My Thoughts on Giving Away Music For Free

Before you dive into these thoughts, I advise you to look over a few articles to familiarize yourself with some of the topics I talk about. Those articles are here:

Emily White: “I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With”

David Lowery: “Letter To Emily White At NPR All Songs Considered”

Jay Frank: “Is Stealing Music Really The Problem?”

So, lets dig in…

The topic of using free music as a tool for success as an artist has always intrigued me. Like Emily White, I never really went through a transition period from physical to digital music consumption. Throughout middle school I began to develop my taste in music. With a sister in high school, and a mom and dad who were singer/songwriters, I had an eclectic assortment of music already available to me. I would listen to my sister’s Green Day, Eminem, and Blink-182 CDs, while my mom played Leonard Cohen, The Stones, and Michael Jackson. My dad listened to mostly classic rock, blues, and folk music, so I got my dose of Led, Pete Seeger, Stevie Rae Vaughn, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Those were really the only CDs I interacted with during the honeymoon phase of my music consumption. I didn’t see a need to buy more since I liked what was in front of me already. One would think that as I grew up, my catalog of CDs would expand as well. However, as my personal taste in music grew, my catalog of CDs did not. By the time I was making conscious decisions on what music I listened to, everything I interacted with was already digital. I began making these conscious music decisions around 2009, a period of time where torrenting was “so last year” and YouTube was all the rage. So, it’s obvious that streaming and torrenting were the predominant ways in which I consumed music.

Many of the aged members of the music industry lament over the times where liner notes and album art excited the youth to buy the newest album. Like Emily, I agree that those things don’t appeal to our generation as much. While I do think that it’s important for an artist to have an aesthetic established with their album art (i.e. Phish and their psychedelic album and poster creations), it’s not something I crave or look out for. I remember buying a Zedd album from iTunes, it was one of my first purchases on the platform. When it finished downloading, I opened the file and a digital bundle of liner notes, album art, and lyrics popped up. I thought, “Oh, thats pretty cool,” and promptly forgot about it once I closed the window. I think this demonstrates that our generation consumes and interacts with their music in a much different way than the aged members of the industry did.

In the formative years of my music consumption, I began sharing music files with friends. I did not step into my local mom and pop brick-and-mortar to see what the newest releases were. I didn’t even check iTunes to see what the hottest new tracks were. All I wanted to listen to was what my friends and I liked. Music is a social currency between my friends and myself. It is a way for us to connect and feel closer with one another. It was during this time that I became acquainted with sites like mp3fiber where I could convert YouTube videos into mp3s. Like Emily, I didn’t do this maliciously and as my understanding for the industry grew throughout high school, I realized what a disservice I had been doing to the artists I loved.

That’s one of the reasons electronic music was so enticing for me. When I discovered SoundCloud, it was the first music streaming platform that I had interacted with where I could listen, like, and create playlists of my favorite songs. You could do this with YouTube as well, but YouTube isn’t music exclusive by any means. On SoundCloud, many of the artists I liked had already begun adopting the new music business model and gave away music for free. It allowed me to have the music I wanted in a way that I wanted. This made it feel as though I had a connection with the artist off the bat. They were giving something personal for me. I would share it with friends, they would get more fans. So, I agree with Emily that my generation is accustomed to having what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. That is why Spotify has done so well. It provides the access we want to the material we want effortlessly. It allows us to share those connections we have with artists through their songs with other people.

I say all this to paint the picture of how music is engaged with by my generation and to help begin to illustrate how outdated the argument is that “the internet is stealing all your music sales”. The internet is here to stay and it is up to you as the artist to either ride the wave or be sour about it and complain until you have $0 in the bank.

There is a lot I don’t agree with in David Lowery’s rebuttal letter to Emily. He begins with the statement that Emily was placing all of the responsibility to properly compensate artists in the hands of the government and large corporations. While I do agree that she thinks they should play a role in sharing that responsibility, I don’t think her main point was that they are whole heartedly responsible. I read it as our generation isn’t willing to pay for albums, or in other words, we aren’t willing to pay for something that we can have for free. I think this is something older generations don’t quite get. It’s sad to see that people don’t value music the same way they might value their computer, as David frustratingly mentions. However, this doesn’t mean we aren’t going to pay for things that we like that relate back to the artist. We still want to be enthralled by the experience an artist has to offer. That means, my generation is still willing to pay for tickets, merchandise, streamed concerts, having our lyrics featured in a song, overall engagement with the artist, and any other creative way in which an artist engaging their audience.

