A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto (part two)

Yesterday I posted the first half of this essay, which is the latest Fingertips Commentary on the main site (where it comes complete with a few footnotes). We pick up here where we left off, literally: I’m repeating the last paragraph, for context.

* * *

So: let every album have one free and legal MP3. Other songs must be purchased; the album, if desired, must be purchased as well. If this were the industry standard, if every album had one free and legal MP3, the industry would be in better shape, and the path for future growth clearer.

Here are five reasons why:

1) Free and legal MP3s do not equal lost revenue.

Let’s begin by shredding once and for all the fantasy that every free and legal MP3 downloaded equals money the record companies aren’t receiving. That’s a patently false, self-serving assumption.

To begin with, when you offer a free and legal MP3, you invite many many experimenters, people who grab it because it’s free but would never have bought it if it weren’t free–who often would have no idea it even existed if it weren’t free. There’s no lost revenue in that at all. This would be like saying it was lost revenue every time someone heard a song on the radio but didn’t go out and buy it.

Okay, and then what? Well, they listen and decide if they like it. If they don’t, then these people would not have bought the song anyway. Again: this is not lost revenue.

If the downloader likes the song, then we get to the all-important fork in the road: he or she can then buy another song from the album (or maybe even the whole thing), or still not buy anything further. In the first case, you’ve created revenue, so, okay, phew. But then there’s that troubling second case to deal with, and this is probably one that has the labels fretting: “You mean they downloaded the song for free, they liked it, and they still aren’t giving us any money?”

Well, yeah, maybe. But it is shortsighted to see this as simply lost revenue. What you generate here instead are two important things: customer goodwill (hey! they keep giving me a free song! and they’re sometimes really good!) and technologically effective promotion. Look: this “free song” will pop up in the listener’s iPod, will make it onto playlists, will generate awareness of the artist in question. Over time, there’s still significant sales potential, especially in this day of fostering community between artists and listeners. Record companies must begin to understand the promotional value of this exposure, which leads us to point number two:

2) Free and legal MP3s are the single most valuable way to promote artists to music fans in a post-radio age.

Let’s return to the plight of our magnanimous Nonesuch friend (see yesterday’s post). So, yay, he protected every single song on a worthwhile but off-the-beaten-path album. I have to wonder: are copies of the Sam Phillips album therefore flying off the shelf? Do people think, “Well, crap, since I can’t have any free songs I better buy the whole album?” Not in 2009 they don’t think this.

The easiest and most effective way to promote an album, especially an album that is not in any case destined for million-seller (or even 100,000-seller) status, is by making a free and legal MP3 readily available. Give people a song to have, to listen to in the context of their preferred music-listening environment. Let it spread around the internet, friend to friend, blog to blog.

I find it ironic that record labels that are squeamish about letting loose free and legal MP3s had no problem for decades handing out free physical copies of their records to radio stations. Oh, well, one might say, that’s an entirely different thing. There were huge audiences at stake. Giving a free record to a big-city radio station could result in millions of dollars of sales.

True enough, at the very top end of the music market, commercially speaking. But these same record labels also had no trouble shipping copies of many albums destined for obscurity (where’s the return on that?), and no trouble shipping albums to some pretty tiny radio stations, including all those college stations with audiences that number in the dozens at any given time.

Truth be told, radio has pretty much disintegrated for the majority of recording artists. Hardly anyone gets on the radio. (Sam Phillips certainly doesn’t get on the radio, outside of a coterie of “adult alternative” stations.) And it doesn’t matter because nowadays, people’s computers and people’s iPods are, effectively, their radios. That’s where they listen to music, both old and new. And the only way record companies can get on these “stations” is–how?

You got it: by giving people a free and legal MP3 to download and play–to, essentially, “program” on their own personal station. Because, yes, in order to listen on computers or MP3 players most easily and comfortably you have to give people the song, not expect them to sit there trapped in their browser listening to a stream, or trapped on a particular web site where music is free if you watch the ads, and not sitting in front of a screen watching a video. (Am I the only one left who realizes that a video is not a song? Just curious.)

