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Free is just another word for nothing left to pay artists?

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Sunday, Jul 12, 2009

Right now, my favorite two articles are Chris Ruen’s "The Myth of DIY" (Tiny Mixtapes) and Glenn Peoples’ "Analysis: Everything Is Wrong With Free Moby MP3 Story" (Billboard).  It’s probably no coincidence since both deal with the same subject- challenging the idea that free music is the best thing for the industry now.


In Ruen’s article, he questions fan’s commitment to artists that they supposedly love when they download their music for free.


“If you find meaning and beauty from a musician’s work and you want them to continue creating it — then you are obliged to support them. If you like the idea of record stores, the people they employ, the values and spirit they promote — then you also are obliged to support them. If you’re consistently doing one without the other, then on some level you, not Metallica, are the asshole.”
  
You could easily laugh off Ruen as a fogey who’s impossibly trying to turn the tide of the online revolution since we’re obviously only going to support bands by NOT buying their music, right?  But he does have a point.  Even if millions of people aren’t paying for it, why shouldn’t you still support bands and performers you love?  It’s OK to buy tickets to their shows or their merchandise but it’s not OK to buy any of their music just because other people aren’t?  I like paying out for albums by bands that I like and I don’t feel like a sucker for doing it (though I’m not thrilled that artists still get only a tiny bit of my money if they happen to be on a major).


For Peoples’ article, he argues that even if Moby got it wrong if he thinks that he proved a point by giving away his music free to promote it and then could still sell it to a lot of people later (the Radiohead argument).  Peoples points out several other factors that helped the sales such as the promotional videos that went along with the songs (espeically since they were by David Lynch) plus the fact that they were some of the few songs on the album with vocals plus they happened to be the best tracks on the album (which I agree with).  In all, Moby and his label made a point to promote these particular songs and the artist himself happens to be smart marketer of his work (as he proved by licensing out all the tracks from Play about 10 years ago).


The ‘free’ angle got Moby more attention than Peoples gives him credit for but there’s obviously much more going on than that.  Mute, his label, helped to push the songs along and get them heard and talked about.  As such, giveaways are great gimmicks but by their very nature, they themselves don’t pay the bills.


The ‘free’ model is also getting debated in reviews of Chris Anderson’s new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (not to mention his ironic cribbing of some of the material from Wikipedia).  Though he usually strikes me as a kind of snake oil peddler himself, Malcolm Gladwell’s take on Anderson’s book is definitely worth reading.  He picks apart Anderson’s examples, showing that they don’t hold up very well under scrutiny, especially YouTube, which is free and popular but still struggling to make money.


Robert Barry’s The Bomb Party blog also tears into Anderson’s ideas, noting that Coca Cola costs nothing to make and yet isn’t available for free from our home faucets or that the example of ‘free bringing in money otherwise’ doesn’t work very well outside the publishing and music industry. 


Which isn’t to say that the ‘free model’ is going away from the (mag) publishing or music industry.  The mistake that Anderson and others make is that this model doesn’t and can’t always apply to other industries on a wide scale- for instance, how would it work for cars, houses?


But the mistake that the publishing and music industry make is to under-estimate the ‘free model’ or think that they can stop it.  By now, it’s gotten too ingrained into generations of would-be consumers.  They can lure them in otherwise with ‘special editions’ for fans (like ‘free’ advocates NIN and Radiohead have done) and other related mersh.  But don’t hold your breath waiting for the equivalent of a Shawn Fanning who comes up with a service that convinces them to start paying up again for words and music.  If anything, the next Fanning will convince yet another generation to share other items without a toll collector and if the newly-effected industry can’t figure out some way to cash in on that, they’re gonna be doomed too.

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