Why Music Should Be Free
By Brett McCracken
October 9, 2009
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010) and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, RELEVANT magazine, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas and Conversantlife.com. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches & conferences, and is a regular blogger. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrettMcCracken.
It’s been one of the biggest debates of the first decade of the 21st century: Is it ok to download music for free when you can buy it in other places? Does it harm the artist to not pay money for their music? And does this make downloading free music immoral? The debate has been had over and over again, pitting the angry Lars Ulrichs of the world against the pauper-poor, millennial hipsters who have known nothing BUT illegal downloading for most of their lives.
By now, we can admit that most observers would be lying to themselves if they thought that downloading music for free is ever going to go away. This isn’t to say that the debate is over or that artists are wrong to want money anytime someone gets their grubby little hands on their music. It is just to say that the future of music—in fact, the future of most everything in the cultural world—is going to be FREE. Yes, free.
Free? How is that possible?
For all the worry, complaining, and lawsuits about copyright and “intellectual property” infringement that comes along with pirating and unsanctioned file sharing, there are increasing numbers of people who suggest that the benefits of an open-source mindset outweigh the negatives. Lawrence Lessig, copyright guru and Stanford law professor, is one such voice. In his book, Free Culture, Lessig argues that digital technology enables a new sort of democratic creativity in which many can “participate in the process of building and cultivating a culture that reaches far beyond local boundaries.” Giving things away things for free, letting the audience share and remix and consume things as it sees fit, is a boon to the collective strength of the culture economy.
Another intellectual champion of “Free” these days is Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. In his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Anderson describes the rise of “freeconomics” and argues that “free” is not a thing to be feared for those who want to make money; rather, it’s a thing to be embraced.
Free, says Anderson, “is a word with an extraordinary ability to reset consumer psychology, create new markets, break old ones, and make almost any product more attractive.”
And it doesn’t mean profitless. It just means that “the route from product to revenue” is more indirect. It means that Wal-Mart might lure you into its stores with a $12 below-cost DVD, with the completely reasonable hope that you will spend $100 on other stuff while you’re there. It’s called a loss-leader.
In terms of music, it means that bands might give music away for free (Radiohead!) in hopes of creating new fans and reaching more people who will one day attend a concert or (gasp!) buy an album. It’s about creating a relationship with the audience, tapping into the collaborative spirit of the networked age and recognizing that music (and other cultural work) was never intended to be a commodity that lived primarily in the transactional, economic space between producer and consumer. On the contrary, culture has always been firmly rooted in community and a shared sense of understanding and making meaning together.Derek Webb, a musician who is familiar with this new cultural reality, began NoiseTrade in 2007 to distribute music on a pay-as-you-go model. "A great record is its own best marketing tool,” says Webb. “All the marketing dollars in the world can't accomplish what one great record can, especially if it's set free to roam around and connect with the right people.”
Culture is a community activity
But as it turns out, thinking about culture in this light—as a community activity and not just a commodity exchange—is more than just a “for the benefit of all” act of goodwill. It also translates to dollars and cents. As MIT media theorist Henry Jenkins so keenly recognizes in his book Convergence Culture, media corporations are increasingly mindful of the “emotional capital” of their audience—the “importance of audience investment and participation in media content.” Why? Because when audiences are invested and participate, they also promote. The concern for those in the media “industry” these days should not be a fear of downloading, but rather a promotion of sideloading: the activity of forwarding, linking, viral buzz-building and passing along from one consumer to another at no cost.
What does this mean? Basically, it means that the people in charge of record companies shouldn't worry about downloading. At least, not as much as the should work on working on a community of people who love music—especially people who will Twitter about it, make their Facebook statuses about a band they've just found, blog about their favorite new music, email links and so on. Record companies should realize that this "sideloading" is so valuable—and is completely free promotion for them.
To fight the tide of free is foolish in this day-and-age. Anyone under 30 simply will not pay for things that they know will be available online somewhere for free. Why is craigslist killing off newspaper classifieds sections? Because people can post listings for free on craiglist. It’s simple economics. As Anderson writes in Free, “Sooner or later every company is going to have to figure our how to use Free or compete with Free, one way or another.”
But giving things away for free as a marketing strategy only works when the product you are giving away is good and stands out in the overcrowded cultural market. The cumulative effect of being able to get more music for less money (or no money) is that each consumer listens to a ton of music. And in this glut of consumption, only the very best will be remembered, cherished, passed along and multiplied. Only the strongest will survive.
The new economy
In a 2008 Wired article, Chris Anderson makes the point that money is not the only scarcity in the world anymore. Time and respect are increasingly scarce and the corresponding “attention economy” and “reputation economy” are increasingly important factors in the economy at large.
“There is, presumably, a limited supply of reputation and attention in the world at any point in time,” writes Anderson. “These are the new scarcities—and the world of free exists mostly to acquire these valuable assets for the sake of a business model to be identified later. Free shifts the economy from a focus on only that which can be quantified in dollars and cents to a more realistic accounting of all the things we truly value today.”
So even though on paper it might look unwise for an artist to encourage the distribution of their music for free, they should consider that in the freeconomic scene, economics has as much to do with sheer number of credit card swipes as it does with popularity, exposure and interaction with audience (which eventually will translate to credit card swipes).
It may be difficult, but this is the way forward. Debates can continue to rage about the morality of amassing free music, but the reality of the situation is that music is about the producer and consumer, and “the music industry” will not survive without a mutual respect and cooperative spirit between both parties. To let music suffer or die on account of an inflexible refusal to recalibrate old models would be the truly immoral thing. The future of music’s economic viability will depend not on the ability to secure payment for every download, but rather on each musician’s ability to get people passionate about music again.