To Charge or Not To Charge

Jake points me to Derek Webb’s “Giving It Away,” on how free-ish music makes good economic sense for Webb.  (I say free-ish, because Webb asks for your email address, and that of a few of your friends.)  In contrast, Ian McKaye (Fugazi) was interviewed on Pitchfork this week, talking about his band’s new live archive and why they’re recommending listeners pay $5 per show downloaded.

I buy the reasoning each artist makes for his own choice.  I’m wary of Webb’s implication – he doesn’t say it, but I read it between the lines (I could be wrong!) – that his choice is best for all, or the vast majority, of musicians.  He has a lot going for him: he’s using his own model with some success, he’s built the infrastructure for others to use it too (Noisetrade), and makes good points.

However, in his zeal for giving music away (not a bad thing!), I think the real point of both artists is lost; the relationships among artists, their recordings, listeners, listeners’ contact information, and money, have been completely shaken by the web, and the prevailing assumptions that have held since the invention of the phonograph are no longer valid.  Each artist now has to negotiate this terrain in a way that works for them and their listeners, and they’re going to do it differently.  Some will trade money for recordings, some will trade information, and some will just put out music and not worry about it, because they’re not trying to be middle-class musicians (in Webb’s terms).

As I think about MFR’s future, I’m looking much harder at Bandcamp than Noisetrade, based on The Sleepover’s experience, my own willingness to gladly pay a few dollars for an album download, and an idea I have for downloads that I haven’t seen done before.  (Not sure if Bandcamp will support it tech-wise.)

It will be interesting to see if one major “filter” emerges for digital music.  Mobile phone apps might be an indicator here; that field is dominated by the Apple app store and Droid marketplace, along with a healthy underground of other alternatives.  That hasn’t emerged in music yet.  The iTunes store just isn’t that ubiquitous, Amazon does some mp3 business (which I prefer; no DRM), Bandcamp is pretty indie/DIY, Spotify is slowly emerging in the US, but none of them have the market share of the two big app distribution sources.  There’s also piracy to contend with.

There might even be an opportunity here for an info-savvy entrepreneur to develop a meta-filter of sorts, combining streaming and purchasing data from all of these sources into a resource that does the job the Billboard charts used to do.  What we’re after is a bottom-up way to find the best music, which is what radio and the sales charts used to do in more of a top-down manner (the charts being largely based on what was playing on the radio).  The meta-filter might simply provide information and links to streaming/purchasing sources, or it might become a service or store of its own, perhaps even becoming the dominant filter in music; the New Radio.  With the web, there will always be healthy underground, out-of-the-mainstream activity (I hope!), but the curator in me would like to see, and be a part of, something that starts to tie back together the music scene that the web has fractured in a way that’s good for all involved.