Why Music Can't Just Be Free: The Artists' Side Of The Story

Last night I attended Universal Music UK’s ‘Digital Open Day’. The event was aimed at trying to get UMG’s vision across, to help them become part of the debate rather than sitting quiet whilst, as they see it, the marketplace conversation portrays them as prehistoric fat cats.

I don’t normally blog about these sorts of events, but I think it highlights a few interesting dynamics. The record labels are still hung up about how people view them. I think this is something of a red herring. People don’t download music for free because they don’t like labels. They do it because they just don’t think content should be paid for. Any label-directed vitriol by freeloaders is just after-the-fact pseudo justification. The big issue is not winning hearts and minds; it is undoing 10 years+ of music being thought of as free.

If any message needs delivering, it is that of the artists. Not the big established artists who’ve had years of record label investment and suddenly decide they want to go ‘free’ in order to drive sales concert tickets and merchandise. But the small artists who are just trying to make a decent living out of something they love, ideally enough to pay the rent and the bills.

A few years ago, I posted a couple of discussion pieces on "why music can’t just be free." Not free as in no cost to the consumer, but as in no monetization. (Regular readers will know I’m a big believer in music monetization models needing to embrace free-to-consumer pricing strategies.) 

I found myself on the receiving end of some pretty fierce vitriol. (My original post and many many comments can be found here.) The reason I posted back then was that the ‘free’ argument was becoming increasingly one-sided, and UMG’s current PR concerns illustrate that the argument is still pretty one-sided. 

The general gist of the "music should be free" argument revolves around:

·         Music has only been monetized for a relatively short period of time.

·         Music’s been free for ever and that artists don’t really want to make money; they "do it for the love."

·         Record labels are simply getting rich off others' creativity.

Of course, the people making these arguments were usually those busy downloading free music, not the artists themselves. So when I posted my original blog post, I was really pleased to find that I ended up giving a platform for artists to join the debate and make their opinions heard. Many of them posted their comments. Here are a few of them (you can see more of them and the counter arguments summarized here):

As an artist, it’s my choice whether to give my music away or try to force the common public to pay for it. Do I deserve to be forced to? No.

Not everyone fits the profile of an indie band. If every person on the planet wants to work for free, maybe the people in the music biz will join in. In the meantime, everyone needs to buy food, provide shelter, and take care of their families.

Composers and songwriters do not have “add-on services.” They do not have advertising revenue….not everyone fits the newcomer “indie band” model that can sell T-shirts and CDs at their next concert.

Good tunes aside, everyone who wants my stuff for free should also want to pay – UPFRONT – for the cables, gear, time, talent, etc. that went into the music they like.

I mean look, you believe free stuff is the way to go, too…
That’s cool if you pay my bills. When I can afford to be a philanthropist, I will.

Of course, the history of music and all the arts throughout history have depended upon funding as much as creativity. Where would Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci have been without the Medicis? Medieval minstrels without Eleanor of Aquitaine? And, of course, look what happened when the money dried up. Mozart, one of the singularly most talented composers to have ever graced this earth, died impoverished, buried in quicklime in a paupers’ mass grave.

Improvements in technology create more ways for fans to engage with their favourite artists. Artists should be able to feel that this should mean many more new ways for them to make a living as well -- not just more ways for people to take their creativity without them ever getting anything back.

I’ll leave you with an account of the event which brought modern-day copyright into being:

"In 1847, the composer Ernest Bourget visited the Paris Concert Cafe Ambassadeurs in the company of his colleague Victor Parizot. At the time, Bourget was a popular composer of chansons and chansonnettes comiques. Among other pieces, the orchestra played the music of Bourget. When the waiter presented the composer with the bill for the sugared water that he and his colleague had consumed as the fashionable luxury drink of the period, Bourget refused to pay claiming that the orchestra had repeatedly played his music - without paying anything: and so [took the] sugared water in return for playing his piece. The dispute between the composer and the owner was brought before the court. On 8th September 1847, the Tribunal de Commerce de la Seine prohibited the owner from playing works of the composer without his consent. The exclusive right of the author to public performances that had been anchored in the French law of 1791 was thus put into practice for the first time. And on 26th April 1849 the Cour d'Appel de Paris sentenced the owner of Ambassadeurs to pay compensation - i.e. in this case royalties - to Bourget."


