Sunday, March 23, 2008

Free, not free.

I read an interesting article this week by Paul Resnikoff from Digital Music News where he discusses the best kept secrets of viral distribution. He notes the growing acceptance by artists that having an enthusiastic core group of fans can enable their music to reach much bigger audiences simply through personal recommendations. Viral marketing can be used in conjunction with a range of business models. One type of business model along these lines is called ‘1,000 True Fans’, developed by Kevin Kelly which considers how a relatively small group of dedicated fans can financially support an artist.

In discussing how artists can use low cost promotion and self distribution to become successful Resnikoff highlights an important point when he quotes Jeff Semones, president of M80:

"The quality of the music has to be there... You can expose a ton of people to a piece of crap, but it's still a piece of crap."

Regardless of the business model in place for artists, listeners must recognise a level of quality and identify with the music in someway to be successful. While what is considered 'quality' can differ from listener to listener, it is reasonable to suggest that the regulatory models in place (law, architecture, commerce and norms) can produce environments that are more or less conducive to quality.

Having an open market where artists compete on an even playing field is one example. In the current environment where the major labels pick and choose which artists will be promoted over others and where their business model depends on a high level of success to break even, there is arguably less opportunity for quality and much more emphasis on mass popularity.

Another important aspect to producing quality music is the remuneration of artists. While the True Fans concept can help to free artists from the constraints of major labels in terms of the content of their music, like so many of the models promoted as alternatives, it fails to provide the level of financial certainty for artists that is really needed. Just like the NineInchNails and RadioHead experiments recently, these models appear to work well in isolated circumstances but problems are foreseeable if a significant sector of the industry were to attempt to engage them. Fans may be true in the short term but I question how many times this would happen and whether it would be sustainable as a long term, industry wide solution.

While it is fair to say that the production and distribution costs of music have dropped dramatically, one of the benefits yet to be truly realised is the fair remuneration of a wider sector of artists. At present, although perhaps not quite to the same extent as in the past, there remains a handful of artists recouping large amounts of money from the music industry with the vast majority seeing little or no money at all for their efforts. Most established artists are well aware of the pitfalls of large advances but new artists remain susceptible. Like any industry interested in attracting the best possible participants, the music industry needs to adapt to the digital environment to ensure that the quality of music is not only retained but improved on from here.

The purpose of copyright law has always been to promote progress (to use the USA terms but equally applicable across copyright regimes). The term progress in itself connotes a movement or change that is better from the present. So the law seeks to promote progress by providing incentives. In the digital environment however, resources are no longer artificially scarce which changes the equation altogether. Instead of recouping funds by limiting access, a new model is required which recoups funds by maximising access. A collective licensing scheme, in taking advantage of low cost distribution and viral marketing, is the most obvious vehicle for providing a basis of financial incentives for artists in this environment. In suggesting it to be merely a basis, I recognise the ability for the income of artists to be supplemented by other things such as CD sales, merchandising, concerts etc. I also believe that it could be developed in a form that whilst not remunerating every single creation for an extended period of time, would enable a broader and more equal distribution of money to artists.

The trick with art is of course, unlike mass produced commodities (yes there is a difference), that some musical works can be produced in very short periods of time but others can take a lot longer with many variations and drafts before the final work is realised. Many attempts may not succeed at all, with few that do on a very large scale; just as there are those songs that have a long life and those that fade quickly from our memories. This is particularly the case for music with a social utility beyond emotions or dancing. Where there is a more complex purpose, the lyrical and musical content can take longer to develop. To produce progress in society, we must encourage the production of this music by providing an environment where artists willing to take up the challenge have a reasonable opportunity to support themselves from their creations. As I have stated before I believe that emotive and dance music will survive in any environment but music with a more complex purpose can only survive and for that matter, thrive, in certain environments.

As the open source software movement years ago adopted the notion of ‘free not free’ so too must society and industry with respect to music. This phrase refers to freedom of things like movement and speech, but not free as in no cost. At the moment file sharers take advantage of the freeness of the architecture without paying for the privilege, or at least not in a direct or sustainable way. At the same time the music industry seeks to prevent the freedom of music and demand unreasonable amounts of money for what they consider to be worthy of our attention. Neither of these approaches have the ability to produce wide spread and long term quality and therefore progress. The very best model to achieve this is clearly that of collective licensing.


Digital Music News, The Best Kept Secrets Behind Viral Distribution... (20 March 2008) <> at 23 March 2008

The Technium, 1,000 True Fans (4 March 2008) <> at 23 March 2008

TorrentFreak, MTV Uses P2P Data for Playlist Selection (14 March 2008) <> at 18 March 2008

Digital Music News, Songkick Starts Measuring Band Popularity Online (17 March 2008) <> at 18 March 2008

Digital Music News, Does Chatter Matter? University Researchers Say Yes (12 February 2008) <> at 19 February 2008

TechDirt, Another Musician Who Recognizes The Concept Of True Fans (18 March 2008) <> at 22 March 2008

TechDirt, Does The Math On 1,000 True Fans Add Up? (14 March 2008) <> at 18 March 2008

TechDirt, The Path To Success As A Content Creator: Building Up Your True Fans (5 March 2008) <> at 7 March 2008

Digital Media Wire, Music Community Slicethepie Releasing First Fan-Financed Album (6 March 2008) <> at 18 March 2008

Digital Music News, Fan-Funded Space Starts to Grow, Slicethepie Rumbles (28 February 2008) <> at 29 February 2008

Wired, Jill Sobule Goes to Fans for Album Financing (5 March 2008) <> at 6 March 2008

TechDirt, What Kind Of Progress Are We Promoting? (13 March 2008)
<> at 18 March 2008

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