Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Musical Notes by Bob Duskis: The Value of Free Part 2

It seems my last column about the de-valuation of music over the last few years has struck a bit of a nerve. Not only did we get numerous comments to the blog itself but many people contacted me directly with messages of support as well as points of disagreement. That's fine with me. Much of what I hope to accomplish here is to start a dialogue and maybe make a few folks think in a new way about a subject that is a constant "elephant in the room" for many of us in the music business. I've gotta tell you that I'm getting tired of having friends and family look at me guiltily as they discuss the new CD that some work mate burned for them for free or as they tell me about the hot new blog they found where you can download entire albums for nothing.

I'd like to take this opportunity to dig a little deeper into the topic and clarify my stance on some of these issues. First of all, I don't expect people to NEVER get music for free. Nowadays it is almost impossible to avoid the above mentioned, home made free CD that a well intentioned friend has made for you. People like to share music. It seems to be something that is hard wired into us and I think that within reason it is a great thing. As long as music defines people and inspires passionate responses, it will continue to be a relevant thing in our lives. We like to turn our friends on to the music that excites us and we like to find like-minded listeners who are into what we are. The CD burner phenomenon can be a great way to promote music and to turn others on to things that they might not find out about otherwise. I never bought into the whole "Home Taping is Killing the Music Business" rap and in my younger days I have made more than a few "brilliant" mix tapes of my own for friends and women I was hoping to impress with the breadth of my coolness and musical knowledge. I generally feel the same way about blogs that post individual tracks, especially ones that focus on eclectic music that has little or no chance of traditional radio exposure. Here's the thing though, all of this can be part of a healthy way of spreading the word about good music IF (and this is a pretty big if folks) at some point the loop is completed with some form of commerce being involved for the artist or the label. What I mean by this is, if you love the first Bombay Dub Orchestra CD that your office mate was nice enough to burn for you, then make it a point to BUY the new one when you see it up on i-tunes. If that Pacifika track you downloaded from the latest hipster blog has been rocking your i-pod for the last few weeks, then go and PAY to see the band when they come to play live in your town. Better yet, BUY the CD when you're at the show. Here's a novel thought: with the holidays coming just around the corner, why don't you make a list of all of those great new bands that you've discovered via the blogs and BUY copies of the CDs for your friends and loved ones that you know would like them. I could go on and on but you're a smart crew, you get my point. Exposing people to music by making it available to them for free is a valid concept-but the final link in the chain of the process HAS to at some point involve someone at some point putting money in the pocket of the artists and labels whose sweat and blood are all over that music.

Here at Six Degrees, we don't just talk the talk, we walk the walk. In recent months we have: given away an entire album's worth of tracks from the Real Tuesday Weld via E Music, given away a 10 song sampler for Hispanic Heritage Month in conjunction with the Latin oriented site Batanga and given away a Six Degrees Digital Sampler that anyone could get for free with purchase at's new digital store. All of this is in addition to the many tracks we offer (all with various label's permission) here on our blog and the fact that we offer one free track from EVERY one of our releases. Clearly we are not "buy or die" Nazis here at the label. We are consumers and fans ourselves and I know for a fact that some of the best ways that I've been turned on to new music are through receiving free tracks. Still, we are a business and we really like being able to pay our artists royalties so that they can feed their families and we're kind of partial to making payroll for our employees and providing health insurance for them as well.

In closing this latest rant, let me just ask you to think about it. Take a moment to take stock of what music has meant to you and your quality of life. Remember that behind every record, every slamming electronic floor-filler, every heart breakingly beautiful ballad or hair raising rock tune, there is an artist who deserves to be compensated for their work.

Bring on your comments because in our next column I will print and address the best of them


Makyo said...

Another nice post Bob, and again you hit the nail right on the head. As a musician and label-owner, I agree with you 100%. Nobody's against a certain amount of copying, whether with tapes in the old day or cdrs now. But the issue with downloads is it moves beyond the hand-to-hand transaction level, and it becomes such that if one person decides to put a track up on a ptp, then hundreds, thousands of people can access it for free. While a burned cd or two is not a big loss for an artist/label, a couple of hundred/thousand downloads clearly is.

Aaah, but the rippers will say, a file --unlike a cd -- doesn't cost anything to make; where's the loss?

This is the most bogus argument ever. Ok, so it didn't cost any cash to make the actual file that you are downloading. But the performance contained in that file? Well, first of all it cost the artist a great deal of his own time (and money) to conceive and execute that piece of music properly. It is very easy to throw a piece together haphazardly and record it half-assed; to make it sound really freaking good, then you need to have a certain amount of gear and production expertise (or a hired engineer and studio) to capture that performance with the best quality possible. Personally, I can attest to putting 100-120 hours and upwards into a single track, and expenses --beyond the gear and upkeep and rent of my studio -- include session musicians fees, travel expenses, and studio time to record live performances better. And of course all that time has to come from somewhere, namely the day job that gets sidelined until, again, the rent becomes an issue.
And have I mentioned mastering yet?