Open Day

Mark - as always, a very interesting post and thanks for coming to Open Day.
We weren't suggesting that the root cause of the challenges we face is that people might not like us, but one of the sticks that we are frequently prodded with is that we're not engaged with what music consumers want and that we don't understand the digital space. I don't believe either of those things are true but given that we are not well known for open dialogue, it's hard to complain about that. Open Day was about trying to talk more openly with our partners and media, and working on ways of doing that with music fans too (look at 'clinics' on the website www.umusic.co.uk as an example of a morning we did here recently).

Hi Paul Indeed and my post

Hi Paul

Indeed and my post here wasn't intended to suggest that you were blaming the ills of the record music industry on public perception, rather trying to make the case that many people use the 'blame the labels' stick to justify downloading for free whilst supposedly speaking in the name of artists. When in actual fact artists would quite like to make a living too!


History of payment to artists is irrelevant really

It's time to put this "music always used to be free" meme to rest. People who use the history of arts patronage to support the idea that artists in the 21st century should not be paid are not using history to support their view but are actually being blind to history. The emergence of artists as income-earning individuals rather than beneficiaries of the largess of patrons is linked inextricably with the ongoing evolution of human culture. The patronage model dates back to the Renaissance and survived while economies and societies slowly changed from the collective/feudal setting of the middle ages to the individual/capitalistic setting of the Enlightenment as it led into the industrialized age.

If one wants to argue that we are entirely as a culture going to reject our individual-based socioeconomic reality and head back into a way of being that is pre-individual, then, great, go for it. But it's silly to simply pick out the idea from a bygone age that "artists didn't get paid" and say that's where we're heading, that the last few hundred years were some sort of aberration.

Great article!

Everyone who joins my email list gets an instant link to several free legal music downloads of my compositions that I offer. After that, I try to let my audience know about the many ways they can support me by buying other music that I sell at places like iTunes and Amazonmp3.

I appreciate this article. Great job.


Why I Want to Pay for Music

I want to pay for my music for the same reason I want to pay for my house: I didn't go find a builder who builds houses (on the side) for the love of building houses - I found a builder who does it all the time, every day, because he builds much better houses than anyone who doesn't spend as much time as he spends at it.

I love my home, and even though it's a big chunk of money every month, I think it's worth it. I also love good music, and am happy to pay for it - because I know that generally speaking, the quality wouldn't be as good if I got it for free.

I'm a pro musician and music

I'm a pro musician and music producer. I wake up every day and create. I've spent years building my skills and ability to produce quality music. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


I don't want to blindly agree with everything and seem closed-minded to other opinions, but I feel I can contribute to the conversation.

I moved to Nashville to find a way to make a living using my musical/creative talents. I worry about paying rent every month, because I believe in order for me to do my best work, I need to minimize the work I do outside of music.

I'm not lazy, I grew up on a farm and have worked jobs from construction to waiting tables. I just worry that people don't understand the amount of time and energy needed to see a creative project through from start to finish.

I don't want to be rich or famous, I just want to be able to survive doing what I love, providing enjoyment to those who hear what I produce.

Cheers for Mike Coates

I really like Mike Coates' comment and it says so much.
I know some independent musicians who do 100% music. I haven't yet taken that leap, but I admire those who have. May the evolution of the music industry help support artists fully!



One note: The comparison to Mozart is incorrect as his lifestyle was the source of his money problems.

I was quite careful with my

I was quite careful with my wording regarding Mozart 'when the money ran out'. Yes he squandered his money but it also increasingly dried up as a result of his lifestyle.

Vivaldi is probably a better example. He died in poverty largely because his music was no longer in fashion.

People don't download music

People don't download music for free because they just don’t think content should be paid for. People download music for free because they know they can get it for free without repercussion. If we could steal chicken from the supermarket without getting caught, we'd do it and justify our behavior by claiming that chicken should be free.
And, I just can't buy the "digital vs physical" argument.

