(Over on Facebook, I got into discussion my friend David Goo, an excellent musician and songwriter, over SOPA and the piracy issue. After he posted to the effect that pointed out that if he had received 50p for each of the 30,000 downloads of one of his songs, he’d be able to make a whole new album, my response got a bit long, so I thought I’d reproduce it here.)
David, I too am a copyright owner and content creator, and I too have had my music downloaded thousands of times over the last few years. That doesn’t make me angry at all. It makes me happy. Very very dancing off the walls happy.
So happy, in fact, that my response is to accept it, to work with it, and to deliberately make my music available for free download via Bandcamp over on music.conniptions.org together with an option to pay. This model is working pretty well for me, and here’s why.
First, some basic economics. When the marginal cost of reproducing a thing drops to zero, the intrinsic value of the thing also drops to zero. Period.
Recording “Wayne’s Awesome Song” might have cost me years of blood and sweat and broken strings and sleepless nights and studio time and arguments with myself and musicians about arrangements and production and all of that malarkey, but in the end, none of that changes the fact that the file WaynesAwesomeSong.mp3 is now just a string of bits that can be reproduced at no cost and its intrinsic value is £0.
Everything is now both digital and networked. There is no more scarcity of digital media. There is no technological solution this without breaking the network, and it’s not at all clear that that’s even possible. Before the internet, yes, you needed a physical copy. Taking one was stealing. Now you don’t. If you have a copy of my latest album it costs you nothing to make a copy for a friend. That’s not stealing. At worst that’s copyright infringement, but actually, I don’t see it as a bad thing at all.
In fact, if you do have my latest album, let me urge now you to make a copy for a friend, preferably one who might like it. Seriously. Do it.
What the hell am I saying? Have I lost my tiny mind? Do I want to die starving and penniless?
No. I’m very clear about why I’m doing it this way and why it works. It’s like this:
If you’ve never heard of me or my music (that goes for pretty much all of you), and you download WaynesAwesomeSong.mp3 on spec, one of two things will happen. Either you love it or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s fair enough. Not everyone loves my music. You wouldn’t have bought it anyway, and I have lost nothing.
But you might love it.
Now everything changes. You’re in love with WaynesAwesomeSong.mp3, you think it’s fucking great, and you’re really excited to discover that I’ve got a website containing not just WaynesOtherAwesomeSong.mp3 but - oh my god - WaynesGreatAlbum. You can still download all of that for free if you want, but you’ll have to type in £0 in order to do so. Chances are - you’re an honest character - you find yourself paying £5 or £10 for the ‘free’ download.
Why? Because now there is value to you. The intrinsic value of the bits are still £0, but it’s not just any mp3 we’e talking about here, it’s one of Wayne’s. You have a relationship with my music now and you’re prepared to pay for it. (You’re not an honest character? Fine. Then you wouldn’t have bought it anyway and I’ve still lost nothing. Oh, and screw you, dishonest character.)
This happens on my Bandcamp site all the time. Payment is optional, and loads of people choose to pay. They’re the ones who actually like my music and want to support me to make sure I make more of it. The others? They’re downloading on spec. They don’t know me from Adam and if they had to pay, they wouldn’t bother.
Those free downloads aren’t lost sales and they cost me nothing. Some of those downloads will lead to sales in the future - the ones who actually like it. Others don’t. I guess they just weren’t that into me. But I don’t care because it didn’t cost me anything.
It’s a great time to be a musician. We have more access to more music and more recording facilities and more distribution channels than at any time in history. There’s also rather a lot of us. That’s ok, because there’s even more music fans than ever before, and they’re out looking for the stuff they love. There’s a lot to sift through, and that’s why they’re downloading things for free, on spec.
Bluntly, if people aren’t downloading your music for free, you’ve got a problem, and your problem is that the music isn’t good enough. Go practice. (David, you do not have this problem.)
Now, my Pay-What-You-Want model doesn’t work for everyone. I’m hearing from musicians who have grown their listenerships from the hundreds to the thousands and the tens of thousands that at a certain point you do want to charge for downloads again. Those people still stream everything for free, though, and they make damn sure that if Blogger A likes their new album, Blogger A can stream it from their own blog. This leads to new listeners and new sales.
I’m saying all this out of love, David, because I love you and your music and I want you to thrive. Unauthorised downloads are now a fact of life, like death and taxes. It seems pretty clear to me that unless you embrace this fact and work with it, you’ll be in trouble.
In the old music industry, everything was based on scarcity. Studio time was scarce, vinyl was scarce, music magazines were scarce, radio - decent radio - was scarce. A very few people made an awful lot of money, but - it’s not hard to find the stories - most of the musicians and content creators made fuck all. That old industry is basically dead now, though the zombie-like corpses are still bumbling around walking into things and trying to break stuff.
In the new industry everything is available. Too much, even. Tiny one woman music blogs with a readership of less than 500 have a backlog of new albums to review going back a year. If you make your album artificially scarce by refusing to let people even stream it, they’ll just go ‘meh’, and move on to the next thing. If it’s one click away from an email, they’ll have a listen. They’ll write about it. They’ll stream it on the blog. People will discover your music who never heard it before.
It’s all about discovery. That’s the bottom line about free downloads - you lose nothing but you gain listeners In a world with ten thousand bands in every town, the question is not ‘how can I get every single bugger who downloads my music to pay.’ The question is - how can I get them to download my music at all.
And the answer is - by letting them.