So obviously the "file" that "didn't cost anything" took a great deal of time and resources to produce. And yet peple will talk about arists they "love" while continuing to punish them economically by ripping their music. You can come up with all the excuses in the world, but this is the bottom line.

Another one I love is: "but the big labels screw the artists anyway." Oh, so it's Ok for you to screw the artists worse? Big labels at least pay _something_. As opposed to rippers.

Personally, I get requests all the time at Dakini about certain artists and why they don't release more. Reality check time, people: because they mostly have day jobs doing something else since the music industry has collapsed so severely. And some have even become quite disillusioned, to spend a couple of years making an album, and seeing it up on some Russian download site within days of release.

But "information should be free!" Right. The next time someone says this re. ripping music -- which is when it's often invoked, along with using cracked software -- ask that person this: suppose you work all month long in an office on your office computer, and when the end of the month comes along, the boss says "I'm not paying you this month". Why's that, you ask. "Because I already have all that information you produced; it's only data. Why should I pay you for that?" Well, I did the work, you say. "Yes, but it didn't cost you anything. And information should be free." If any boss tried this, he would be facing a lawsuit. Yet this is EXACTLY the absurd argument musicians are being presented with. And people wonder why the RIAA is taking people to court. Not that I agree with approach, but y'know, I can remember a day when most stores didn't have electronic theft prevention devices and security cameras. Eventually the shoplifting got bad enough that they had to take those measures; relying on people's honesty obviously wasn't working. IMO the same is true of music; until ripping is clearly stigmatised for being what it is -- theft and illegal distribution of an artist's product -- the ability for musicians to actually make a living from making music will continue to decline.

clerkenwell kid said...

This is very interesting. From this side, it raises a lot of questions. The world has changed. The amount of music most people have -or have access to - is huge compared with what it was. Does that mean we value individual artists or tracks less than we used to?

Without the packaging that music has been traditionally wrapped in, that is with a digital download file made up just of ones and zeros, is it easier to be disconnected with the flesh and bood that actually made it?

In an age where we can cherry pick individual tracks to buy and we can make our own playlists, is the album as an entity 'over'?

The new technology which is making it more difficult for labels and artists to earn from their endeavours is the very same that allows us to make music without huge studios and budgets and get that music around the world without physical distribution networks.

It feels like it's still very early in a new era and things are changing on a weekly basis. A friend told me the other day about two models being proposed here in England: One, the big internet service providers get taxed for the media files that pass through their networks -and the second, we get entertainment - music, films etc - like we get our electricity or water - as much as we want for a monthly fee and the computers work out how it gets back to the labels and artists. Wow.

It sometimes seems like we will end up just giving the music away and making our money from advertising - either by direct licensing or by association through branding or royalty paying sites like youtube and that seems a shame - but these are interesting times and I am sure all sorts of creative things will emerge despite the birthing pangs

KakoOlalaJwal said...

After reading these three points of views, two of them coming from respected label heads (namely Six Degrees and Dakini, both being some of my favourites), I will try to give mine in the most sincere way, being the one of a Music "wannabe" collector and unsigned disc-jockey, which is not my main occupation. I'm a free-lance graphic designer and I have to do temporary work now and then because I can't make a proper living only out of my freelance incomes.. Useless to mention I'm not a millionaire). I have to confess that as I'm writing these lines I do have a p2p software running, but I can write with easy conscience that I'm spending every cent I can in Music, both in physical (CDs and vinyls) and digital formats. When being booked (now and then) to spin records I do make a point of honour to put original CDs in the players (which is even more exciting, if you ask me) every time it is possible. There are some tracks I do play, yes, that have been downloaded "freely" but in that case they're tracks I couldn't buy (i.e. out of stock material). And the last "rare" part of them are some promotional material that some artists or labels were kind (and trustful !) enough to send to me.

The reason-why a p2p program is running now ? Simply because I can't help getting new Music by any means.. and simply because I miss a nice record store in my aera, runned by a talented, professional and, cherry on the top, friendly dealer. Some years ago I used to drive for about 60 kilometers to Germany (I'm living near the boarder, in the north-east of France) to go and spend half a day in such a shop, where I was feeling happy like a child being offered a big ice-cream by his Grand'Ma. This shop sadly went bankrupt (like so many others, I guess) but internet, in a way, took over and I'm happy with buying in shops offerings huge catalogs or better directly at the labels when they're offering such a service. The big frustration I'm experiencing daily is that I could spend all my money within a few minutes only, which is impossible if I want to be able to put some food on my plate at lunchtime. Therefore what I'm doing is focusing on buying what I really do like and what I'm likely to play to a crowd on the few occasions I'm lucky enough to do so, choosing from samples I could hear here and there, choosing amongst the Music I've downloaded "illegaly" and thanks to freebies offered (i.e. this blog) or expecting releases after hearing unreleased stuff via streaming on sites like Myspace.