The value of creativity in the digital age

Thank you for your great comments and thoughts so far.

One of the underlying dynamics here is that once people get the choice of whether to pay for something or take it for free, they'll invariably opt for free. I remember hearing Feargal Sharky quote a boy from a focus group who had said 'If I could download my Nike I would pay for music'. That quote I think sums up the problem. It is that people don't value music in the emotional sense anymore, in fact it remains hugely valuable emotionally, but the monetary value has diminished.

The only way to change that is by creating new senses of value by creating new products and experiences around the music. One way to achieve this is using the artist-fan relationship. Not in an exploitative sense (such as can be the case with Sellaband sometimes) but in a true demonstration of value, in the way that Pledge Music often get their artists to achieve. If you haven't seen Pledge Music you should take a look, especially if you're an artist: http://www.pledgemusic.com/

The "only way to change"?

I disagree that the "only way to change" is "by creating new senses of value by creating new products and experiences around the music." This is, certainly, one way to change. But not the only way.

Another way to change would involve establishing a sense of value in digital products themselves. All along the piracy advocates have been telling everyone to "get out of the 20th century" and stop thinking anyone's going to pay for anything that's digital. But the piracy folks are themselves the ones stuck in the 20th century-- they're the ones who believe that something has to be a physical object to be worth money. Whereas true 21st-century economics are going to have to incorporate a valuing of digital entities in and of themselves.

I'm not claiming I know how to do this, but it's what must be done. All these other schemes of figuring out how to monetize accessories to the music are inherently flawed. If the thing of value is not itself paid for, the enterprise is a house of cards in the long run.

Artist and new label model perspective

This debate has puzzled me literally since digital distribution began in the early 1990s. Particularly since I am a recording artist and producer of my own commercially released recordings. None of the informed artists I have ever known advocate totally giving their music away for free. The only artists I've seen do this are either from the demographic you mention in your original post (established artists who benefitted from major label branding efforts) or hobbyist musicians who have computer programming jobs as their primary living. Either of these segments are extremes of this paradigm. The majority of us are small business people who realize that recordings are only one of our profit centers and are more realistically tied to our advertising expenses than anything else. The reason you need a record is to document your life's work and to advertise to get work. Records help brand you as an artist. The pimp or drug dealer type of dynamic that most artists today associate with doing business with major labels is historically grounded in the actual career circumstances of too many artists. Recording artists were much like minorities prior to the establishment of civil rights that gave everyone equal access to the opportunities of society. Today, recording artists have economically affordable access to every area of opportunity related to the life cycle of the production business plan. The key is having access - I think that is what most refer to when they say major label corporations don't have a clue. Corporations only exist to make a profit. Therefore if you loan someone your resources to produce a product, it is reasonable to expect to recoup and profit from the undertaking -if that is the deal you made. It is understandable that you don't want folks giving the product that you technically own away for free. Your overhead requires this type of condition. I submit that perhaps the realistic solution would be to consider how music is produced and consumed in our times. People used to tape LPs to cassette when I was a kid. That wasn't right either, but lots of people did it. It didn't devastate the majors then. The free download crowd of our times today is similarly insignificant. Major pirating enterprises are purposeful theft and in effect competing commercial enterprises indeed. However, making issue of this aspect of the industry misses the point of how much the recording industry has improved for all of us -especially the artists and new label models out here. Peace, Cb

Thanks, Mark!

Thanks, Mark. I work with a small roster of indies who struggle financially to keep doing what they love. It should be their call as to what is free and what isn't.

Good article

Good stuff, but the problem as I see it isn't that people are downloading tracks for free with some casual disregard for the lives of the artists. It's that there isn't a valid business model to replace the defunct one that continues to be represented by the major labels and their ilk. People won't mind paying for music in some form as long as it's convenient and painless. It's the dragging of heals by companies such as Universal whose loss of control is the fundamental issue that has prevented the establishment of a new licence regime leading to a fair renumeration system that would benefit all who attempt to make a living by making music. And it's not surprising that they come across as greedy when their representatives in the industry trade bodies such as the BPI lobby hard for misguided and punitive laws such as 3 strikes and out.