What if music should be free?

Money - photo

It’s hard to be writing in any publication concerning audio and not comment about this week’s events. Radiohead shocked the industry by announcing it’s new album In Rainbows was available to download for any price you think it’s worth (including free). They also let us know they are no longer bound contractually by EMI. They broke another convention by not giving radio stations a single to hype before the album release.

Besides paying (if you so choose) for the digital download super fans can purchase a box set for £40 that contains a CD, 2x 12″ vinyl and a bonus CD with some photos and artwork. Interestingly, the NYTimes.com reports: “And Radiohead plans to release “In Rainbows” as an old-fashioned CD no later than January, though it has not determined if it will return to a major label to do so.”.

It seems like Radiohead has made a smart move and covered all their bases. They look like heroes for dropping EMI and giving their music away for free. They also did it first and such are receiving lots of attention. They have a plan to make some money and even a fall back to the traditional CD on a major label if things don’t work out.

Trent Reznor, Jamiroquai and Oasis all said they have similar plans. Somewhat related Madonna turned down an offer from Warner Music Group to go with concert promoter Live Nation Inc.

But wait a minute. Deep breath. What does this really mean? At first I was actually angry. I thought “Great, a bunch of rich people are giving away what I need to sell to make a living.”. I showed some of the articles to a friend of mine who is a graphic question marks - photodesigner and he said, “This is awesome. Music should be free!”. Now I was really pissed off.

Being 37 years old I realize I am starting to be at the age where I need to consciously think outside of my own norms to stay current. To stay young. To stay relevant. So I started to think, “What if?”.

What if music should be free? What if audio should be treated like most text and images with the ability to copy, paste, quote and cite at will. Why not have it supported by advertising? Japan already has an average download speed of 60 megabits per second and soon so will the rest of the world. Audio files (in fact albums) will load on a page instantly.

Phonograph - photo

Imagine that one hundred and fifty years ago before the phonograph was invented to hear music you had to hear it live. Then, wonderful inventors created the record player as a convenience to the human race. Did they envision their inventions as money making machines for corporations? Did they see their new device as a way of locking down and monetizing every recording?

And today haven’t we seen a loss in quality in our music? Pitch correction, vocal comping, quantizing, loudness maximizing have sucked the life out of our lullaby’s. Isn’t there a large amount of fakeness going on? Wouldn’t making the best performing artist the most successful remedy this situation? Wouldn’t most music be better if it had to work somehow in a live performance?

Things are definitely changing and this topic is huge. There is a lot of history to study before one can see the future. I would like to let you know of a two great articles online that I really enjoyed on this subject. First, click over to Techcrunch and read “The Inevitable March of Recorded Music Towards Free“. Be sure to look at the now 200+ comments for some great insight from some intelligent people. Every few comments I changed my mind back and forth. Next, scoot over to the Freakanomics blog at the NYTimes.com and read “What’s the Future of the Music Industry? A Freakonomics Quorum“. Five highly qualified people from business schools, musicians, Peter Rojas from Engadget and Steve Gottlieb (president of TVT Records) all tell you their perspective.

What do you think?

Photo credits: velo_city, makeitgreat and KGBKitchen

4 Comments

  1. I think it’s a great time to be a hobbyist musician and a terrible time to be a professional one. Technology allows new bands to get more exposure faster than ever, which is great. You don’t need to be “found” by a scout anymore.

    However, the real challenge is figuring out how to make enough money off of music to keep doing it. I think this will happen in two ways:

    1) Big companies will not die. Hollywood films, hit TV shows, big radio, and club DJs all _require_ pristinely produced, easily recognizable music, and that can only really come from a professional industry.

    2) A much bigger piece of the music pie will go to regional bands, following the idea of “the long tail.” Lower production, promotion and distribution costs will allow small bands to reach enough t-shirt buying, show-attending fans to stay afloat. If Madonna and a local band both pulled the Radiohead trick, I’d pay 5x more for the local favorite.

    Both of these, however, assume that normal, moderate-quality music ends up being free for personal use. I think this is a fact of life for all intents and purposes… the cat simply won’t go back into the bag.

    Reply

  2. Netlabels are alredy doing this big time. I’m about to start one, in addition to my commercial label, as it feels good to give something for free. I need the other one around, as there are still channels that require a commercial label (Beatport, promo services and so on).

    Reply

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