to creating music. Musicians therefore think, if a record advance gives me 3-6 months to concentrate on creating more music, then the deal is not bad in the long run. Third, a musician thinks that a record label is in a better position to do marketing and promotion. A musician might be uncomfortable with self-promotion and might think it better for a third party to take care of it.
Maybe 20 years ago, this deal made sense to the artist, but now it seems almost ridiculous. First, immortality. The major labels require such a fast return on their investment that they let recordings go out of print very quickly. Millions of hours of "orphaned" music lie in some record studio's vault somewhere because the labels have exclusive rights to it and see no money in a reissue. Current copyright laws last so long that it is unlikely that an artist will live long enough to see one's "orphaned music" revert to the public domain. Also, record deals sometimes allow the label to "pass" on an album while retaining exclusive rights, thus guaranteeing that some songs never see the light of day. In a famous case involving Austin singer Sara Hickman , Elektra records refused to release one of her albums and in fact wouldn't give her the rights back unless Sara bought back her own songs. Sara Hickman's case may be unusual, but it illustrates how a record label's financial interests may run counter to the public interest in making music available.
Second, marketing. Record labels claim the advantage of a massive marketing machine to produce music videos and the money to pay independent promoters to get radio airplay. Inevitably, these overhead marketing costs are deducted from the artists' royalties (As Steve Albini famously demonstrates. But is this money well spent? First, people are spending more time listening to Internet radio for which indie promoters have zero influence. My situation may be atypical, but I listen to live365.com 50 hours a week and mainstream radio maybe one hour a week. Second, the best way to publicize a musical group is to share its music. I once asked a musician how people found out about her band or how she learned about other bands. "Mix tapes," was her answer. Sure, it wasn't exactly legal, but it allowed people to learn about new kinds of music. New artists (and at some point every artist is new) need informal sharing networks to establish a reputation. To pretend that music sharing is not vital to appreciating music is basically to admit that people have no choice but to swallow the crap that commercial media tries to force upon us. To love music in your own unique and personal way, you must share it.
Third, defraying expenses. The isolated cases where artists profit handsomely from record deals don't refute the main point that the majority of artists feel exploited by their record contracts. For one thing, music labels typically deduct all sort of up front expenses (such as promotional copies, equipment rental and production costs) from an artist's royalties, making it uncertain whether the artist will earn a profit at all.
An ASCAP Affiliated Site mentions that the recording industry has given out more than $20 billion in promotional copies over the last 5 years in physical products that were never sold nor returned. It continues:
The average recording artist is lucky to get $2 of the $16-$18 retail CD price. David Lee Roth makes a whopping 30 cents for every Van Halen CD that sells (at least the ones he was on). Incubus' last contract gave them $1.86 per CD. In the same manner, the average artist payback for a 99 cent download is about 12 cents.
We could decry the bite that music labels take, but isn't 12 cents better than nothing? That can be separated into two questions. First, could the artist sell the same CD for more than 12 cents profit per CD? Second, would the musical product find more customers by a commercial distribution systeem or an informal distribution system? Any owner of a CD burner knows that copying a blank CD costs less than 50 cents. No matter how earnestly a music executive can talk about overhead, it insults a person's intelligence to insist that it costs more than $10 to produce a CD. (In fact, the major music labels have already pled guilty to a price fixing scheme).
Would a musical product find more customers or listeners through a commercial distribution system? Often it takes a while for interesting and exotic music to find an audience. When music cannot be shared, people's tastes tend toward the conservative because risk-taking (i.e, buying unknown records) cost money. But when people have a chance to try out more music without paying for them, their tastes become more adventurous and unconventional. In the year in which I downloaded music using audiogalaxy, I downloaded Indian and Asian music, significantly expanding my musical universe. When industry people protest against music sharing, they reveal an ugly nostalgia for a time when one could afford to buy only about 10 albums a year and a huge number of talented artists were never signed for record contracts and their music lost for good.
Both musicians and listeners face a choice: do you want the soul of music to be locked inside a vault? Or do you want it to roam free? Instead of locking flowers in the vault, it is better to appreciate them in the open where it's easy to pick and admire. We are like bees admiring the flowers all around us, flitting about, taking what we need and moving on (and propagating the beauty of what we see at the same time). Flowers look pretty among other flowers, not inside some ugly dirty vault guarded by lawyers. As the public areas become more covered with flowers, the desire to possess the rotting heaps in the vault will seem more bizzare, less relevant. The best way to increase the number of flowers in this world is to open the gardens up to bees. Anyway, it is folly to think that a group of lawyers (and that is essentially what a music company is ) owns a song or a human voice or an image. The copyright to Beauty is owned by one person, and that is God. His lawyers are ruthless and know the laws of nature backwards and forwards. The license they enforce allows infinite creation and multiplication, but banishes those who say beauty belongs to one.
So if music is to be shared, does this mean that artists won't be able to support themselves? I can't say; I am only a music enthusiastic and cannot comment on the multitude of ways in which musicians have managed to make a living over the centuries. For some, it may make sense to sign over absolute distribution rights over to iTunes or cdBaby and then to hope money from concerts. For others it may make sense to produce and sell their own CD's. For me, the first and foremost problem is growing an audience; once you have an audience, the problems of economics become easier. Judging from the propaganda that the major record labels spread on TV and in magazines, one would think that most musicians fear that music sharing will wreck their livelihood. In fact, for unsigned musicians (and that probably accounts for a good 90-95% of all musicians), nothing would please them more for thousands of people to download their mp3's off their websites and share them. The problem for the majority of artists is not too much sharing, but too little! Because we do not share enough, we overlook the vast pool of musical talent in our country, and allow gigantic corporations to fill in the vacuum with its mediocre offerings.
