Is Free the Future of Music?

Perhaps it’s attributable to the contrast between the giant beard and the business suit, but Robert “Bobby” Kittleman has the messianic quality of someone who has seen visions. With a resume that at 27 includes a five-year stint as a business analyst at a Fortune 500 company, a UCLA business school degree, and a work ethic that rivals Thomas Edison, he seems destined for great things. There is an unmistakable gleam in his blue eyes, as if despite what anyone says to the contrary, he has seen the future and knows that it’s simply a matter of time until the rest of us catch up. That look, and his enthusiasm, makes him dangerous.

Kittleman cares deeply about music. Most people would call him a music freak. His apartment is neatly covered in concert posters and band memorabilia. Plus, he has a significant vinyl collection, the hallmark of any music savant. His tastes are wide-ranging: bands as disparate as Akron/Family, Lungfish, Sean Hayes, Oneida and Fools Gold are his favorites. But they all have one thing in common: by their choice or otherwise, they are not a part of the corporate music world.

It’s a matter of common knowledge that the music industry is in decline. How much so is a matter of debate, but between 2004 and 2009 the industry as a whole lost 30% of its revenue (The Guardian, 10 January 2010). Reasons are many, the most well known being that the now ubiquitous ability to share music digitally has forever cut the knees out from under what was once a vibrant business model. Regardless of the details, and the many debates, what everyone can agree on is that the music business will never be the same again.

This is where Kittleman comes in. On 15 August 2010, he and two partners are attempting to pull off the first of what they hope to be a string of festivals based on a novel business model: donations. The one on 15 August is called the Free For All festival and is an all day event in Echo Park, California. It features several bands that could be considered some of the best of the truly-independents: Akron/Family, Langhorne Slim, Sean Hayes, and Active Child, among many others. Kittleman is putting up the $13,000 necessary to secure the bands and the venues for a daylong festival; the rest is up to the attendees.

His two partners, the indie-roots music blogger Jody Orsborn, and LA musician Phil Eastman, are supplying promotion and festival organization know-how. If they succeed they will put Kittleman’s money and any additional profit into the next festival. If they fail Kittleman stands to lose several thousand dollars and the idea of donations-based concerts will wither, at least for the near future.

Kittleman doesn’t seem to be affected by the pressure as we sit talking under the palm trees of a local café. While he talks his rolled up shirtsleeves reveal several tattoos. The words are familiar and I eventually realize they are lyrics from the band Pavement. We quickly start to talk about music. The question comes up, “Was God speaking through Doug Martsch when he wrote and recorded the music for the album Keep It Like a Secret?” We decide Doug Martsch was just extremely talented and that it would be lame if God spoke through musicians anyway.

Now that we’ve bonded, Kittleman uses the moment to segue into his spiel, “Long story short is that this whole free concert thing really can be traced to Ash Ra Tempel and Can making some of the greatest music in 1972 and it was funded by the German government. It all goes back to funding, to looking at music as art, and we have to find ways to do that. This is one of those ways.”

“But the specific way the idea began is that I read an interview with Seth Olinksy [of Akron/Family] and Seth said that, ‘I wish my music could be free but I could still make a living doing music, because I want everybody to be able to enjoy my music but I also need to put food on the table.’” After taking a sip of coffee he continues, “I literally meditated on the idea of, ‘how can music be free and the musicians still make money?’ and what I came up with was that everything we afford artists needs to be available to musicians. Basically, they need to be free to create what they want. There is historical precedent for this, the Krautrock of the early 1970’s being the most well-known example.”

Kittleman’s ideas are polarizing, but when questioned he explains, “Really what I’m talking about, and the eventual plan is, is a way to facilitate doing a direct financial transaction with a band. Labels and promoters don’t like that. Currently the only way to do a transaction with a band is to buy a CD or MP3, or a T-Shirt, or purchase a concert ticket, all of which the band sees a very small percentage of and typically has to put their own money into. A label has to stake them, so the bands owe the label, they have to buy T-Shirts or their label does, and they have to pay for gas, food and lodging when they tour. Most bands barely scrape by, and I’m not kidding. The pop stars are the one half of one per cent minority.”

Most people’s perception is that once musicians are on a label and their music is played on the radio that they’re living extremely well. According to Kittleman that isn’t the reality, “The bottom line is that bands live in poverty. I try to get really into the financials of the bands that I talk to. One band netted $36,000 last year, total. That had to be divided among each other. Another band made $30,000 and that had to be divided by four. These are bands that have been around for awhile and that the music community, like listeners of Nic Harcourt or Morning Becomes Eclectic, would know about.”

Kittleman looks around, I can’t tell if he’s making sure no one else can hear him (this is LA after all) before continuing, “Truly what I’m looking to do, whether or not this festival is big enough to encompass it, is looking at an entirely new way to handle the music industry. For now it’s just going to be an alternative but at some point the industry is going to have to change or it won’t survive. I have a degree in economics and accounting and my background is analytics at a major electronics company. What happens, and has happened in the music industry, is Econ 101: as a product or service matures over time the margins that are available become smaller.”