And guess what? Delivering a free and legal MP3 to all of them costs a lot less than printing CDs and shipping them out for free to hundreds of radio stations around the country. Never mind lost revenue, what about all the expense involved with that entrenched promotional technique for all those years? To the extent that it “paid off” when a handful of records hit the big-time, fine–that was then. For the music industry to move forward in the 21st century, it has to relinquish that pray-for-a-blockbuster mentality, and the marketing techniques that went along with it.

Give people one song, make it easy to download and use anywhere they want. That’s how you get your records played on these individual “radio stations.” They usually have just one listener each, but there are millions of them across the country.

3) One free and legal MP3 per album makes for easier and less confrontational policing.

For starters, if there is automatically going to be one free and legal MP3 from every album, right away you’ll have fewer bloggers posting illegally distributed tracks. I’m guessing many will be happy to stick with the legal one, particularly if approached reasonably; right now, for far too many albums, and for pretty much every major-label album, they don’t even have this choice.

Second, when labels set about policing things online, they can use an approach which is kinder and gentler and thus much more likely to move future music-sharing behavior in a more legally-oriented direction. “The track you have been sharing is not legally available for free online distribution,” the email can state. “However, were you aware that the song ‘Free and Legal,’ from the same album, is in fact available for free online distribution? Here’s the link.”

Or whatever. The point is, with one sanctioned free and legal song from every album, the record industry will finally be closer to being on the same page as 21st-century music fans. Record labels will effectively be entering their world rather than creating phony and pointless and old-fashioned barricades.

This strikes me as a more important issue than anyone seems to bother to realize. Thanks in large part to its well-known campaign to sue people who were illegally downloading their songs, the major record companies spent the better part of the current decade in open conflict with their own customers and potential customers. As a believer from the outset in free and legal MP3s, I obviously have no sympathy for those who have chosen to download a lot of music illegally, but I also have no patience for record companies who choose only to see that behavior as reprehensible rather than try to understand the context and work to find a middle ground.

After all, the record companies, from the outset, could have combatted illegal downloading with this idea: “Hey! Do legal free downloading instead!” But they chose instead to see this as a war and to see their customers and potential customers as enemies. Not real smart in the long run.

I would also, by the way, have no sympathy with bloggers who, in a world in which there is a free and legal MP3 available from each album, would continue to post songs that are not freely and legally distributed. Bloggers are perfectly entitled to tell the world what songs they like; they are not entitled to decide on their own what songs to make available for public consumption. This is a freedom that many presumed to take from the outset, but this freedom continues to have no basis in fairness or legality.

4) If you have to give away one good song this means you must, in theory, put out albums with more than one good song on them.

Needless to say, this would be another excellent outreach strategy for a bedraggled industry.

Although I can offer no direct evidence of this theory, I am pretty sure that there exists in the music industry an additional resistance to free and legal MP3s that has to do with the suspicion that if a music listener gets one good song for free, they won’t buy the rest of the album. (After all, why else would Mr. Nonesuch be so resistant to releasing one Sam Phillips song?) To the extent that this is true, I’d say that music listeners have been well-trained over the years by their experience with albums that have only one good song on them in the first place.

As long as giving away one good free and legal MP3 from an album is the equivalent of giving away the store, as it were–because it is in fact the only good song–then, yes, this is a legitimate concern. There is one pretty straightforward solution to this, however: make sure the albums you’re releasing are actually good. The days of fooling people into buying a whole album based on hearing one good song really have to be over if the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto is to be effective. Surely we don’t need so many albums anyway, as fewer people appear to be interested in buying them in the first place.

Note that this does not mean there will be no more albums. Can we finally agree to put an end to this black-and-white, all-or-nothing, sound-bite-oriented world view? If albums are going through a less-popular phase this hardly warrants the idea that no one wants to record them or listen to them henceforth and forevermore.

5) The music industry herein has a newborn opportunity to affirm the value of what it is selling.

Okay, so stick with me here, because I know that lots of people still think that handing out free digital music undermines the idea that music has value. To begin with, songs have become mere files, and files are eminently and endlessly copyable and distributable; add to that free distribution and where’s the value? Where’s the possibility that people will pay for it?

