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June 17, 2011

Free is just one form of convenient

Lately I've read several articles providing "the artist's side of the story" as to why music "can't be free". These include:

It's very difficult to argue against the underlying principles of the above statements:

  1. That the creator of music is handed by act of government the right to decide who shall copy their work and what happens to the copies;
  2. That it is completely immoral for anyone to ignore the laws and copy that work without permission;
  3. That many creators of musical works are struggling to make a living and would do much better if the pre-napster revenue streams from recordings sales were restored; and
  4. That it is not feasible for the music industry to remain viable without revenues from recorded music sales.

All of that is very true. The only people who disagree are the people who are copying files without permission and who, for whatever reason, would like that to be legitimised. However, several points within and around these need careful consideration:

"Piracy" is NOT the same thing as illegal copying. "Piracy" carries with it the idea that the person committing the crime is doing so for commercial gain, not personal reasons. In fact, US law explicitly states that violating a copyright is only a crime (worse sanctions) if the copies are made "for the purposes of direct or indirect commercial advantage".

Speaking as an artist myself, I get that. I have no problem with my fans copying and sharing my recordings (I'm honoured that they want to), but if someone was to sell a collection of them, or pretend it was their work and sell it, I'd get pretty pissed. Hence the Creative Commons "non-commercial" option.

So, can we please move beyond calling people who swap files within their own communities purely for the purpose of increasing the appreciation of the music "Pirates"? Yes, they are breaking the law and arguably disadvantaging the artists (I disagree on that), but it's not technically, legally or morally correct to call them "pirates". The scum who sell illegal CDs and DVDs on the streets of Asia, however, are a different matter and a different problem - legally and technically.

Second, "Can paid music be saved" and "music can't just be free" are unrealistic and inflammatory premises. According to IFPI's Digital Music Report 2011, recorded music music was worth US$4.6 billion in 2010 - up 6% during 2010 and it was US$0 in 2003. That's sustained impressive growth. Paid music may be adjusting to the new marketplace but it shows no sign of ceasing to exist.

The real question concerns how to minimise the disruption from falling CD sales and maximise the benefits of potential digital sales. Plenty of music is being sold by somebody. If as an artist your market share isn't big enough to be sustainable, you need to focus on increasing it. As Mr Billy put it on the Music Thoughts discussion list recently: "I prefer to spend more time writing and recording and less time debating these issues." Wise words.

Finally, why the obsession with recorded music? There's an important difference between getting paid to *be a musician* and getting paid *for your music*. Musicians do a lot more than make music. They make cultural statements on a heap of levels. From community musicians who arrange not-for-profit performances to mega-stars who release protest songs or shape the fashions of the day, musicians generate value that may be based on their music but transcend it.

For people to limit the discussion of how musicians should be remunerated to simple expositions of why copying digital recordings of songs is right, wrong or unavoidable is to miss the broader point: there's more than one way for musicians to make a living.

And when it comes to releasing MP3s, getting "your music heard" is about making it convenient for people to sample, download or stream it. Technology can make this easy, but only a price point can make it convenient. "Free" is a price point - so it's just one form of convenient. It's well known that people don't mind paying for music and musicians that they value - but they'd usually like to know what they're getting BEFORE they part with their hard-earned.

Making releases "free" is just one way to make that discovery process convenient and therefore more likely to succeed. There's no guarantees, but that's life. Make better music and give better performances and it's more likely to succeed as well ...

Posted by DrHuge at June 17, 2011 10:53 AM

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