I think I can say I'm passionate.

Now your (you = the people involved in the other side : music production at any level) problem is : most people aren't "passionate" and do listen to music just like they would stare lamentably at a soap opera, reality show or any other crap broadcasted on TV (talking about opium for the masses ?) in the evening after an hard day working to earn just enough for living (when they're not in debt)..

Maybe I'm scattering myself now a bit in the debate but I think the problem is global.. Look in example how many people on this Planet (when they're not living in the third world) are simply not able anymore to eat properly ! Such a basic need ! How would you expect them to get their attention (and so, their money !) on quality Music when they're putting such revolting meals into their mouths ? Incomes are not the problem here, I'm talking about all these people that were made (forced, urged on, invited, educated, even in an unconscious way) to feel comfortable with living in mediocrity.. Why is that the cheesiest Music is the one played all over FM radios and "Music" TV channels (some exceptions, I admit, but they're too rare..) ??

In this way, sometimes I do tend to agree with some fatalistic points of view I could read saying "what will happen will happen, some labels will die, then there will be less offer and the survivors will get stronger".. But I'm afraid they're not the ones I would feel like supporting that are likely to survive.. So as I don't have any miraculous solution to suggest, I'll keep on behaving like I do, trying to support as much as possible the artists and labels that are "talking to me" (maybe a clumsy translation of a french expression) the more.. And cross the fingers for that this World would finally get some sense !

Michelle Tackabery said...

I appreciate your clarifications Bob and I must say I agree with your sentiment. Kako raised some interesting points though. I myself do not download from torrent sites but I do grab occasional copies of new tunes from a particular music blog that posts new indie releases, mostly to listen to them because they are not available on sites where I could preview tracks, like Amazon. This is rare for me as I subscribe to almost sixty separate music sites, label sites and aggregators that review the types of music I like (such as this blog), many of which sell the indie music I like.

I spend over $200US a month on music, and when I download these, if I don't like the tunes I destroy them, and if I like them, I dump them and buy them, to pay the artist. I also make cd mixes for my sister and other friends that I occasionally make available on private sites where they can download the tracks. Our deal is sharing. Our group shares tracks with each other specifically for the purpose of spreading the word about music.

Although I don't know the exact number, I wager less than 2% of the music I buy is played on commercial radio or is even available on iTunes. Without the help of my friends and the other sites, I might never get exposed to this great music, and I have found that this type of exposure is why I continue to decry DRM and other measures. I think we need to find a new way to market in this new environment. I know that indie artists are suffering the most from illegal downloading, but without the current environment, I would not be introduced to most of them, and I PAY. So what's the solution? Personally I love Trent Reznor's new model, if you can call it that yet since it's so new. I like the idea of paying different price points for the quality of the track you get, making collector versions and special tracks, giving paying customers bonuses, having special fan downloads, etc.

I believe labels should take the lead of Six Degrees and work even harder to 1) police the sites that are torrenting their albums. Hire bloggers to watch them and start asking them to pull down the records that get posted. You can probably get a lot of these sites to back off with individual entreaties. yeah, that's labor intensive, but the net is labor intensive. So is rock and roll. It's back to basics like music has always been. But I think labels should take this opportunity, as Kako said, to thrive or die. Offer more bang for the buck on your site. Start exclusive clubs for fans - they buy the records, they get treats - videos, stickers, an extra bonus remix, a signed cd case to put their burned copy of their downloaded tracks in, a branded laptop case or ipod case, etc., etc., offer special sections of the websites where they'll get private messages from the artists. Think way, way outside of the box, and make direct connections with the fans.

Rara Avis said...

I also have to echo Makyo's comments... nice post Bob. There was a time when I was a bit reck-less with my music sharing, but it was honestly only with other DJ''s, yoga teachers and other people in a position of influence. I usually also gave the music saying please let people know this is where they can purchase it, and also please don't copy this and give it out.

From a musicians stand point it's hard enough as it is finding ways to make a living doing what you love... so the more people are purchasing music the better. I've had entire albums where almost no one I know has bought them because they were shared beyond belief and that is definitely disappointing. From a fan of record labels who do amazing work I can't imagine how hard it has become to run a label when everyone is passing around your product free of charge. I'm trying to think of an appropriate analogy but can't because music and music duplication is a unique thing in the business world. Often music gets overlooked in its value due to either the fact that people think we're just doing it for fun, or because it so essential to everyone's life that they just have to have it. Either way, a little conscious consumer practice goes a long way, and I agree with all the ways in which Bob has outlined that fans can support their favorite music while still enjoying the freedom to pass some stuff on for free from time to time.