And the record companies themselves have gotten so spun around and bamboozled by the fledgling century’s digital realities that here they are, after years of complaining that giving away free music compromises the idea that music has value, lining up to experiment with the idea of giving unlimited access to music on streaming sites via a minor or bundled fee–something, ideally, that the end user won’t even notice or realize he or she is paying.

Talk about devaluing music! Treating music as a utility, like electricity or water, inherently devalues the artistry and effort of any individual artist, the subjective worth of any given song. But the industry seriously considers this idea now because, well, it’s desperate, like an addict whose supply has pretty much run out. It’ll try anything to get its mojo back.

Returning to the spirit of the Inaugural Address, I’d like to suggest that the industry seek not the pipedream fix but seek instead the true opportunity in this long-standing crisis brought on by digital distribution. What that opportunity may be is nothing less than the full embrace of what it has to offer us.

I mean, think of it: here are companies selling one of humankind’s most profound creations: song! Often grouped into album! And for decades upon decades now, these same companies have largely sought to treat their products as just that–mere products. (Or, in true industry parlance, the singular: “product.”) But these aren’t screwdrivers and frozen pizzas that are being sold. This is music. The word itself has magic in it. When something is music to your ears, it’s wonderful, delightful, perfect. When you have to face the music, you’re dealing with something significant, serious, not to be ignored.

I know that many many musicians have been waiting, without hope or encouragement, for record companies to understand the inherently special nature of their offerings, waiting for the suits and the bean counters to take into account the personal, aesthetic, subjective, and artistic aspects of their so-called products, not just in terms of projecting sales but in terms of how they do business from the ground up.

And now: here’s their chance. Not by forcing value upon us (e.g. suing from an aggrieved position) but by proactively asserting that their products do indeed have value. Invaluable value.

And they can do this, paradoxically, by first offering us a gift. Never mind the promotional merit (which, as discussed, is real and significant)–how about simply seeing the mandatory free and legal MP3 each album must offer, according to the Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto, as just that?: a gift. The record companies and artists will give this gift to music fans, now, because the technology has long since arrived to make it possible, because it’s a valiant way to break into our fragmented, overconnected lives, because they so value what they produce that they want, first, to share it with us.

Because: when they hand out a yummy free sample of something earthy and organic at Whole Foods, do you think, “Well, gee, this must be worthless if they’re willing to give it away?” Or, “Hey, this must be pretty good or they wouldn’t be giving out tastes?”

The music industry has completely blown it so far, but here at the outset of what clearly is a brand new day I’m thinking maybe it’s not too late. And we, the music fans, can assume our responsibility in the matter as well. We can receive this gift with newfound appreciation. And with our appreciation we can likewise offer our hard-earned dollars when we hear something that moves us, that lifts our spirits, that assures us that it was created out of hope and inspiration and artistry.

And yeah I know not every piece of music is created in this manner. And I know this whole issue is complicated by convoluted circumstances and thorny issues. But I have a dream. And now I have a Manifesto. Change, as we have seen, may begin with just such things.

One thought on “A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto (part two)”

  1. Very thought provoking and well put together manifesto Jeremy. Considering that every song put on the radio for decades has been a “free and legal promotion” (esp since tape recorders became affordable) you raise an excellent point regarding your proposal being a VERY cheap alternative to both the old and the new way (giving out vinyl / kicking and screaming). I still believe they’re also going to have to get used to the fact that due to connectivity and home studios the pool of talent has mushroomed over the past decade. In “product” terms that equals mushroomed supply pitted against the standard ‘per capita’ consumer growth rate. However I am a huge believer that were large record companies to flex their huge muscles tactfully they could make a killing by reaching out and shaking hands with a far more massive artist base and a certainly larger customer base. That is to say, they are viewing the whole thing with the primal ‘territorial’ brain — not 21st century reason — these times are an opportunity for them, and it’s an opportunity that, along with feeding their pockets (and their clientele as well I should hope), could serve as a breeding ground of higher art as a nice side-effect. And all they have to do is swap the phrase “free and legal mp3” with “promotional product” to help them sleep better at night. Keep up the good work, thought, promotion and music. -Frank (Touring the Indies)


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