He continues, “Computers are a prime example of this. The margin on computers used to be really big, and now the margin is less than 5%. So, do you think Compaq thought that they would always be making 30% on every computer? At some point there had to be consolidation and now there are five PC manufacturers in the world. Every product matures and the market changes as a result. So, you see that in booking agents for example, every band has one of the six or seven booking agents out there. Labels are the same way; the majors have purchased most of the independents. Sub Pop is owned by Sony.” [Editor’s note: Sub Pop is actually partially owned by Warner Bros., not Sony.]

Kittleman stops to scratch his beard for a moment and contemplate his next sentence. “It’s basic economics. The margin’s have gotten squeezed, the amount of revenue has gotten squeezed [by file sharing], there is a higher supply of decent bands in the world, more than ever before because of the ease of digital recording, but the big overriding factor,” he swings his arms around in circles, “is that there is a finite amount of money that people have to spend on music. Basically, you have more people battling for fewer resources, a classic scenario. In a situation like that the only way to bring cost down and put more money into the pocket of the artist is to get rid of the middle men – the labels, the booking agents, etc. and figure out a way to go directly to the artist.”

It seems like everything being said from within the music industry or outside the industry is generally a version of getting the situation back to status quo. Could a radical idea like free music really be a solution? “Most people think I’m crazy. I talked to my Dad the other day and he said that’s very interested to see how generous people actually are. But, I think it’s less about generosity and more about establishing a system. Because people get emotion and human action mixed up with the means available to those people. People aren’t sharing music illegally because they’re inherently evil, they’re doing it because it is actually a generous act that, the act of sharing, and there is an easy means available to them to do it. It’s actually easier to illegally download music than buy it.”

“If you establish a means that allows people to quickly and easily do something and not have to expend a lot of energy or have some mystical spiritual knowledge like, ‘Oh, I really shouldn’t be downloading this file, let me find the label’s address and send them a check,’ then it will all fall together. If you can figure out a way that is ‘point a to point b’, ‘I don’t’ have to fucking think about it’, and it just makes it all apparent and easy then it will happen. But, until that system is in place all those music industry people: the labels, the booking agents, the venues, the promoters, the Ticketmasters are functioning as that de facto system of convenience. They are making it easy for the consumer, but obviously not easy enough or they wouldn’t be complaining about not making money. But, until an alternative system is as easy or easier than it is now there won’t be much of a change.”

More than an hour has passed since we sat down and it’s time for Kittleman to go. In addition to promoting concerts he busy is opening an upscale business in Costa Mesa, California and he needs to meet with his commercial real estate agent. As we walk to his car he responds to one last question. “Why do we do it? We do it to provide an example. Think about this: somebody could start a ticketing solution because they fucking love music. Some guy who loves music and hears about what we’re doing, but who is also a web software engineer. He could start an all-digital ticketing solution that venues could opt in to for free and bands could get the surcharge. Why doesn’t anyone do that? Someone will, some day.”

When we first talked on the phone about doing an interview Kittleman said, “I saw an interview with David Byrne and he said his favorite thing to do was, ‘giving people music’, and I realized my favorite thing to do was giving people music too, even if I’m not making it. And everybody else, all these avid music fans, we love sharing music with each other. There is nothing better than making a copy of a CD or MP3, giving it to a friend and having them connect with it the same way you did. That feeling is amazing. But, what we are really doing in that moment is fucking the artist because the only way they really have to make money is to exchange a good to you that you pay for. How do we get out of that? This concert is a step in that direction.”

On 15 August, Kittleman is betting thousands of dollars on what he wants the future of the music business to be. Perhaps along with it is the beginning of formalizing a new way to look at music; what it means to each one of us. The truth is that music is simultaneously overvalued and undervalued. There is a lot of bad music out there, but if you had to pay for your favorite album or song, for the emotions and memories that are intertwined with each note, it would be worth much more than the money you paid for it (I’m thinking of Buffalo Springfield’s “Kind Woman” off of Last Time Around). Whether we realize it or not, the implosion of the music industry is forcing us to look again at what music means to us. As the implosion continues and the industry looks for new ways to protect itself, as evidenced by the recent surge in piracy prosecutions and the net-neutrality controversy over reduced Internet download speeds, we might have to decide sooner than we thought.

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Free For All Festival Schedule

Outdoor Stage:

4:20 – 5:00 Mouse Heaven

5:30 – 6:10 Smart Brothers

6:40 – 7:20 Frank Fairfield

7:50 – 8:30 Dustbowl Revival

Echo Stage:

4:30 – 5:10 Roadside Graves

5:30 – 6:10 Bad Weather California

6:40 – 7:30 Don Juan Y Los Blancos

8:00 – 8:50 Old Man Markley

Echoplex Stage:

4:00 – 4:40 Dreamcatcher

5:10 – 5:50 Hi Ho Silver Oh

6:20 – 7:10 Sean Hayes

7:40 – 8:30 Active Child

9:00 – 10:00 Langhorne Slim

10:30 – 12:00 Akron/Family