"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
0 items in your cart
Blog // Sounds
January 22, 2010

Music: Free, Shared, Gift, Or Something Else?

The past two weeks have been “business” weeks. My “desk” has been more of a office space than a mixing or recording space. I’m not talking about the dreams and vision stuff (although that does need some tweaking), but more mundane and everyday things. I’ve been working on budgets, business plans, logo ideas, publishing, invoicing, […]

The past two weeks have been “business” weeks. My “desk” has been more of a office space than a mixing or recording space. I’m not talking about the dreams and vision stuff (although that does need some tweaking), but more mundane and everyday things. I’ve been working on budgets, business plans, logo ideas, publishing, invoicing, distribution, marketing and so on.

Soul destroying stuff, I know.

But, I haven’t done enough of this in the last few years. Which makes my feeling that I haven’t been as productive or fruitful as possible seem all the more acute.

These past two weeks, one question I keep bumping into is the role of free in my “business model.” Free has become such an integral part of current discussions about the state of music business – free downloads, free streaming, etc.

But, I’m contrasting that with what I’m learning in the photography world, where the loud and consistent advice is to not work for free. In the past few months I’ve been (perhaps wrongly) excited about the opportunities to get my work out there for free (with credit). As a musician in the current climate, that seems smart. Get published with a reputable and big name site or publisher, grow your CV and go from there.

But, smart photographers I meet and talk to advise anything from extreme caution to flat out rejection of this idea. I don’t like everything about the photography business, but I do respect that photographers have been doing this “small scale creative business” thing for longer (and better) than many musicians have.

That got me thinking what we mean by words like free, giving, gifting, sharing. Imagine leaving 50 CDs in a park somewhere? That’s free isn’t it? It’s also meaningless. I have no idea what will become of them – will someone pick one up and listen to it, or will they just end up in the council trash?

Now, imagine I give 50 CDs away to bloggers in exchange for reviews or comments. That’s also free, but something very different is happening. What about giving away 50 CDs to people who come hear me at a gig? That’s also free, but a different dynamic as well.

When we think about free, sharing or whatever, it’s important not to loose sight of the need for a transactions. What the last two examples had, over leaving a stack of CDs in the park was the transaction. Transactions are not always monetary, sometimes they can be other kinds of interaction. Whatever the transaction, it should play a role in supporting you as a creator of music.

When I was a kid, there was a crass way of describing what you wanted from a music label – to get played, paid and laid. Of course these days, the musician takes that responsibly upon themselves (in, perhaps, a less juvenile way) than relying on a label to do it for them.

This is a big “why, what, how” question we should put in front of all our approaches to sharing music. Why are we doing this? What is the transaction we are looking for? How will this help sustain our craft, our lives and our families?

Because somehow, somewhere and in some way the piper has to be paid. You can choose not to set a financial price on a piece of work, but as long as you have some plan, some idea, some sense of how that will bring something tangible back to you that can be worked into a business model, or sense of vocation, or some such long term ideal, you can make more solid decisions about where you aim your creative output.

Yamabuki 14 years ago

Concerning your soul, I’m reminded of the words “Render to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s”

Concerning the music, I’m reminded of the musicians who post music with a, pay what you feel it’s worth model.

No personal experience there. I post my poems on my blog ( https://yamabuki9.blogspot.com/ ) without consideration of pay. Most other poets won’t do this because they worry about getting published in print. But as you might imagine there is no money to be made in poetry, so that idea seems absurd and foolish since their chances of being seen and read are much better on the internet.

Music it more likely to be listened to if it’s easily accessible. There is a trade off I admit. But you can bypass the music industry cut, manager, etc if you sell directly to the consumer.

Photography seems very different from music or poetry. The big money in photography is in working for Fashion magazines, or other industries that make big dollars.

People may be willing to pay for an MP3 (look at the success of itunes) but everyone has a digital camera and think they can get their own pictures.

Professional photographers know that good photography is not something you can learn overnight. But try selling a photograph on itunes.

Living in China as you do, I’m sure you are aware of the proliferation of piracy. If you, as a musician, can reach people that respect your work, some of them will be willing to give you something in return, especially if they see that the money is going directly to you.

Feeling that they have a personal connection to you through your site where they can communicate with you, as well as get your music helps as well.

I admit this is my own view of the matter. Still it pains me to see my Chinese relatives stealing music and movies. They think I’m crazy to pay for what I could steal. I tell them that my soul rests easier for my honesty.

I hope this helps.


Toni 14 years ago

“Soul destroying stuff, I know.”

For many ordinary people this would be more exciting than most of what they have to do. Something to consider.

In many ways I agree with the photographers. Theirs is an area that has not been undermined by piracy in the way music has because the places where money is made traditionally either require placing the picture in a high profile position before the public (advertising) or creation of something unique for specific people in a way they could not do themselves (weddings & portraits). This ignores staff photographers for magazines because they are being paid to do a job, rather than for their images alone. However a problem is that there are so many now that can easily take stunning pictures with readily available kit at minimal cost AND get them into the public domain that reputation is likely all that will keep some people making a good living from ‘stock’ photography.

As for music, for some reason I see that differently and don’t mind it being free, as in beer. Maybe I’m just suckered by modern thinking.

The point about transactions is a good one. Giving things to people in exchange for their efforts reviewing does not make them free – it’s effectively bartering – but instead you get an effort from them which you similarly value. You’ve sold it for their labour, but dispensed with cash in the middle.

My inclination with music is that it should be live, but that denies opportunity to those musicians that only really do studio work. Certainly the more Christian ‘worship’ music I listen to (Paul Beloche and Matt Redman’s latest efforts arrived at Christmas) I wish they’d stop making albums, get jobs and just lead worship/write songs for church. My feelings about professional musicians are very mixed these days, probably jaundiced by my own atrophy as a musician.

The growth of all things free does disturb me, because it makes the assumption that the product has no financial value or that we are entitled to own/use it regardless of the work required to create it. Bleating again about the transition to Mac from Windows, this has become really obvious to me where before as a windows user the culture and expectation is that everything MUST be free (except products from microsoft or specifically professional applications). It all lines up with the trend that as technology advances everything gets better and becomes cheaper too. Once China starts charging real money for it’s manufactured good I wonder where the western world will turn for labour? I wonder if, should we stop being able to buy stuff at incredible bargain prices, people in the west will start to value the efforts of others again, or whether they will see it moral to openly (rather than covertly) steal other peoples work?

Fernando Gros 14 years ago


You are right about photography and it is interesting to compare that with the parts of the music biz where people still make money, like teaching, live playing and music for game and film/TV.

I agree with you that we are in a place, right now, where craft and honest pricing is undervalued. There’s no more obvious place to look than the cost of guitars. People often baulk at teh price of deluxe and custom shop models, but in a way they reflect what the real cost, adjusted for inflation, was of instruments in the 50s and 60s. Software is not dissimilar, where people baulk at paying pence for an iPhone app that is more powerful than a full and costly programme might have been 15-20 years ago (and more reliable).

Which, for me comes back to the thing about music being free. Let me put this way – how might we feel if we visited a grown-ups house that was decorated with nothing but pictures cut out of magazines and newspapers? Would that feel odd, or cheap or inappropriate?

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Yamabuki your comparison with poetry really got me thinking. Having published articles in very small and obscure academic journals I sometimes wonder if that credible outlet was actually a way of concealing my work, rather than revealing it.

The whole way you’ve talked about access is helpful to me. It’s like a dance.

Enter your and your to join the mailing list.