The Pros and Cons of Free
Digitisation of music, combined with the internet, has wrested control of distribution from the rights holders - traditionally the record labels and music publishers. The truth is that music has always been susceptible to copying and sharing; the internet has made it so easy that music, as soon as it has been digitized, is effectively free. When you obtain it illegally it often comes with spyware and other nasty files but it is still free. And this hasn't only affected major labels. One recent victim of pre-release sharing, the band Future of the Left, wrote an impassioned piece on April 28th about their loss of control of their music including the line: "Some of us...just want to make the music we love and play it around the world without living in poverty".
And I guess that's the point. The fact that music is free is no longer a technological or legally enforceable issue; it is a social and moral issue and it is affecting all the artists in the world not just the rich and the rights holders of the past. It's affecting how artists are rewarded.
But the loss of control, and possibly income, from recorded music is not all bad. It also creates huge opportunities for artists to connect directly with fans. From that direct connection comes trust, respect and ultimately faith that the artist and fan are in a relationship and each has responsibilities to the other. The artist has a responsibility to deliver to fans music in whatever form that the fan wants; this includes, for instance, not asking the fan to re-purchase music they already have to get new tracks on say a Greatest Hits album. The fan has the responsibility to recognize that artistry and effort need reward. That reward could be the purchase of a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a better quality music file, a CD with either special or normal packaging or whatever. And fans will do that if they feel connected.
This process is in evolution and it is not without problems. The oft quoted solution that artists make money playing live holds little water. Many acts make little money playing live until they start playing to hundreds or thousands of people. Yes the superstars make a lot but they really are the few. And just because you make great music as an artist does not mean you have to stand on a stage and reproduce it. That's the choice of the artist. Surely Kate Bush, who hasn't played live for 30 years, should still be rewarded for making great music whether she plays live or not?
These new models are working for artists big and small. They can be tough to operate and artists and their teams need new skills and hard work to make them function. But they will work.