Free Music: progress and prospects

It has been over a year since I proposed the Free Music Philosophy (FMP) on the www [1]. Having done that, I proceeded to free my music as outlined in the FMP and I released a seventy minute album (in compact disc, cassette tape, and digital audio tape formats) about six months ago. I loan people copies of my album so they can copy it and give it to their friends. I have put up full-length MPEG2-encoded hi-fi versions of my songs (all seventy minutes of it) up on my band page [2]. And in the first two years I've sold more than 3000 copies of my album to people all over the world (I recently had to repress since there is still demand), a lot of it due to the distribution achieved by freeing my music.

I have, in the course of a year, received a lot of criticism, and support, for my idea. I have found that there are a great number of bands who follow similar ideas, even if they've not explicitly expressed it like I have. Some artists endorse a "copy and give to a friend" policy. Many artists that I've spoken to in the last few months, even those on major labels who don't own the rights to the music they've created, endorse this sort of a policy. Some others say "be our distributor" and encourage the copying and selling (even for a profit) of media containing the artists' works. I have received more than a hundred e-mail messages from bands stating that they endorse my philosophy. I have received about as many from bands who are angry that my idea will deprive them of income. In this article, I'll try to address some of the criticisms I've received and detail some of my experiences and progress with the FMP with regards to my own music.

The Free Music idea is unoriginal.

I never claimed it was. I do believe this is the first time anyone's written up a document detailing the ethical, economic, and practical basis for freeing music, but as I say above, artists have been doing this in one form or another for years. I think it is important to realise now, more than ever, that other models of generating revenue are necessary if creators are supposed to survive. I think as we head into the digital age, intellectual property law, which never really served the interests of creators anyway, is going to be inadequate.

Even though it sounds good, it won't work in the real world, and the musicians are going to end up starving.

My original response to this was that you have little to lose. With the current system, very few musicians make a living from sales of records. So any other system can't be much worse, for all musicians. In the July 1996 special issue of Guitar World [3] which focused on the music business, a calculation made there showed that after selling 500,000 copies of an album, the four performers each ended up with $19,725 each. [An article in The New York Times on August 3, 2002 also presents the fact that about 500,000 copies need to be sold for a record to break even, and in any given year, only 1-2% of all records distributed by major labels (around 6000) achieve this standard.] Most musicians don't even come close to selling 500,000 copies, so in the grand scheme of things, you don't stand to lose much, and have everything to gain---freeing music might increase your exposure in an exponential manner, thus allowing for more sales of your album.

But my current reply to someone saying "it won't work" is to say: "but it has, for me at least." I finally can say this with some degree of assurance. Selling 3000 copies isn't that great---Alanis Morisette sells thrice as much a day (or used to), but given that I have spent nothing on PR, and given that all of this has been accomplished by promoting the music purely over the Internet, I do think this is pretty good. So, the result is that I've sold many hard copies of my music, which is pretty good for a Do-it-Yourself artist, and I've stayed true to my ethics of not being possessive about my music, and my ethics have helped my sales. What more could one ask for?

Well, it might just be that you have publicised your music well, and therefore attract people. What does Freeing Music have to do with it?

It's true that I have taken every possible step that my ethics will allow to market my music [4]. My goal is for my music to reach as many ears as possible. I consider this goal to be an ethical obligation. But it's clear that the key to success (whether it be recognition among peers, fame, or money) in music is distribution, and freeing your music is a powerful tool to achieving greater distribution. For example, my album can be purchased at local stores, yet the sales there haven't been as high as from people who've written me saying they copied the album, liked it, and want their own copy (as a compact disc, say). While I impose no commercial limitation on my copying, some people have sold tapes of mine and sent me a percentage of what they sold it for. It's clear that the success I've had is from the result of many different marketing schemes, but I feel the FMP has played a pivotal role. In any event, it definitely hasn't hurt me in the slightest.

You say that you've freed your music commercial purposes also. Does this mean you can't receive payment for the use of your music?

In my case, I do encourage commercial use without requiring compensation. But there's nothing in the Free Music Philosophy, or in this article, that says payment cannot be made. Payment should not be required at the cost of abridging the freedom of copying, modifying, and distribution.

