I’m always a bit confused about why the issue of how musicians make their living is almost always laid at the feet of those who download music without paying. David Lowery has a post over at the Trichordist in reference to a blog posted by Emily White, an intern at NPR about her lack of desire to pay for music albums. He claims that the issue is laid at the feet of downloaders because we shouldn’t be changing our morality, as a culture, to make room for technology, that it should be the other way around. But hasn’t this always been the case? When the printing press was invented, didn’t we adapt our lives to the changes it created? We didn’t say, “We must find a way to fit the printing press into our lives in a way that doesn’t harm scribes.”

This also isn’t just any technology, it’s technology that makes the flow of information and culture infinitely more efficient. The changes technology has created for not only music distribution but also for production have created an atmosphere where it’s almost impossible, for me at least, to justify paying any money at all for access to recorded music. A professional quality album can now be recorded with home recording equipment that’s available even to those who make as little as $20k a year as an entry level job (I know because I own equipment that can do just that). Distribution, through torrents, carries no personal overhead. The artist can literally send their music to the entire world without even owning a web site. Even promotion can arguably be done by the musicians themselves via the internet at no cost other than their time. And that’s really the only thing we’re compensating here if we’re to buy recorded music: the artist’s time. And while it’s nice to have all day every day to create music, an argument can even be made that plenty of people make great albums in their free time while working regular jobs without issue.

If musicians want people to pay for their recorded music, they need to make an argument that they simply deserve it, just because. I think that’s a crappy way to go about this, though. For all intents and purposes, musicians might as well be trying to sell air when they ask people to pay for an MP3. Instead of trying to build a business model around selling air, why not find creative ways to adjust to reality? If we can get over this idea that we need to keep scribes employed and so shouldn’t take full advantage of the possibilities of the printing press, then a new business model that takes this reality into consideration is the only option.

I admit, I don’t have a foolproof model but I can think of starting points. For instance, I had a roommate who was a jazz drummer who made his living through music. He had done some recordings as a session player but I’m pretty sure he didn’t receive royalties as they were small undertakings and he was only out of Berklee maybe two years. What he did was play shows. He didn’t go on tour because, as mentioned in Lowery’s post, touring doesn’t generate income. That doesn’t mean that playing shows doesn’t generate income. Why has touring not been reconsidered in this fashion? Maybe fans will have to come to the artists they love instead of the artists coming to them. Or, maybe video streaming technology, also accessible to bands for free, can at least be a compromise for remote fans.

Maybe tours can even be done still but instead of being something that a band jumps into with their full investment, not knowing what they’ll get back from it, they go the Kickstarter route. Lowery already, rightfully, has said that this isn’t necessarily a way to make a living as a musician but that’s coming from the angle of using Kickstarter to pay for recording expenses. Of course that’s not reliable because little-known musicians can’t expect to reach a goal that would pay all their living expenses for a year or however long they need to finish their project. BUT, tours are a different thing. If the money were raised first, a band would know exactly what they’re getting into. They could use what they receive to pay for their touring expenses (so it would determine how far they could go) and whatever money they receive from ticket sales would be actual profit. I know Deakin of Animal Collective used Kickstarter to make a one off trip to Mali to play a show and it seemed to work.

Speaking of Kickstarter, that whole site is a bit like a public offering for generating music commissions. In that sense, why can’t pop musicians work through commissioning? Classical composers have been doing this since, well, since forever. It is different as composers are generally commissioned by performers while pop musicians write and play their own music, but composers are also commissioned by venues. Why would a venue do this? Because they receive exclusive rights to performances of the commissioned work. That said, why can’t bands work with music venues in a similar fashion? Convince a venue to commission some music that will only be played at that location for a given amount of time. The advantage for the venue is exclusivity and the advantage for a musician is a living. It’s similar to the risk that record companies partake in now but the final product wouldn’t be air. The venue and the act would be working to sell something that can’t be infinitely reproduced by anyone for free. In fact, this can also tie into touring. Sometimes multiple venues will commission a piece from a composer. This means the product is not as exclusive but the risk is smaller for the venue as well. If a band can generate the same sort of deal from maybe ten venues, they could essentially go on a mini-tour paid for through commissioning. This would probably even be the way to go at first as any given venue would be unlikely to take on the whole risk for such a different approach.

And here’s another one: product placement. For instance Moby licensed out every song on Play for advertising. This is an area where fees for the use of music can realistically be enforced (as opposed to trying to sue millions of poor college students) and where it probably should be. Ad agencies are directly making money through the use of the music as opposed to the vast majority who download music who simply want to listen to it. We all know it’s not punk rock to have your music used in a commercial, that it destroys the artistic integrity of the work, but let’s get over that. If you really want to make a living doing nothing but music, you can’t afford to get hung up with arbitrarily created integrity issues.

The same can be done by working with filmmakers. I have to admit that I am truly not familiar with the economics of film making so I’m open to corrections in my assumptions. But Film seems have the disadvantage of higher production costs (I’m not sure anyone can realistically create professional quality films without a large technical crew and facilities yet) but they have the advantage of more avenues for direct financial gain from the finished product. Opening nights can and often do recoup entire production expenses themselves. Why don’t musicians work to get their music used in the movies? The Crow is a good example of how even music not made to be commercially successful from within a mass audience can still be effectively used even in largely successful movies. But, instead of waiting for some filmmaker to come to the artist for something they want to use, why not bring the music to directors and see what can be done. This is, yet again, an area where fees are easily enforceable and where they should be enforced. A director would be using this music to make their film better, which they can profit from handsomely.

These aren’t complete solutions but they’re at least starting points. And that’s what musicians need to do: come up with starting points, experiment. They need to find ways to make money in a world where media can be produced and disseminated at essentially no cost. This is the essence of the “free culture” movement. We can all share our ideas, thoughts, and feelings in creative ways with anyone around the world for free. The loss of the old order is worth this advantage. I am in a position where I could directly benefit from holding on to the old ways of doing things. I have a $20k in student loans for an education in audio engineering that I immediately realized would never get me a job at a recording studio because recording studios were no longer necessary. I want to spend all my time composing music but I instead work a job that I hate every day to pay my bills. I have everything to gain from making it impossible for people to obtain music for free and yet I would not in a million years wish to go back to that old world.

My favorite analogy for the whole issue is markedly nerdy. In Star Trek, food is not cultivated, it’s created in replicators. Literally anything can be made and so there’s no reason to ever pay for food. This instantly solves all the world’s hunger problems. It also puts farmers, chefs, truck drivers, groceries, and everyone else involved in the food industry out of business instantly. So, what would we do if, in reality, we were faced with the advent of a similar technology? Would we limit its use so that the grocery store owner around the corner doesn’t go out of business or would we feed the world? I have a hard time believing anyone would choose the former yet that’s what many choose in the debate over downloading music.


I'm currently working on an MA at the University of Quebec in Montreal. I received BA in linguistics with a minor in music from Tulane University in New Orleans. I also have a background in audio engineering.

Je suis actuellement après travailler sur une maîtrise en linguistique à l'Université du Québec à Montréal. J'ai obtenu un bac à l'Université Tulane à la Nouvelle-Orléans avec une mineure en musique. J'ai également de l'expérience en ingénierie audio.