Our generation sees music as the gateway into a whole world of interaction with an artist.

The music itself is by no means the end goal. Like Jeff Tweedy said, “anyone who chooses to listen to our music becomes a collaborator.” A song is simply an invitation to be a part of an artists world.

I think David is coming form an antiquated perspective of how the music industry was run. We have shifted from a market that depends on “push marketing” to a market that depends on niche marketing. My generation puts more trust in the artists themselves or the indie label with personable marketing tactics more so than we put faith in bigger labels who “push market” their music. We want to have a genuine connection with the artist’s message and what they represent with their music and brand. We live in a time where we can access any kind of music we want, so the control has shifted to the consumer’s hands, not the label’s.

One big quarrel I have with David’s response was his argument that streaming services and the internet are trying to change our moral codes and principles. I think this idea is ludicrous. If that were the case, people wouldn’t be streaming and torrenting music at the rate they are. The want and need for the kind of access streaming provides to a consumer has always been there, it just hasn’t existed until now. It’s not that we aren’t moral, it’s simply that we prefer convenience. Simple psychology. Streaming provides just that. While I do see where David is coming from, that streaming services and such aren’t necessarily fairly compensating artists and labels, but to me, that means artists and labels have to diversify their income streams. It bothers me that people are so upset over the fact that their losing sales of CDs and mp3 downloads rather than giving fans more options to give you the artist money. I think the examples David provides, Sparklehorse and Vic Chestnut, are good examples of this. They were stuck in the mindset of worrying about how they could make up for lost sales on their CDs and mp3s rather than focusing efforts in diversifying income streams.

Since the whole process of music creation has become more democratized, it will take some creativity on the artist’s end to boost their sales. I think Jay Frank brings up some good points in his article about this. I think the most powerful point in the article was that file-sharing and streaming aren’t the sole grim reapers of the old music industry. He provides a quote from Cory Doctorow that states, “Judging by the evidence we’ve collected, the evidence does not point in the direction that file-sharing, in and of itself, displace sales, but rather, other factors would also play a role in displacement of sales.” He also highlights that the game isn’t all about sales anymore, “the game is about exposure and awareness, two things that [major labels] are actually quite good at.” To further my point that it serves no one to lament about the old times, Jay says,

“As far as I can tell, [major labels] spend not a minute worrying about the money they don’t make and instead spend time making more money from the sources that do pay.”

That is the key to it all. The music industry these days is often referred to as The Wild West. It is a land of bountiful opportunity, a land of infinite ways to disrupt, or it is a land of sorrow and nostalgia. The latter will get you no where, though.

So, I think that streaming music and giving away music for free is crucial for an artist’s success. It doesn’t make sense to try and release music according to an antiquated, broken down model when there is a new and shiny one sitting right in front of you. Yeah, it may be scary, uncharted water, but that is how the music industry goes. I think we can learn a lesson from the fashion industry. Johanna Blakley makes some good points in her TED Talk about how the fashion industry runs on stealing ideas to make the culture more creative. Since clothing is considered a utility, it isn’t fair for someone to monopolize one type of clothing. For example, Gucci can’t copyright the fact that they make a certain kind of shoe. They can trademark their brand, but they can’t copyright their shoe. I think the music industry can take something away from this. Namely that it’s all about exposure and awareness and your brand. It shouldn’t matter if someone is remixing your song or torrenting your track. That’s a benefit to you because your music is reaching more people. You can figure out other ways to make up your income.

The music industry has steered away from being a creative industry and more into an industry that sticks to a formula to maximize profits. That is why this whole internet thing has really thrown a curveball, because now the whole system is democratized. You don’t need a label to be a successful musician. You can do it all on your own with just your laptop, a Yetti mic and a DAW. That is why I think right now is a really exciting time to be an artist. Everything is changing, which means you can be as big or as little as you’d like.