I'm confused. On one hand, the Free Music Philosophy talks about freeing music for non-commercial uses. On the other hand, you claim to free music for commercial purposes also. Do both qualify as free music?

Yes. Even though we strictly define the word "free" to refer to freedom, and not zero price, there exist many degrees of freedom with regards to use of information. In my mind, I classify the various degrees in this manner, listed in the order of decreasing freedoms:

  1. Public domain
  2. GNU copyleft
  3. Free Music Philosophy
  4. Copyright

    A public domain work offers complete freedom to the person who comes upon it; you can even claim to be the author of a public domain even if you are not. The GNU copyleft attempts to subvert the copyright system and ensure a copyright-free world by using copyleft to prevent anyone from hoarding information. The GNU copyleft allows commercial use of a copylefted work provided the resulting commerical work is also covered under the term of the copyleft. The Free Music Philosophy, which is a reduced copyleft, essentially limits copyleft to non-commercial uses. The reason this is done is because it is not as important (compared to software) that music be freely copiable for commercial uses. Therefore, what the Free Music Philosophy does is set a bottom-line on what Free Music means. Thus to free music, you must free it at least for non-commercial purposes. But there is nothing preventing you from giving up more of the copyrights "granted" under law, thereby enabling a greater degree of freedom to those who use your works. I personally consider all my works to be in the equivalent of the public domain.

    What you've said so far is well and good, but it has advantages only to performing songwriters. What about the non-performing songwriter?

    As in the music industry, you stand to gain the most under any marketing scheme if you're both the performer and the songwriter. But even if you're a non-performing songwriter, my experiences show that sales of records containing your music will not be affected. Even if your experiences should turn out to be different, according to American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) [5], "[t]heir members earn most of their money from public performance royalties, not record sales. Only about two cents of every $1 in record sales flows to the composer." Since the issue is one of freedom, you will be able to collect most performance royalties and any compulsory mechanical royalties. While I personally allow commercial copying without requiring payment, I believe that if you profit from someone else's creativity, the ethically right thing to do is to share your profits.

    Are there a lot of bands participating?

    Yes, as I've said, I've received several e-mail messages from bands saying they will incorporate this philosophy into theirs. Everyone once in a while, I run across a www band page that endorses the FMP [6]. Also, many of the bands I've interviewed support people making tapes of their shows, and making tapes for friends. Over time, I presume this will only increase. But the FMP is not a club or an organisation which you "participate" in. It's an idea which I encourage you to follow if it appeals to you, but for me, it's a marketing plan that is in line with my ethics, and that's why I wrote it. If it helps you, great. But it is not a pancea for all the ills in the music industry.

    Where does one acquire the hundreds of megabytes of space required to store the sound files online?

    Downloading CD/DAT quality soundfiles is beyond the reach of present technology. However, many compression and conversion utilities exist (a significant number of them are freeware) that reduce the space needed to store soundfiles, at the expense of some quality. Even with this compression, the files can take up large amounts of space: for example, my seventy minute CD in MPEG-1 layer 2 format takes about 100 MB (there's a better format, MPEG-1 layer 3, that may well replace MPEG-1 layer 2 in time [6]). There are currently many locations on the www that will showcase your sound without charging you for it, and there are many others that will offer you free www pages with a bit of space, so you can store at least one song. I have begun a small attempt at cataloguing sites that will store your music without charging you for it [7].

    It just should be kept in mind that these are all practial justifications for something that's already been ethically validated. That is, Freeing your Music, according to me, and many others, is the right thing to do---no ifs, buts, and wherases about it. This document is to show that by doing so, you don't end up a starving musician, contrary to what some critics might claim.


    The Free Music Philosophy.
    TWISTED HELICES band page.
    3. Guitar World, July 1996, p51.
    Special report on the music industry.
    DiY Guide (see the Marketing section).
    Reaction to the Lehman panel report about Copyrights in the Digital Age.
    List of sites where you can free your music and which support some notion of Free Music.

    Free Music || Ram Samudrala ||