A voluntary payment business model, in my opinion, is the only one that accomodates and benefits from the natural tendency to share music. Sites like www.musiclink.com allow the artist to receive voluntary micropayments (i.e. "tips") directly from listeners. Other services like Paypal and Amazon can do this also, but www.musiclink.comis the only site I know of that claims to give 100% of the donation directly to the musician.
But what about freeloaders? If it is easy not to make voluntary payments to musicians, wouldn't a voluntary payment model fail?
First, a voluntary payment system is still better than the status quo. To illustrate, let me tell you about a wonderful Patti Rothberg CD ( "Between the 1 and 9" ) which I bought on half.com . The price was $1, and shipping cost $2.50, bringing the total to $3.50. When I received the copy, I discovered that it was a promotional copy (not intended for sale).
So let's look at the economics. The new CD probably cost about $12 or 13$, out of which Rothberg probably received a dollar profit (at best). But when people buy used CD's (and it would be foolish not to; nowadays they cost about 30% of retail), neither the artist nor music label receives anything. Presumably the music label or retailer recovers a fraction of cost when the item is remaindered and discounted. But in this particular case, the promotional cost is deducted as overhead from the bottom line, so it's unlikely that Rothberg recovered ANY money from this transaction. In fact, it's possible that this promotional copy counted against her royalties.
Out of that $3.50 I paid, $2.50 went to ebay/half.com for managing the transaction, and $1 went to an unscrupulous music journalist. Before buying this CD, I went to the website and looked for a hint about how to tip the artist directly. But this website, like many other websites of signed artists include no mention of how to donate directly. Well, the CD was produced by EMI, and it looks like Rothberg bought old copies and is reselling them for $16.50 (at least that's my guess; could I really be sure?).
Well, $3.50 v. $16.50. What do I choose? So I buy the $3.50 CD. I'm happy that I didn't pay full price. The unscrupulous music reviewer is happy that s/he made a $1 profit. Ebay is happy because it profitted $2.50 from the transaction. Everybody's happy now, right? Well, except for the artist...
(Later, I looked more closely at Ms. Rothberg's charming website and realized that her site is a lot more personal than I gave her credit for. Maybe it had something to do with the EMI label folding).
Let's return to the question about whether a voluntary payment system simply helps freeloaders or could realistically support artists.
The question boils down to audience size. The U.S. Population is 290 million, which is 4% of the world population. That's a lot of potential music sharers. If an musician currently has a core fan base of 20,000 people in the US, and this proportion were extrapolated to every country, that could mean as many as 500,000 dedicated fans. Up to now, the limiting factor has been cost and media, but unlimited music sharing permits an exponential rise in this core fan base. Maybe 200,000 or 2 million people or 20 million people are sharing your music domestically. (These amount may seem unrealistically high, but remember Nagle's Law: The number of mp3's owned varies according to the current size of one's hard drive). Suppose that 2 million people had your song, and a small percentage (say 1%) tip the artist a trivial amount (say $1). That means that the artist receives $20,000 for one song and a massive following for future songs. (And people overseas sharing your song might cause that income amount to double or triple).
Musicians afraid of depending on voluntary payments need to remember the intense gratitude that listeners feel for those who create compelling music. Music transforms the lives of listeners. It is not merely a matter of being generous or doing the right thing. Listeners who downloaded the music want a tangible way to show appreciation in a personal way to the artist. Giving to a site like musiclink.com is one such way.
But will tipping ever catch on? And isn't it a little condescending? In the United States, most people tip their waiters and waitresses 15% of the check as a matter of habit. Why then would Americans refuse to do something comparable after downloading a phenomenal set of songs? When you buy a CD or some Itunes, you are paying for a virtual product. That is an exercise in capitalism. When you give money to the musician after downloading a song, you are expressing what moves you. You are letting the artist know that you as an individual have found the song to be valuable. That is an exercise in appreciation.
Okay, suppose you the reader accepts the point that sharing music is good and a voluntary payment system is worthwhile and sustainable. That still does not answer the listener's question about how to obtain music legally and the musician's question about how to get music to the listener. Peer 2 Peer Networks are wonderfully efficiently about making it easier to download mp3's, but provide absolutely no guidance about what files are the best to download.
Fortunately, the last six months has brought significant progress on that matter. Michael Crawford has written an incredible article about where to find music to download legally. Artists are learning about Creative Commons licenses, and commercial sites are offering more mp3's downloads for free. Also, Itunes, even though I think its prices are still too expensive, at least offers a hope that "orphaned music" (music from out-of-print LP's or CD's) will be accessible once again.
Perhaps the best music finder I've found so far is Irate Radio, a "mp3 scraping" program that downloads mp3's continuously on your hard drive and plays them for you like a radio station. As you rate the tracks, the program uses collaborative filtering to give you additional mp3's to suit your tastes. The program is still a work in progress; the built player lacks many features, and the file management is still primitive, but the program exposes the listener to hundreds of new groups and songs. Eventually, each mp3 entry will be hyperlinked to the musician's website, making it possible to buy directly from the artist. At the moment the IRATE database boasts 46,000 mp3 URL's, and even that will increase as it gains more listeners.
Music webzines and even Amazon provide great music recommendations, and Amazon even has a gigantic catalog of free mp3's (although its terms of service are still restrictive). However commercial interests may taint the site's reviews somewhat and opinions of music critics may be tampered by the massive number of free promotional CD's that the big labels send to critics. For example, magazine or newspaper critics rarely review songs that are freely available as a download or are unavailable as CD's for sale. Curiously, in an age where there are blogs for just about everything, very few weblogs are dedicated to publicizing what bands are offering free mp3's and which of them are cool.
But the most important way to locate great music (aside from going to concerts) is to share with friends. When people share music---wait, more to come soon!